A federal judge decided Friday that the alleged ringleader of the most serious paramilitary conspiracy stemming from the Capitol attack must stay in jail before trial.
The ruling came during a federal court hearing where alleged Capitol rioter Jessica Watkins disavowed the right-wing Oath Keepers militia and said she was “humbled” and “humiliated” by the charges against her. These were Watkins’ first public comments since her arrest last month.
Federal Judge Amit Mehta of the DC District Court said Watkins “presents a danger” and eagerly participated in “a historic event that was a real threat to the fabric of our democracy.”
“She was not just a follower. She was higher up in the chain,” Mehta said at a virtual court hearing. “She was a recruiter and did recruit others to participate in the events of January 6. … She is not just a foot soldier. She is someone planning, organizing larger groups of people.”
Addressing Watkins directly, Mehta said, “There is a continued risk that once you are released that you will reaffiliate yourself with these groups,” referring to anti-government extremists.
Watkins has pleaded not guilty to four federal crimes: conspiracy, destruction of government property, obstruction of an official proceeding and entering a restricted building — the Capitol. She is the most prominent defendant in a conspiracy case involving eight other Oath Keepers.
The debate over her continued incarceration was the latest test for the Justice Department’s effort to lock up the alleged Capitol rioters who they believe are too dangerous to release, based on their rhetoric or extremist affiliations, even if they haven’t been accused of attacking police.
Watkins disavows Oath Keepers
Federal prosecutors described Watkins as a “leader” in the Oath Keepers organization, citing her successful effort to recruit members and her attempts to run militia training camps in Ohio.
“There were hundreds of people who appeared at the Capitol that day. Many of them entered the building,” Justice Department lawyer Ahmed Baset said at the hearing. “Ms. Watkins’ case does not fall within the general pattern of people who were involved in this attack on the Capitol. She recruited, trained, planned, participated and organized a major part of this insurrection.”
But in an unexpected move, Watkins addressed the court and disavowed the Oath Keepers.
“Given the result of everything on January 6 and everything that has come out … my fellow Oath Keepers have turned my stomach against it. Which is why I’m canceling my Oath Keeper membership,” Watkins said. “I have no desire to continue with people who say things like that.”
She went on to tell the judge, “I am sorry for any inconvenience I have caused the court. I am not a criminally minded person. I am humbled and I am humiliated that I am even here today.”
In addition to her involvement with the Oath Keepers, Watkins founded her own paramilitary group and runs a pirate-themed bar in Woodstock, Ohio. She said Friday she disbanded her militia.
“We’re done with that lifestyle,” Watkins said of her militia. “I have a struggling small business. I did it out of love for my country, but I think it’s time to let that all go and focus on my business.”
Alleged conspiracy ringleader
The Oath Keepers conspiracy is the most serious case to emerge so far from the Capitol siege.
Prosecutors initially charged Watkins and two other Oath Keepers who allegedly planned to take over the Capitol. These three defendants are veterans; Watkins served in an infantry unit in the US Army for three years and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002, according to the Pentagon.
Prosecutors expanded the case to include six more defendants from three states. Many were seen wearing military gear and moving in a tactical formation during the Capitol attack, getting to the front of the mob and breaching the building, according to videos and court documents.
Federal prosecutors previously said Watkins and another conspirator tried to assemble a “quick reaction force” of armed militants that could sweep into DC if called upon. Prosecutors went a step farther Friday, saying they believed this team was in position, with weapons, on January 6.
“The investigation is ongoing, but that is our working understanding,” Baset said, before providing more details to the judge in a private session that was shielded from public view.
Defense claims uneven treatment
Prosecutors acknowledged that despite mountains of video footage from inside the Capitol during the attack, they currently have no evidence that Watkins ever attacked police officers.
The federal public defender representing Watkins, Michelle Peterson, argued in court filings that “courts may not detain defendants on dangerousness alone” and urged Mehta to release her.
Peterson pointed out that the Justice Department had allowed many Capitol riot defendants to be released — including some charged with violent crimes or attacking police. She also cited the release of an alleged Proud Boys leader and a Texas florist who was even granted permission for a trip to Mexico while awaiting trial.
The defense attorney also claimed Watkins was only “loosely associated” with the Oath Keepers, telling the judge, “She has been more of a consultant, if you will, to the Oath Keepers.”
Watkins’ lawyers previously claimed she met with US Secret Service agents before the attack, but backtracked on those assertions after the Secret Service denied it. Instead, they said she was invited by pro-Trump rally organizers to provide security and render medical aid if needed.
This story has been updated with additional developments.