Correction: This story initially misidentified the person who recorded the Zello chats.
The federal judge presiding over the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy case is considering whether to suppress audio recordings of Zello chats from evidence at the request of the defendants.
The chats were recorded by Micah Loewinger, a reporter at New York Public Radio's "On the Media," from an open channel named “Stop the Steal J6” that was created by a user named “1%Watchdog.” The chats capture defendant Jessica Watkins narrating her experience as she and other Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol as other participants provide encouragement and real-time information gleaned from news reports. Loewinger and co-author Hampton Stall reported on the chats in a story published by the Guardian seven days after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack, and the recordings were aired on “On the Media” on Jan. 15.
Watkins, along with defendants Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson, are seeking to prevent the government from introducing the Zello chats into evidence at the upcoming trial, claiming that they’re inadmissible hearsay and are likely to prejudice the jury.
During a pretrial conference on Wednesday, Judge Amit Mehta indicated he isn’t sure the jury should be allowed to hear statements of the other chat participants, expressing doubt about whether they influenced Watkins’ actions. He said he wouldn’t make an immediate decision, adding that the arguments from counsel for the defendants and the government had given him “a lot to think about.”
The chats provide an example of how Oath Keepers and other rioters discussed taking lawmakers hostage when they reached the Capitol. Shortly after “1%Watchdog” opened the channel at 1:48 p.m., a transcript of the recording shows him discussing Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to stand up to pressure to set aside electors from a handful of states narrowly won by Democrat Joe Biden.
“Everybody can hear and talk, so their barricades in the national Capitol are being challenged, and — yeah.” “1%Watchdog said. “It looks like Pence is doing his traitorous bullshit, and the election stealing progress — it looks to me, at this point, that that’s a felony high-crime and treason in process inside the national Capitol building, headed by the president of the Senate, Vice President Pence, at this point.”
Judge Mehta said on Wednesday he is troubled that more isn’t known about the identity and relevance of “1%Watchdog.”
“1%Watchdog is someone who’s howling at the moon, saying outrageous things, sitting at home watching television,” Mehta said. “I would feel much better about this if the government could demonstrate that this was someone she knew or someone she was taking direction from. I’m not sure he’s anything more than a guy spouting off on a Zello chat.”
Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said the government believes the jury should have the opportunity to hear the recordings because they shed light on Watkins’ state of mind at the time she invaded the Capitol.
“Ms. Watkins gets into the Capitol and she goes into the Zello channel and celebrates what she had done,” Nestler said. “It was obviously important to her…. Our point is that the other individuals’ statements are probative of Ms. Watkins’ state of mind, which is why they should be admitted. And we believe it should be a jury question as to how much weight to ascribe them.”
At 1:49 p.m., according to a transcript of the chats, “1%Watchdog” denigrated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Bitch McConnell,” complaining that he had “rebuked those who are challenging the Electoral College votes that constitute the f***ing communist revolution election steal of 2020 by these treasonous f***ing bastards.”
Watkins, as user “OhioRegularsActual-Oathkeeper,” responded, “Right, brother. We’re boots on the ground here. We’re moving on the Capitol now. I’ll give you a boots-on-the-ground update here in a few.” The government is arguing that Watkins’ response constitutes an adoptive admission that makes the statement of 1%Watchdog admissible as evidence.
In another statement, “1%Watchdog” described the attack on the Capitol as operating under “the civilian authority of We the People, constitutional enforcement action, direct action,” and claiming that there was “no legitimate authority in the federal government.
“The Congress has failed, the executive branch has failed — other than Trump — and the judicial branch has failed, Supreme Court,” he said. “This is the civilian exercise of civilian power to alter and abolish this f***ing tyrannical, treasonous government piece of s*** and drain this f***ing swamp.”
The government argues that Watkins endorsed the statement by “1%Watchdog” through her response.
“Yeah,” she said. “We have a good group. We’ve got about thirty, forty of us. We’re sticking together and sticking to the plan.”
At 2:03 p.m., as participants on the chat received news that the Capitol had been breached, “1%Watchdog” instructed: “Citizens arrest. Arrest the assembly, these f***ing treasonous bastards. We have probable cause: treason, acts of treason, election fraud, all kinds of felony crimes.”
Later, as participants shared reports that Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had evacuated the Capitol, a user named “SGT E” urged those on the scene to “find out where the tunnels exit and block them, too.”
Nestler told Judge Mehta that Watkins’ actions showed she was following the directions of “1%Watchdog.”
“When 1%Watchdog says, ‘Arrest those treasonous bastards,’ she’s in the Rotunda, and he’s referring to people in the Senate chamber,” Nestler said. “Ms. Watkins moves towards the Senate chamber until she’s rebuffed by the police. Ms. Watkins’ movements in the Capitol building are consistent with her following directions.”
While the government hasn’t disclosed any information about a relationship between Watkins and “1%Watchdog,” the creator of the “Stop the Steal J6” channel, the government has identified one of the participants, “FreedomD0zr91” as the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Oath Keepers and an unindicted co-conspirator labeled “Person 32” in the government’s investigation of the Oath Keepers.
Reporting to the other chat participants from the Rotunda, Watkins said, “We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades, they are fricking shooting people with paintballs. But we are in here.”
“FreedomD0z3r91” responded, “Get it, Jess. Do your s***. This is what we f***ing lived up for. Everything we f***ing trained for.”
The government argues that the statements of “FreedomD0z3r91” and other Zello users on the channel who are not defendants can be considered directives to Watkins or at least context for her own communications.
The government alleges that Watkins invited the Illinois Oath Keepers leader to attend “basic training” in November 2020, and that on Jan. 7, 2021, the two exchanged text messages about their unsuccessful efforts to reach Rhodes.
The government alleges that immediately after the Illinois Oath Keepers leader implored Watkins to do “everything we f***ing trained for,” she and five other members of the stack — Graydon Young, Laura Steele, Donovan Crowl, Sandra Parker and James Beeks — tried to push farther into the building by going down a hallway connecting the Rotunda to the Senate chamber, where they were pushed back by a line of DC Metropolitan police officers.
The chats also suggest that the participants, including Watkins, were likely aware that the Oath Keepers were operating in the context of a larger mob of Trump supporters, and cognizant of how the paramilitary members might leverage the power of the crowd to obstruct the transfer of presidential power.
“Pence is a coward, a fraud and worse,” “iWatchDirectorLaureen” said at 1:56 p.m., adding that Pence had announced that “the Constitution restrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which… electoral votes should be counted.”
“What kind of numbers do we have going to the Capitol, “1%Watchdog” asked. “Any estimates? What percentage of the crowd is going to the Capitol?”
Watkins responded: “One-hundred percent. It is — it has spread like wildfire that Pence betrayed us, and everybody’s marching to the Capitol, all million of us. It’s insane.”
At 1:59, according to transcripts of the chats, as Watkins and other Oath Keepers were walking from the Ellipse to the Capitol, she said, “Trump’s been trying to drain the swamp with a straw. We just brought a shop vac.”
A minute later, while several blocks away from the Capitol, Watkins reportedly said, “I am probably going to go silent once we get there because I am going to be a little busy.”
The government argues that the two communications can be described as statements of future intent that should be considered admissible as evidence against all the defendants.
ALSO IN THE NEWS: Roger Stone accuses Lindsey Graham of 'willful sabotage'