‘Just shocked’: Woodstock, Ohio — population 300 — reckons with charges in U.S. Capitol riot
In this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, one-stoplight town, dozens of residents still fly “Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” flags.
A now-shuttered bar brought the FBI and other investigators to Woodstock, Ohio, about 40 miles northwest of Columbus, this month. Bedsheets and drapes cover the windows of the Jolly Roger Bar and Grill, except for a sliver where an “open” sign flickers in red, white and blue.
It is here, federal authorities allege, that Army veteran Jessica Watkins tended bar and recruited members for a local militia group she founded in 2019, according to her claims in social media posts. She affiliated it with the Oath Keepers, an extremist, militaristic group believed to have thousands of members nationally, authorities say.
In a criminal complaint filed Jan. 19 and a federal indictment Wednesday, Watkins and a member of her militia, former Marine Donovan Ray Crowl, along with a Virginia man, are charged with helping to plan and coordinate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a bold insurrection that claimed five lives while attempting to overturn President Trump’s election loss.
While many of the initial images from the Capitol assault included colorful characters such as the horns-wearing self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman,” more disturbing images later emerged, showing military-like formations of rioters dressed in olive drab, helmets and goggles, ready for an assault.
“We have a good group,” Watkins transmitted that day, according to federal authorities. “We have about 30 to 40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan.”
A couple of blocks from the Jolly Roger, congregants of the Free Will Baptist Church were stunned that the group originated from their town of fewer than 300 people, said deacon Keith Pack.
“Just shocked that it would be in the small town of Woodstock,” he said.
Freddy Cruz, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said many antigovernment groups have been active for years, carrying out military-like training for a civil war in apocalyptic fantasies fueled by conspiracy narratives that Trump did little to discourage.
“It’s quite concerning,” he said. “I think the general media and the federal institutions have dropped the ball in taking these groups seriously.”
In November, Watkins sent a text message to several people interested in joining her militia group, encouraging them to participate in “a week-long basic Basic Training class” in early January, according to court records. The classes were to be held an hour north of Columbus, Watkins said, presumably in Woodstock or a nearby town.
“I need you fighting fit by innaugeration,” the 38-year-old wrote to an interested member. “It’s a military style basic, here in Ohio, with a Marine Drill Sergeant running it.”
In the indictment Wednesday, which includes charges of conspiracy and obstructing Congress that carry up to 20 years in prison, federal authorities cite social media comments and photos allegedly from Watkins that crowed about the “Historical Events we created today.”
Another voice is heard exhorting her: “Get it, Jess ... everything we [expletive] trained for.”
Records show that Watkins served honorably in the Army under a different name, including in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003. Court records in Rochester, N.Y., show she changed her name to Jessica Marie Watkins in 2004. She also lived in Fayetteville, N.C., serving as a first responder with emergency medical training, before settling in Woodstock about three years ago.
She and boyfriend Montana Siniff owned the two-story building where they lived and started the Jolly Roger. The bar’s Facebook page has been suspended.
Siniff didn’t return a call for comment this week.
Phil Garland, president of Woodstock’s village council and a resident for some 20 years, was blindsided by the news.
“It’s a small town, but if you weren’t necessarily born and raised there, there is a lot going on, and you’re not going to know about it,” Garland said.
The Champaign County town, settled in the early 19th century and named after Woodstock, Vt., was once dominated by mostly retired, lifelong residents. But around 10 years ago, younger people started moving in for affordability and convenience to Columbus and Dayton. Census figures show that Woodstock is nearly 98% white.
Garland said the town is friendly, “for the most part.”
At least three members of Watkins’ militia group peacefully protested the presidential election in November outside the Ohio Statehouse.
“While we were made aware of this group, we are unaware of any criminal allegations or investigations regarding their activity while at the Ohio Statehouse,” said Kristen Castle, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety. She said she couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
The FBI said a search of Watkins’ home found personal protective equipment and communication devices, homemade weapons and instructions for making plastic explosives.
No attorney for Watkins was listed in court filings, who remains jailed in Dayton, along with Crowl.
U.S. Magistrate Sharon Ovington in Dayton denied bail for Crowl, 50, citing information that he wanted to go to a home with nine firearms. Ovington said she didn’t see a way to ensure public safety with him at large. Crowl’s court-appointed attorney didn’t respond to two messages for comment.
The Dayton Daily News reported that when asked in her initial court appearance whether she understood the charges against her, Watkins replied: “I understand them, but I don’t understand how I got them.”
Just days before the Capitol riot, Watkins posted on social media photos of herself in the Jolly Roger, complaining that it was empty on a Saturday. “Thanks for nothing DeWine,” she wrote, apparently referring to Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s pandemic restrictions on bars.
She added: “Guess I am going to pack for DC. See you there.”
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