WOODSTOCK, Ohio (AP) — In this don’t blink-or-you’ll-miss-it, one-stoplight town, dozens of residents still fly “Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” flags.
But it’s a now-shuttered bar that brought the FBI and other investigators to Woodstock, Ohio, around 40 miles (65 kilometers) 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 has said in social media posts she founded in 2019. 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, ex-Marine Donovan Ray Crowl, are charged, along with a Virginia man, with helping to plan and coordinate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
While many of the initial images from the Capitol assault included colorful characters such as the horns-wearing self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman,” other, more disturbing images emerged, showing military-like formations of rioters dressed in olive drab, wearing helmets, goggles and items ready for an assault.
“We have a good group,” federal authorities say Watkins transmitted that day. “We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan.”
A couple blocks from the Jolly Roger, congregants at the Free Will Baptist Church have been trying to wrap their heads around it, said Keith Pack, a church deacon.
“Just shocked that it would be in the small town of Woodstock,” said Pack, who lives near the town of fewer than 300 people.
Freddy Cruz, a Southern Poverty Law Center research analyst, agreed “it’s shocking” that people from a place such as Woodstock would emerge into the spotlight through a bold insurrection that claimed five lives while hoping to overturn Republican Donald Trump’s election loss.
While shocking, Cruz added, it shouldn’t have been.
“It’s quite concerning. I think the general media and the federal institutions have dropped the ball in taking these groups seriously,” Cruz said. He said many anti-government groups have been very active for years, carrying out military-like training for a second Civil War in apocalyptic fantasies fueled by conspiracy narratives that Trump did little to discourage.
In November, Watkins sent a text message to several people interested in joining her local 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 told another interested member. “It’s a military style basic, here in Ohio, with a Marine Drill Sergeant running it.”
In the indictment Wednesday that includes charges of conspiracy and obstructing Congress that carry up to 20 years in prison with conviction, 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 Watkins served honorably in the Army under a different name, including duty in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003. Court records in Rochester, New York, showed she changed her name to Jessica Marie Watkins in 2004. She also lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, serving as a first responder with emergency medical training, before settling in Woodstock about three years ago.
She and her boyfriend Montana Siniff owned the two-story building where they lived and started the Jolly Roger. A Facebook page for the Jerry Morgan & Certified Outlaw Band indicates they played the Jolly Roger in 2019. The Jolly Roger’s own Facebook page has been suspended.
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 village, settled by New Englanders in the early 19th century and named after Woodstock, Vermont, used to be dominated by mostly retired, lifelong residents. But around 10 years ago, things began to change as elders died off and younger people moved in for affordability and convenience to Columbus and Dayton. Census figures show it’s nearly 98% white, and a solidly conservative town where putting out a lawn sign for a Democratic candidate could result in it being stolen or destroyed.
But Garland said the village is friendly “for the most part.”
Pack, the church deacon, said there is a lot of speculation about Watkins and Crowl, but to him, it’s mainly rumors and he didn’t want repeat rumors.
Watkins’ boyfriend didn’t return a call for comment this week.
Her militia group is believed to be small. At least three members peacefully protested the presidential election outside Ohio’s Statehouse in November.
“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 Ohio Department of Public Safety. She said she couldn’t comment about any ongoing investigation or intelligence gathering.
Rick Campbell, who served in the Vietnam War, has had a hard time processing what took place some 15 miles (24 kilometers) away from their Marysville, Ohio, Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
“This isn’t patriotism, what they did,” Campbell, 73, said. “Those radicals don’t represent what I represented in the military.”
The FBI said a search of Watkins’ home found personal protection equipment and communication devices, homemade weapons and instructions for making plastic explosives.
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 and 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.
Both remain jailed in Dayton. No attorney for Watkins was listed in court filings.
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 five days before the Capitol riot, Watkins posted on social media photos of herself in the Jolly Roger, complaining it was empty on a Saturday and, referring to Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s anti-pandemic restrictions on bars, said “Thanks for nothing DeWine.”
She added: “Guess I am going to pack for DC. See you there.”
Sewell reported from Cincinnati. Follow Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell and Farnoush Amiri at https://twitter.com/FarnoushAmiri.
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
AP News Researchers Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report, along with Freddy Brewster, a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, through a partnership with The Associated Press.