Donovan Ray Crowl, one of the first rioters to be identified in national news media as part of a line of Oath Keepers who marched single-file in combat-style gear on the Capitol steps on Jan. 6, 2021, was convicted Wednesday by a federal judge of conspiracy to obstruct the electoral college vote count and civil disorder.
But a second man charged with Crowl, James D. Beeks, a stage actor and Michael Jackson impersonator from Florida, was acquitted of the same two counts, becoming the first Oath Keeper to be cleared of all Jan. 6-related charges. Beeks had not met or spoken with any of the Oath Keepers before connecting with them at the Ellipse that morning, and U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta found no evidence that he was aware of any plan to disrupt the transfer of presidential power to Joe Biden.
“I was duped,” Beeks, 51, said of the Oath Keepers after the verdict. “I didn’t know anything about them.” He said he didn’t want to travel to Washington alone for Jan. 6, found the Oath Keepers online, and “I made the wrong choice of people to go with.”
Crowl is the latest of more than 20 Oath Keepers members and associates to plead guilty or be convicted of crimes in the attack on the Capitol. Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes and 12 others were found guilty of felony charges in three separate jury trials, but Crowl and Beeks took a different route: a stipulated bench trial, in which the facts were agreed upon by both sides and submitted to Mehta, who then issued verdicts without hearing from witnesses or either defendant.
Instead, both the government and the defense merely provided closing arguments Tuesday based on the stipulated facts, which they negotiated on Monday.
Both Crowl and Beeks were part of a group of 12 who marched up the east steps of the Capitol, in what prosecutors referred to as a “stack,” to the cheers and support of rioters who already had broken through police lines and were besieging the Columbus doors outside the Rotunda. Prosecutors said some of the Oath Keepers then approached a police line in a corridor leading to the Senate chamber and encouraged rioters to break through, but then Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins and others were hit by pepper spray and retreated.
Prosecutors argued that both Crowl and Beeks entered the Capitol following Kelly Meggs, a deputy of Rhodes who said his goal was to stop the election certification. Meggs was subsequently convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
- Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
- He is accused of guiding a months-long effort to unleash politically motivated violence to prevent the swearing-in of President Biden.
- Where do things stand now? Some Oath Keepers have been convicted and others still face trial.
“Crowl and Beeks consistently chose to be part of this group. They chose to be with Kelly Meggs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Edwards said. And when Watkins called on a mob to “Push! Push! Push!” their way through officers, “They listened. They moved those officers, and they got closer and closer to the Senate chamber,” where they had no reason to go except to impede Congress, Edwards said.
Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors were seeking to prove guilt by association, and said there was reasonable doubt over each man’s true intentions. While Rhodes and many of his top followers have been convicted of seditious conspiracy based on his incendiary “call to action” following the 2020 presidential election and predictions that “bloody revolution” and “civil war” would result if President Donald Trump did not stay in power, Crowl and Beeks never saw or heard those messages, the stipulated facts acknowledged.
Beeks did not engage by phone, text or Facebook with Oath Keepers before seeking them out on Jan. 6, and was recorded only once on camera in the government’s evidence that day saying “he was there to keep the peace. That’s the only thing we know he says,” his defense attorney Greg Hunter said. Hunter called Beeks an “almost tangential figure — a hanger-on, a wannabe — but not a trusted member” of the core Oath Keepers group.
Court records show Beeks joined the group in December 2020 through its website. He said after the verdict that his father was a police chief, and he thought the Oath Keepers website, with its emphasis on members from law enforcement and the military, gave the impression of “a good organization. … Based on their public statements, I thought they were legit and professional.”
Messages from Crowl filed by prosecutors showed he was contemptuous of Rhodes and his followers and was only present as a loyal drinking companion of Watkins, an Ohio bar owner. He called her his “commander” and “captain” as leader of a small, self-formed “Ohio state regular militia,” defense attorney Carmen Hernandez said.
“There’s no factual basis for the court to hold Mr. Crowl accountable for what I call the rantings and ravings of Rhodes,” said Hernandez. Crowl did not shout, chant or lead others inside the Capitol, and “there is no evidence that he heard Watkins shouting or could see the line of law enforcement officers” in front of their group of rioters, Hernandez said.
But Mehta disagreed, noting that Crowl “was joined at the hip with Ms. Watkins the entire day,” and was present when Meggs told a group of Oath Keepers outside the Capitol they “were going to try and stop the vote count.” Mehta said there was no evidence Beeks heard this discussion.
Mehta also pointed out that Crowl was alongside Watkins as they moved toward the Senate and urged rioters to overrun the police, that his messages to Watkins and others expressed an interest in committing violence on Jan. 6, and he came dressed for it with a combat helmet, goggles and bulletproof vest. “Mr. Crowl understood the natural and probable consequences of his actions,” Mehta said, “to obstruct and impede the vote count.”
The judge said there was no evidence that Beeks had contact with Oath Keepers before Jan. 6, including seeing any of Rhodes’s public letters calling for action to maintain Trump as president. Mehta saw no video of Beeks engaging in any aggressive behavior inside the Capitol.
Mehta took a day to make his decision, having presided over the three previous trials and demonstrating a deep recollection of the evidence presented against defendants including Rhodes, who was convicted by a jury in November and sentenced by Mehta to 18 years in prison.
Crowl, 52, of Woodstock, Ohio, never formally signed up with the Oath Keepers. However, the Marine veteran accompanied Watkins to a November 2020 rally with them in Washington, and again on Jan. 6. Prosecutors presented messages showing that Crowl coordinated his travel with members, declared his intention to go “huntin’” for members of antifa, and stayed at the same hotel where Oath Keepers stashed an arsenal of weapons, to be summoned if Trump declared martial law. Mehta cited the messages as evidence of Crowl’s intent to obstruct Congress.
Watkins was convicted with Rhodes of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison. Crowl’s sentencing was set for Nov. 17.
Beeks is an actor who starred as Judas in the traveling Broadway show “Jesus Christ Superstar,” under the stage name James T. Justis. He also worked as a Michael Jackson impersonator, and his jacket with “Bad” on the front helped federal agents identify him, according to court documents.
When the government agreed to a stipulated bench trial, it also agreed to dismiss all other pending, mostly lesser counts against Crowl and Beeks, such as trespassing. That meant Beeks was not convicted of anything for entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, only the second of about 700 adjudicated defendants to plead not guilty and win at trial. Matthew Martin of Santa Fe, N.M., was acquitted by U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden last year after arguing that officers allowed him into the building.
The Oath Keepers trial
The latest: Four Oath Keepers convicted of seditious conspiracy in a second trial following the conviction of leader Stewart Rhodes. In a second sedition trial, four members of the far-right Oath Keepers group were convicted of seditious conspiracy. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
How did we get here: Stewart Rhodes and other members of his group were charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Who is involved: A 13-count indictment charges Stewart Rhodes and eight others with conspiring to use force to oppose the lawful transfer of power to President Biden. Here are the nine Oath Keepers on trial.