WASHINGTON — A painful early departure from the military led Jessica Watkins to search for a way to recapture that sense of purpose and, ultimately, to join the Oath Keepers amid nationwide protests in the fall of 2020, her fiancé testified Thursday.
Watkins and four other Oath Keepers, including militia founder Stewart Rhodes, are currently on trial in D.C. District Court on a slew of charges alleging they conspired to prevent the transfer of presidential power following the 2020 election. Watkins was one of a dozen Oath Keepers who entered the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 as part of what federal prosecutors have described as a military-style “stack formation.” On Thursday, her fiancée, Montana Siniff, was the first witness called by the defense as her attorney attempted to present a more complex – and sympathetic – picture of the Ohio resident and U.S. Army veteran.
Watkins was discharged early from the Army in 2003 after approximately two years and five months on active duty that included a deployment to Afghanistan. Siniff said they met more than a decade later, in 2015, while they were playing Magic: The Gathering at a comic book shop. After a year of friendship, Siniff said when he expressed his desire to date her Watkins “blurted out” that she was trans. Although he did not testify to the fact explicitly, both Siniff and Watkins’ attorney, Jonathan Crisp, implied that was the impetus for Watkins’ early discharge from the military.
“She felt she performed admirably but she had to choose between her life and her honor,” Siniff said.
Watkins, Crisp said, had gone AWOL during her service. He asked Siniff if he knew way.
“She was hazed during one of her deployments to the point where she feared for her life,” Siniff said.
Watkins worked for a time as a firefighter/EMT, but by the point she med Siniff was doing neither. As a means of continuing her interest in helping people, Siniff said, they decided to start a group called the Ohio State Regular Militia. Siniff said it was originally envisioned as a disaster-response organization, but that purpose shifted in 2020 amid nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Siniff and Watkins traveled with their militia to protests in Columbus, Ohio, and then in Louisville, Kentucky, following the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor. It was in Kentucky where Siniff and Watkins met, and joined, the Oath Keepers. Siniff testified that it was then they met Rhodes, who he found to be a “micromanager.” Siniff was further turned off by Rhodes when he and Watkins joined the Oath Keepers at the Million MAGA March in D.C. in November 2020.
“Any time he viewed any sort of camera, Mr. Rhodes would go to it and puff up the Oath Keepers and talk about conspiracies about control of the government,” Siniff said.
Watkins, too, was sharing conspiratorial ideas about the United Nations assisting the incoming administration of President Joe Biden with enforcing what she believed would be unconstitutional orders.
Siniff decided not to join the Oath Keepers in D.C. again on Jan. 6, and testified that he tried to convince Watkins not to go either – telling her he thought the militia’s planned armed QRF could “ratchet up” the situation, according to a portion of an interview he did with the FBI.
“I felt it would be something that law enforcement would zero in on with anything regarding the Oath Keepers, up to and including jaywalking,” Siniff said.
“You tried to tell Ms. Watkins that she should not go to D.C.,” assistant U.S. attorney Alexandra Hughes said.
“I did express my concerns that things could get rougher than normal,” Siniff said.
During direct examination, Crisp had asked Siniff if Watkins' ever indicated there was anything untoward about her trip to D.C.
"Did she ever tell you she was going to go down and stop the certification?" Crisp asked.
"Absolutely not," Siniff said.
Watkins did go to D.C. on Jan. 6, and brought four firearms with her that she left at the Virginia home of family of a member of her militia, Donovan Crowl. Siniff said he did not learn she’d brought the weapons until she informed him during a jailhouse call after her arrest. Prosecutors asked Siniff about a statement he’d made to the FBI about Watkins entering the Capitol to “look at paintings” – although during redirect from Crisp, Siniff also said he’d told agents about at least one confrontation with police Watkins had relayed to him.
Earlier in the trial, jurors saw a message from Watkins to Siniff about how she had stormed the Capitol and “muscled the cops back like Spartans.” Watkins also participated in a Zello channel on Jan. 6 in which she narrated portions of her time inside the Capitol. At one point during the day, another user on the channel – who was not at the Capitol but rather watching events unfold on TV – 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.” Watkins responded, “Trump’s been trying to drain the swamp with a straw. We just brought a shop vac.”
Watkins and Crowl, along with Thomas Caldwell, of Virginia, were the first defendants arrested in what would balloon into a conspiracy investigation involving more than 20 members of the Oath Keepers. After her arrest, Siniff said, an Oath Keeper named Holden Haney came to the bar Watkins’ owned and connected him in a three-way call with Rhodes, who at the time had not yet been charged. According to Siniff, Rhodes recommended possible lawyers for Watkins and offered to help raise money for her defense. Siniff said Watkins never actually received any assistance from Rhodes in that regard.
“You thought that these efforts, while perhaps sincere, were also to help keep him in your good graces?” Hughes asked. Siniff answered that he would phrase it differently.
Prosecutors closed their case against Watkins and her co-defendants Thursday after 20 days of evidence. Defense attorneys were expected to take as long as two weeks in presenting their cases, with Rhodes anticipated to take the stand to testify in his own defense beginning Friday morning.
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