“Abba, Father! Please don’t let them murder my wife!”
After more than two decades in the U.S. Navy and assignments around the world, Thomas E. Caldwell thought he knew the meaning of horror.
That all changed in the predawn hours of Jan. 19, 2021.
Minutes after being jostled awake, Caldwell found himself outside in the freezing cold in his undershorts and a T-shirt. In handcuffs attached to a belly chain, he was dragged across the lawn by FBI agents and thrown onto the hood of a government sedan.
Caldwell looked back at the porch of his farmhouse and saw Sharon, his wife of 22 years, standing in her nightgown, with arms extended. She clutched a sock in each hand.
Laser dots appeared on her face and chest, beamed from the carbine barrels of an FBI SWAT team. In an instant, Caldwell saw it all, just a finger twitch from unspeakable tragedy.
“That was moral terror,” the white-haired 66-year-old Caldwell told The Epoch Times.
“I would rather that they had shot me between the eyes than to threaten her like that.”
“I will never forget that image, because she looked like an angel in a white nightshirt, standing in her bare feet on that cold concrete, with her arms extended to her side in compliance to them,” Caldwell recalled, choking back tears.
“That was the moment I learned what real horror was,” he said. “Because I’m looking at that and I said, ‘Abba, Father! Please don’t let them murder my wife! Please don’t let them kill my wife!’ ”
‘The Lowest Point in My Life’
Life over the past 14 months has been full of challenges, tragedy, and miracles for the retired Navy intelligence officer from Berryville, Va.
His trip to Washington D.C. to see President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 morphed from a patriotic outing with his wife into an FBI raid, 53 days in jail, near bankruptcy, and a federal indictment accusing him of seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging duties, and tampering with a document or proceeding—aiding and abetting.
Prosecutors accuse him of working with members of the Oath Keepers to prevent Congress from certifying the Electoral College votes from the 2020 presidential election. Caldwell allegedly recommended a hotel for members of an Oath Keepers “Quick Reaction Force” that was to be stationed near Washington to aid other Oath Keepers attacking at the Capitol.
Prosecutors said Caldwell asked his contacts for help securing boats that could be used to ferry men and weapons across the Potomac River.
“Can’t believe I just thought of this: how many people either in the militia or not (who are still supportive of our efforts to save the Republic) have a boat on a trailer that coud (sic) handle a Potomac crossing?” Caldwell wrote in one message, according to the criminal complaint. “If we had someone standing by at a dock ramp (one near the Pentagon for sure) we could have our Quick Response Team with the heavy weapons standing by, quickly load them and ferry them across the river to our waiting arms…”
Caldwell says federal prosecutors have gotten it badly wrong, mixing up or intentionally twisting bluster among retired military men into some kind of sinister conspiracy.
“I have now reviewed mountains of messages, photos, etc. in the huge volume of discovery provided by the government in this case, and I have not seen one iota of evidence that anyone had a plan or an intention to invade the Capitol, or to stop the peaceful transition of the Presidency, or to do anything of an unlawful nature,” he said. “My personal intentions related to January 6 were to hear President Trump and enjoy a safe and peaceful day with my wife and other American citizens.”
Caldwell plans to go to trial in search of exoneration and restoration of his reputation. His trial was scheduled to begin July 11 in U.S. District Court in Washington, but it now appears the date will be moved back to Sept. 26. Defense attorneys are working through terabytes of evidence, including more than 24,000 video files turned over by the Department of Justice.
“A lot of the things that they’re saying are horrible and seditious are mocking and jibing and poking fun with friends—in private conversations—sometimes was one person in a text message, or two people,” he said. “In fact, some of these things are with guys that are 75 miles away in Virginia, who are at their farms, drunk as lords, as they say, watching stuff on TV.”
A Farm for Freedom
Caldwell’s legal fight has already come at a steep price. The Caldwells sold their farm equipment and animals to help pay legal bills. He worries his multi-generation Shenandoah Valley farm will soon be lost, and has turned to internet crowd-funding for help.
Through it all, the physical and psychological assault on his family that brisk morning is what sticks with him. He has difficulty talking about seeing his wife literally in the crosshairs of the FBI.
“I will never forget it. It is seared into my memory. In my nightmares, it plays again and again and again,” Caldwell said. “Not them kicking me; it’s that image. It is the lowest point in my life. And yet, it might be the greatest miracle of my life that she was spared.”
As he stood on the windswept porch staring into a sea of what looked like klieg lights, he was dumbfounded at the combat-strength force arrayed against him and his wife.
An armored vehicle with a battering ram stood ready to punch through the side of the house. Agents in full tactical gear lit Caldwell up like a Christmas tree with the piercing laser beams from their rifle sights. He figured they were fully automatic M4 carbines aimed at his head and center mass.
After throwing him down on the car hood, Caldwell said, one of the agents kneed him hard in the small of the back, right where metal hardware remained from surgeries. Agents put him in the back of a car, where he sat wondering if Sharon was still alive.
Agents used a handheld battering ram to smash their way into the stand-alone garage where Caldwell used to store his 1963 Ford Thunderbird convertible. The T-Bird is gone, sold to pay for his legal defense. Agents broke into the barn, ripped things off the walls, and then “ransacked the house,” Caldwell said.
After a while, Caldwell was taken back into his home and questioned. He spent two and a half hours explaining his trip to the Capitol, how he was not now, nor had ever been, a member of the Oath Keepers. He said there were lots of assumptions behind the questions, but few facts.
“I had asked them five separate times, ‘What am I being charged with? What am I being charged with?’ They finally said, ‘Trespassing.’ I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You come here and point guns in my wife’s face for trespassing? Where am I supposed to have trespassed?’ They said, ‘Well, you went into the Capitol.’”
As it turns out, Caldwell never went into the Capitol. After Trump’s speech at the Ellipse was finished, he and Sharon slowly made their way to the Capitol grounds. Trump told supporters to peacefully go to the Capitol, so the Caldwells thought perhaps Trump was going to make remarks there.
They got as far as the Peace Monument before Caldwell had to sit. He said his legs and back were causing terrible pain. So they spent about an hour snapping photos, chatting with the crowd, and admiring the 44-foot-high Carrara marble monument set on a Maine blue granite base.
‘You Can’t Believe the View!’
Reports started to trickle down the 300-some yards from the West Front of the Capitol, where the president-elect takes the oath of office every four years. “People were up there and they were taking selfies and folks were coming down (by the Peace Monument) saying, ‘You can’t believe the view!’” Caldwell said.
The Caldwells wanted to see for themselves. They slowly made their way up the stairs, with Tom pressing his hip against the railing for support. They walked through the giant scaffolding set up for inauguration, up near the platform where so many famous speeches have been made.
“We did go up on … the inauguration balcony and we took a selfie,” Caldwell said. “Again, no police saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ No sign saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ And a crush of people doing it. And so you might say, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t have done that.’ Well, maybe so, but it didn’t seem like there was any deterrent to it at all.”
Caldwell said he did not notice any rioting or violence while at the West Front of the Capitol. After a while, the couple began the trek back down toward the Peace Monument. After a rest, they continued the walk up Constitution Avenue to their car. By then, reports were circulating that Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a curfew for that night due to events at the Capitol, just as Caldwell was near his vehicle.
Caldwell said despite the contention in federal charging documents, he is not a member of the Oath Keepers, was never recruited for the group, and had no plans to join. He knows veterans who are Oath Keepers. His private text messages with friends were twisted into something they were not, he said.
He told the lead FBI agent that morning that his opinions and speech were the real targets.
“I said, ‘Look, it looks like there’s people in the government who want to prosecute me for bombast with a friend and private text message or something like that. This is all about things I think, and things I say.’ And he said, ‘Nobody’s going to lock you up or prosecute you for words.’ And I said, ‘We’ll see.’ That’s on tape. So it looks like I was right.”
‘Hell on Earth’
The next chapter in Caldwell’s Jan. 6 saga took place in the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, Va. His experience there was similar to reports from other Jan. 6 detainees in facilities including the DC jail who said they were subjected to brutal beatings, denial of food, and banishment to solitary confinement, a practice condemned by Amnesty International as “cruel and all too usual.”
Caldwell said he became convinced he would not live to see the outside world again. He said he spent 49 of his 53 days in solitary confinement. He was denied his prescription medications, which led to him having seizures on the concrete floor of his cell and soiling himself. The guards seemed to enjoy it, he said.“I’d have seizures on the concrete floor of my dungeon, and the guards looking through the little bulletproof glass laughing, laughing at me as I’m messing myself,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘I’m never getting out of here.’
“This is hell on earth. It really is hell on earth, 24 hours a day, no visitors, no medicines, no exercise. And my entire world was reduced to a 7-by-12-foot concrete dungeon with a huge steel door on one end.”
The inhumane treatment started upon arrival. Caldwell said he underwent some kind of full body scan. He was subjected to an anal probe before and after the scan. “I guess it’s just to show that they can dehumanize you,” he said.
One day a guard struck him hard in the lower back where his surgery had been. With the double handcuffs attached to a belly chain, he had no way to break the fall.
“So I did kind of a face plant, I turn my head sideways,” he recalled. “And then someone stepped between my ankles and kicked me in the groin. Repeatedly. …I can now win (at) Double Jeopardy. If the question is, ‘How many times can you be kicked in the groin before you pass out?’ So I know the answer that I hope no one else finds out. But I have the answer to that question.”
What happened next sticks with Caldwell, seared permanently in his memory.
“The guy that was the kicker said to me, he said, ‘Where’s your Sky Daddy? Where’s your Sky Daddy? Gonna come down here and help you?’ He was referring, of course to Jesus Christ. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget it.”
Occasionally Caldwell was allowed to take a phone call from Sharon. The phone was stuck through a hole in the bars, so he had to kneel to use the receiver. They prayed together.
“It was just like an angel speaking from heaven,” he said. “And she would remind me of the importance of presenting my prayers and petitions to God with thanksgiving. So it’s not just, ‘Here’s my Christmas wish list, God.’ It’s like, ‘Thank you for another day. Thank you for my lovely wife, thank you for the chance that maybe I’ll get out of here someday.’
“One time I couldn’t come up with anything,” Caldwell said. “When I first started, I said:
‘Thank you, God, that I haven’t been beaten yet today. But the day isn’t over, Lord.”
One day Caldwell saw a guard with a cart full of newspapers and other reading materials. He spotted a thick book that he suspected was a Holy Bible, and asked if he could have it. The guard said, “No man, I can’t give you anything.”
“I felt embarrassed. And yet I believe that God put the words in my mouth. And I said, ‘Hey, it’s just a Bible, man.’ I was embarrassed because it’s the word of God. But it was the thing he needed to hear. He moved the newspapers and by golly, it was a tattered Bible.”
Caldwell snatched the Bible when the guard placed it between the bars. He never felt so alone. He felt hated, despised. “Nobody knows what’s going on and nobody’s doing anything,” he thought. Then God spoke to him as the Bible opened to the Book of Psalms.
“I sat down on the cold floor and I just opened the Bible,” he said. “I just held it in my hands and it flopped open to Psalm 109: ‘The mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful man is opened against me. They have spoken against me with deceitful tongues.’”
“I said, ‘God knows what I’m going through! He knows. I’m not alone.’ And I thought, I told him many times, I said, ‘I just want to come home if this is all that’s here for me. I give up. I want to come home. I’ll come home to you right now. Let’s do it.’ And then I said, ‘But you know what, I’d love to see Sharon just one more time.’”
Just a bit later in Psalm 109, it reads: “Help me, O Lord my God; save me according to Thy mercy. And let them know that this is Thy hand: and that Thou, O Lord, hast done it. They will curse and Thou will bless: let them that rise up against me be confounded: but Thy servant shall rejoice.”
A few days later, Caldwell had a hearing before U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta. Attorney David Fischer argued convincingly that Caldwell needed to be released from incarceration.
“Judge Mehta, I believe he saved my life,” Caldwell said. “Because I was broken physically. I had no self respect, no nothing. I was drained. The only thing I had was just just a shred of faith that Jesus was there with me.
“You know what, I saw it. I saw the light,” he said. “Just a couple of days later, I fell into my wife’s arms in the dark in that parking lot, on March the 12th of last year.”
Hand of Providence
Caldwell said he saw the hand of divine providence many times during his ordeal. He believes Fischer was sent to him by God, to rescue him from prison and defend him from the criminal charges.
“He drove down and talked to me through bulletproof glass for about a half-hour,” Caldwell said. “He finally said to me, ‘Mr. Caldwell, look, I defend a lot of people in the federal system. I have some people lie to me for a living. You’re innocent.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell everybody.'”
It took Caldwell weeks at home to stop shivering from the cold cell. One of his ankles was raw and swollen from the steel ankle restraints. He began to heal. First the physical wounds. The psychological damage is likely permanent.
“It’s like, I am a human being. I am not a thing that you could put in a box and shove me away and lock me up. You know, I have worth and I’m a person,” he said. “And this is not right. And yet it happened, and is happening.
“And I am just so fortunate, so fortunate that God brought me out, I don’t know why. I’m forever grateful. I feel like I was born again.”
Caldwell said he worries about the other Jan. 6 defendants still in jail, held without bail for more than a year. He knows what they face, day after day.
“They’re going to be emotionally scarred by post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “I would tell you I had PTSD before they threw me in there. Now I tell people I’ve just got stress disorder, because there ain’t no post. This is part of it. The pressure is on every single day.”
‘Evil All Around Me’
Caldwell said he was not part of any Oath Keepers plan to do anything at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He and Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes III met very briefly at a local Virginia political rally the weekend after the 2020 presidential election, Caldwell said. Caldwell had just stepped off a hay wagon after making some remarks.
“I’m approached by this guy with an eyepatch, and this was Stewart Rhodes,” he said. “He introduced himself …’You’re a nice guy, love what you said.’ And that is how I met Stewart Rhodes.
“I’ve told you before, I know but it really needs emphasis, because the government has consistently fibbed about this,” Caldwell said. “I am not a member of the Oath Keepers. He did not attempt to recruit me. Nobody rushed me like Tau Kappa Epsilon at the University of Louisville, none of that.”
As he works with his wife and attorney on his defense, Caldwell has had time to reflect on the past 14 months. Even with the passage of time, he said, his experience is still unbelievable. He calls it his “American Horror Story.” It is not something he ever imagined taking place in America.
“I love our country. I can’t see how this is happening here. This is, this is Nazi Germany in the 30s. This is Josef Stalin,” Caldwell said. “This is Venezuela. This is Cuba. You know, in a way, it’s a little bit like the way Ferdinand Marcos operated in the Philippines. This is Pol Pot. It’s absolute evil. There was evil all around me.”
As he works to regain his health and his good name, Caldwell turns his attention to holding onto the family legacy.
I hope we don’t end up losing our farm. It’s the last thing that we have of monetary value,” he said. “Sharon and I are not rich people who moved to the country and got a farm and a McMansion. This is property that I worked as a child beside my parents who are in heaven, and my widowed sister.”
With stakes this high, Caldwell admits there have been times he was ready to throw in the towel, take a plea and save the family farm.
“This is where our family memories live. This is where our heart lives. And they really don’t have the right to take this from us,” he said. “But as Sharon tells me, she says, ‘You’re not pleading anything.’ And I said, ‘Yes I am.’
“She says, ‘You’re not taking a plea deal. I don’t care if we’re living in the back of a car. We’re gonna fight all the way.’
“And what more could you ask for than a beautiful, soulful Christian woman who feels that way?”