A Former Marine Stormed the Capitol as Part of a Far-Right Militia

Last week’s storming of the Capitol attracted a wide range of people, but at least some of the individuals who made it into the building’s inner chambers appear to be members of militia groups, acting with a degree of coördination. Wearing tactical gear, they moved in an organized fashion, using handheld radios and headsets to communicate. Far-right groups at the Capitol included the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys, and the Boogaloo Bois, as well as smaller local organizations.

Donovan Crowl, a fifty-year-old former marine, who had served as a helicopter mechanic on an amphibious assault ship in the Persian Gulf, in 1990, was among the uniformed men. At the Capitol, Crowl wore a combat helmet, ballistic goggles, and a tactical vest with a handheld radio. In a video, he can be seen in a line of people making their way through the crowd up the Capitol steps, each with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front. In another video, he is standing alongside a group breaching the doors of the Capitol. The crowd responds to the question “Who’s our President?” with the shout “Trump!,” and, as people start to enter the building, a man can be heard saying, in astonishment, “We’re the first wave!” Crowl was later photographed in the Capitol Rotunda, and additional videos and photographs show him appearing to stand guard at the doors and on the steps of the Capitol. Crowl’s sister and mother, who identified Crowl, said that he had become increasingly radical in recent years, both in his support of Trump and in his expression of racist views. A friend of Crowl’s said that he had discussed plans to travel from his home, in Ohio, to Washington, D.C., to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s election.

In addition to his military attire, a patch on Crowl’s sleeve identified him as a member of the Oath Keepers. Founded in 2009, by Elmer Stewart Rhodes, a graduate of Yale Law School and a former Army paratrooper, the Oath Keepers is a loosely organized anti-government group with chapters around the country. It claims to have recruited tens of thousands of former law-enforcement and military officials into its ranks. While the organization says that its mandate is defending the Constitution, several human-rights groups have identified it as one of the largest and most dangerous extremist groups in the country. Oath Keepers has been involved in several armed standoffs with law enforcement in recent years, and a number of its members have faced criminal charges for threatening violence or other criminal activity. The group has in recent years embraced Trump, and, earlier this year, Twitter accused its founder of inciting violence and banned him.

In an eighty-minute interview, during which Crowl acknowledged that he was drinking, he confirmed to me that he had entered the Capitol, saying that he had gone to Washington to “do security” for “V.I.P.s” whom he declined to name. He said that his intentions had been peaceful and that he had never been violent, claiming “we protected the fucking Capitol Hill police.” He declined to substantiate the claim.

Along with the Oath Keepers, Crowl has participated in events organized by the Ohio State Regular Militia. Last November, he appeared with the group, whose members wore military fatigues and were armed with pistols and paintball guns, at an event at the Ohio Statehouse, where Biden supporters were celebrating his election. At the time, members of the militia declined to identify themselves to reporters, but said that they had voted for Trump and were attending to “protect people.” Mary McCord, a former acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security in the Justice Department, said that while “these types of modern unlawful militias have been around for decades, ever since Ruby Ridge and Waco,” Trump’s incitement had encouraged them. “All his false statements about the election being stolen, that he won in a landslide, that ballot boxes were being stuffed and dead people were voting en masse—those were all predicates to setting the stage for asking these groups to ‘fight like hell,’ as he said that morning.”

During the assault on the Capitol, a thirty-eight-year-old Ohio-based bar owner named Jessica Watkins, who described herself as the commanding officer of the Ohio State Regular Militia, posted live updates on Parler, the recently defunct Twitter alternative embraced by some right-wing extremists. She made reference to “forcing entry into the Capitol Building,” and later posted a video from inside the Rotunda, writing, “made it into the Senate.” In the posts, Watkins called Capitol police, one of whom died after attempting to repel the insurrectionists, “fuckweed cops.” She captioned one photo, showing Crowl in his tactical gear, “One of my guys at the Stop the Steal Rally today.”

Crowl, wearing dark glasses, with other members of the Oath Keepers in the Capitol Rotunda.Photograph by Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

In interviews, a friend of Crowl’s, and his mother and sister said that he had served in the Marines for six years, rising to the rank of corporal, and had at one point been stationed on the U.S.S. Iwo Jima. They said that, encountering health issues, Crowl left the Marines in 1993 and returned to civilian life. He struggled with addiction and held occasional jobs in construction. Legal records show that, last year, Crowl was arrested in Ohio for driving under the influence, and he has been charged with misdemeanors for violating probation and for domestic violence. During the Obama Administration, the family members and friend recalled, Crowl expressed fury at the President, along with wider animosity toward Black people. “The only good Black person is a dead Black person,” his mother, Teresa Joann Rowe, a retired nurse, recalled Crowl saying—though she stipulated that Crowl used a racial epithet. She said that she had become estranged from her son owing to his views and had not been aware of his involvement in the attack on the Capitol until she saw photos. “I would have called the Ohio state police if I had known he was going to that place,” Rowe told me. “I’m sitting here sick to my stomach.” During the Trump Administration, the people close to Crowl said, he began to express increasing ardor for Trump and to embrace conspiracy theories. “It’s stuff he heard from that psychopath Alex Jones and those echo chambers on the Internet,” his sister Denissa Crowl, who is also a nurse, told me. She said that such radicalization was a familiar phenomenon in Crowl’s rural Ohio community. “That’s like ground zero,” she told me. “I fear him,” she added. “He’s very skilled in firearms. He was an expert sharpshooter.”

Crowl identified himself to me as a member of both the Oath Keepers and the Ohio State Regular Militia, and said that he had attended events representing those groups. “I went to Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “I’ve been to Louisville, when the B.L.M., when they came.” He acknowledged his criminal charges, and said that he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said that, at the Capitol, “I expelled three fucking people,” whom he refused to identify but said had been injured. He acknowledged that there had been violence, saying “patriots dragged this fucking maggot off the wall and started beating his ass.” Crowl made vague threats during the interview, telling me, “I already know where you live.” He repeatedly denied that he harbored racist views or had made racist comments, but he said that he believed in phrenology, the discredited pseudoscience that infers intellectual ability from skull shape, and told me that he had responded to The New Yorker’s request for comment after examining pictures of my head. As people involved in the riot began to be identified and arrested, Watkins, the self-described leader of Crowl’s local militia, posted on social media, insisting, as Crowl later did to me, that the group “never smashed anything, stole anything, burned anything.” In an interview this week with the Ohio Capital Journal, which first reported the Ohio State Regular Militia’s presence at the riot, Watkins said that she was also a member of the Oath Keepers. Watkins did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Spokespeople for the Marines, which falls under the administration of the Navy, confirmed that Crowl had served as a marine, but noted that he is no longer on active duty. One of the spokespeople added, “Naval Criminal Investigative Services is coordinating closely with our federal law enforcement partners to determine if any Department of Navy-affiliated personnel participated in criminal activity at the Capitol this week.”

Since the events at the Capitol, both experts and individuals without formal training have participated in a crowdsourced effort to identify individuals involved in the riot and refer them to law enforcement. A group of Twitter users, none of whom wished to be named publicly, used Watkins’s posts and other social-media evidence to establish Crowl’s identity. The group set up a chat on the messaging platform Discord, titled “Capitol Terrorists Exposers,” and examined images of Crowl and his associates. “I was a lifelong Republican until Trump descended that escalator,” one user said. “Now I’m fighting to make sure that my worst fears of him destroying our democracy do not come to fruition.” John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, also investigated Crowl, and later referred his name to the F.B.I. “When looking for men in military gear, I came across a lot of people who appeared to be playing dress-up,” Scott-Railton told me. “But, again and again, military veterans kept flagging this guy, saying he looks like the real deal.”

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