The FBI captured two people, one of them a nationally known neo-Nazi leader, before they could launch an attack on the Baltimore power grid that it had the potential to «completely destroy this entire city,» authorities said Monday.
The suspects, Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel, were arrested last week in Florida and Maryland, respectively, authorities said.
Federal authorities described the alleged plot as «racially or ethnically motivated.» Over 61% of Baltimore residents are black.
Russell, 27, is one of the founders of the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group bent on «fostering the collapse of civilization,» according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group admires Charles Manson and supports «the idea of lone wolf violence,» according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The alleged plot was first flagged in June of last year after an FBI informant claimed to have been contacted by Russell, who wanted to «attack electrical substations and provided guidance on how to do maximum damage,» according to the criminal complaint filed against the pair.
Russell then connected the informant with Clendaniel, a Maryland resident, to discuss plans for an attack on stations in and around Baltimore, federal authorities said.
The couple and the informant worked urgently, as Clendaniel said he was terminally ill with kidney ailment «and was unlikely to live more than a few months,» according to the criminal complaint.
Clendaniel, 34, had five stations in his sights, authorities said, in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall, Maryland, and two more «in nearby Baltimore,» according to the complaint.
The attacks on the five would «‘ring’ around Baltimore and if they attack multiple of them in the same day, they ‘would completely destroy this entire city,'» Clendaniel allegedly said in a recorded conversation, the complaint revealed.
Thomas J. Sobocinski, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office, said the suspects were serious about their efforts to shut down the city of 580,000.
“The defendants were not just talking, they were taking action to carry out their threats and further their extremist goals. Russell provided directions and location information. He described attacking power transformers as the best thing anyone could do,” Sobocinski told reporters in Baltimore.
«Their actions threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses.»
Russell appeared on the FBI’s radar in 2018 when his Muslim roommate killed two other roommates who had taunted him about his faith, according to the complaint.
The murder investigation in Tampa, Florida, uncovered Russell’s connection to the Atomwaffen, federal authorities said. The suspect allegedly told investigators that Russell had been hatching plans to attack power plants in Florida.
Russell was arrested and eventually convicted of possession of an unregistered destructive device.
A handcuffed Clendaniel appeared Monday afternoon before Federal Judge G. Richard Collins in Baltimore.
Clendaniel, who has shoulder-length red hair, wore a gray jacket with a furry collar. He didn’t appear to be wearing shoes, just winter socks.
Collins told Clendaniel she could face up to 20 years if convicted of conspiring to destroy a power facility. The government requested that the suspect be held without bail, and the defense did not oppose that request.
A federal public defender was assigned to represent Clendaniel, but the defense attorney left court on Monday without comment.
It was not immediately clear Monday afternoon whether Russell had retained or assigned criminal defense attorneys who could speak on his behalf.
Russell appeared in federal court in Florida on Monday and a coroner ordered his arrest. He will be transported to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore.
Erek L. Barron, US Attorney for the District of Maryland, thanked state and local law enforcement agencies for their cooperation in making these arrests.
“Together we are using all legal means necessary to keep Marylanders safe and to challenge hate-fueled violence,” Barron said.
Attacks on the nation’s power grid became apparent in December, following two high-profile incidents.
There were shootings in two electrical substations in central North Carolina in early December, authorities said. At the peak of Duke Energy’s blackouts, more than 45,000 homes and businesses were left in the dark.
That incident was followed by attacks on four power substations over Christmas weekend near Tacoma, Washington, when about 14,000 homes and businesses were forced to live without power, authorities said.