ABOVE PHOTO: Erek L. Barron, U.S. Attorney for Maryland, speaks during a news conference in Baltimore, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Barron announced the arrests and a federal criminal complaint charging Sarah Beth Clendaniel, of Catonsville, and Brandon Clint Russell, of Orlando, with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility. At left is FBI Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobocinski, and at right is Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin. (Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
By Lea Skene and Eric Tucker
BALTIMORE — A Maryland woman spent months conspiring with a neo-Nazi leader based in Florida to plan an attack on Baltimore’s power grid, hoping to further their racist mission, law enforcement officials said Monday.
The plan was thwarted when both suspects were arrested last week, adding to a growing list of similar cases as authorities warn the American electrical grid could be a vulnerable target for domestic terrorists.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, was working with Brandon Russell, who founded a small Florida-based neo-Nazi group, to plan a series of “sniper attacks” on Maryland electrical substations, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday. The document also included a photo of a woman authorities identified as Clendaniel wearing tactical gear that bore a swastika and holding a rifle.
It wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether either suspect had a lawyer to speak on their behalf. There was no evidence the plot was carried out or any record of damage to local substations.
U.S. Attorney Erek Barron praised investigators for disrupting hate-fueled violence.
“When we are united, hate cannot win,” he said at a news conference announcing the charges.
Authorities declined to specify how the planned attack was meant to fulfill a racist motive but suggested the defendants wanted to bring attention to their cause. Russell had discussed targeting the grid during cold weather “when most people are using max electricity,” authorities alleged.
According to the complaint, Clendaniel was planning to target five substations situated in a ring around Baltimore, a majority-Black city mostly surrounded by heavily white suburban areas.
“It would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully,” Clendaniel told a confidential informant she met through Russell, according to the complaint. She was most recently living outside the city in surrounding Baltimore County, officials said.
Clendaniel told the informant she was experiencing terminal kidney failure. With just a few months to live, she wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” before her death, according to the complaint. Many of their conversations focused on how she could get a weapon to carry out the attacks.
Investigators also found a document in her Google records that they compared to a manifesto. In it, Clendaniel wrote she would give up “everything” to “have a chance for our cause to succeed.” The document included references to Hitler and other terrorists, according to the complaint.
“Identifying and disrupting terrorist plots, both foreign and domestic, is one of the FBI’s top priorities,” agent Thomas Sobocinski said at Monday’s news conference. “To those extremists looking to disrupt society and cause chaos in our communities, we will not … tolerate this.”
Russell, who founded an obscure neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division, has a long history of ties to racist extremist ideologies and past plans to disrupt American infrastructure systems, according to the complaint. Atomwaffen Division leaders recently renamed themselves the National Socialist Order. The group’s mission is civilizational collapse, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Federal authorities said Russell, 27, landed on their radar after a 2017 shooting left two of his roommates dead. Local law enforcement officers found Russell at the scene, dressed in a military uniform, and crying over the news. A third roommate, who was later arrested, told investigators he committed the killings to thwart a terrorist attack by Atomwaffen, which included plans to target U.S. infrastructure. He said Russell knew nothing about the killings, having just returned home from his Florida National Guard duties.
Russell ultimately pleaded guilty to explosives charges after authorities found bomb-making materials in the garage. He served five years in federal prison and was on supervised release at the time of his recent arrest, officials said.
The attorney who represented him in that case didn’t immediately respond to a message Monday.
Recent attacks and threats to the U.S. power grid have heightened concerns about protecting critical infrastructure.
In Washington state, two men were arrested last month on charges they vandalized substations in attacks that left thousands without power around Christmastime. One suspect told authorities they hoped the power outage would allow them to break into a business and steal money.
A gunfire attack in December on substations in central North Carolina also caused power outages affecting tens of thousands of customers. Law enforcement officials have said the shooting was targeted, though no arrests have been made. Lawmakers there have proposed legislation to toughen penalties for intentionally damaging utility equipment.
An account linked to Russell recently sent the confidential informant a video about the North Carolina attack, discussing the substations targeted and their geographic areas, according to the complaint.
Baltimore Gas and Electric, which controls the local power grid, thanked law enforcement on Monday and said there was no damage to substations, service wasn’t disrupted and there are currently no known threats to facilities.
“We have a long-standing partnership with law enforcement and state and federal regulators of the grid to secure critical infrastructure,” the company said in a news release. “This work is even more important now as threats have increased in recent years.”
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore also praised the investigative efforts that succeeded in “preventing a potentially catastrophic attack on several of Maryland’s electrical substations.”
Russell and Clendaniel corresponded years ago while incarcerated in separate correctional facilities, authorities said. Officials declined to specify the nature of their relationship or how they met, but the complaint says they discussed having children together. Text messages linked to Russell included a statement that “going to prison was worth it because I might not have met you otherwise.”
Their relationship dated to at least 2018. Last May, the complaint says, Clendaniel shipped an online order — a 34-piece “Professional Pocket Picking Hand Tool” — to Russell’s Orlando address.
Clendaniel has a long criminal history in Maryland, including a 2006 robbery conviction in Cecil County, a largely rural area about an hour northeast of Baltimore. She pleaded guilty to the charge after authorities accused her of brandishing a butcher knife and demanding money from a convenience store clerk.
Then 18, Clendaniel was pregnant at the time of her conviction. Her attorney cited mental health issues and said she was receiving methadone treatment, according to The Cecil Whig. She pleaded guilty in 2016 in connection with another robbery case.
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