A Catonsville woman and a Florida man were federally charged with conspiracy to attack a Baltimore power grid, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland announced Monday.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel of Catonsville and Brandon Clint Russell of Orlando, Florida, plotted to shoot and destroy multiple electrical substations in the Baltimore region to further their extremist, violent, racial and ethnic beliefs, said U.S. Attorney Erek Barron at a news conference. Russell, 27, is the founder of a neo-Nazi group.
“Identifying and disrupting terrorist plots, both foreign and domestic, is one of the FBI’s top priorities,” said Thomas Sobocinski, an FBI special agent in charge of Baltimore’s task force.
Damaging an electrical substation could cause power outages that would affect hospitals, businesses and homes, he said.
Sobocinski said Russell and Clendaniel, 34, had been planning to attack Maryland substations since June. The two had a personal and online relationship.
Clendaniel plotted to secure a rifle to carry out the attack on five electrical substations, according to the criminal complaint. Russell shared maps of the energy facilities and discussed how to inflict maximum chaos on the local power grid by attacking several substations at once, Sobocinski said.
“The accused were not just talking but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals,” Sobocinski said. “Russell provided instructions and location information. He described attacking the power transformers as the ‘greatest thing somebody can do.’ In her own words, Clendaniel said she was ‘determined to do this.’ She added it would ‘lay this city to waste.’”
Members of the FBI Joint Terrorism Taskforce took Clendaniel and Russell into custody last week. A charge of conspiracy to damage an energy facility carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Baltimore Gas and Electric substations in Norrisville, Reistertown and Perry Hall were among the five Clendaniel targeted in the Baltimore area, according to the criminal complaint. Two other substations are located near the city.
Clendaniel told an FBI informant during a recorded call there is a “ring” of substations around Baltimore and if they hit a number of them in the same day, they “would completely destroy this whole city,” according to the criminal complaint.
BGE, an Exelon company, said its substations were not targeted because of any particular vulnerability. The company has strengthened its grid and enhanced its surveillance technology to prevent both physical and cyberattacks, as similar threats have increased in recent years, BGE said in a statement.
“We remain focused on improving the resiliency of the grid by stocking critical back-up equipment while designing a smarter grid that isolates damage and routes power around it,” BGE said in a statement.
The FBI disrupted several plans to attack substations in other states in recent months, Sobocinski said, but there is no indication that Clendaniel and Russell’s plans were part of a larger conspiracy. Substations are considered critical infrastructure because blackouts can threaten public safety and national security.
In December, one or more people opened fire on two electrical substations in North Carolina, creating widespread power outages that impacted 45,000 customers for several days. Traffic lights went dark, and schools and businesses closed. Residents struggled to stay warm during freezing winter nights.
Russell shared a YouTube video about the North Carolina substation attack with an FBI informant.
In a statement, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore commended the FBI’s intervention in the “potentially catastrophic attack” on Baltimore and said state and local law enforcement officials are working with the federal agency.
Russell and Clendaniel started corresponding when they both were incarcerated and appeared to have continued a romantic relationship, according to the criminal complaint. Russell contacted an FBI informant in June and encouraged them to read a white supremacist publication for guidance on how to attack substations in Maryland. In January, he connected the informant with Clendaniel, who in Catonsville in Baltimore County.
Russell advised the informant to hit the substations during cold temperatures, when people are using more electricity to heat their homes, according to the criminal complaint.
In 2016, Clendaniel was sentenced to five years in prison for armed robbery for wielding a large butcher knife at several Cecil County convenience stores. She told the FBI informant in January she has a terminal kidney illness and wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” before she died. Her plan was to shoot at the substation while the informant acted as a getaway driver.
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“If we can pull off what I’m hoping ... this would be legendary,” Clendaniel wrote to the informant, according to the criminal complaint.
Russell was sentenced in 2017 to five years in federal prison for possessing numerous chemicals used to create explosives. He told law enforcement officers that he started his own local violent extremist group with Nazi beliefs called the “Atomwaffen.” His three roommates were members of Atomwaffen until one murdered the other two in 2017 for bullying him after he converted to Islam, according to the criminal complaint.
In January, FBI agents searched Clendaniel’s online records and found photos of firearms, including a photo of her wearing tactical gear with a swastika and holding a rifle and a pistol. Screenshots of a Google document that stated it was “not a manifesto” referenced Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Anders Breivik, who was convicted of committing terrorist attacks; and Adolf Hitler.
“I would sacrifice **everything** [sic] for my people to just have a chance for our cause to succeed,” Clendaniel wrote in one document, according to the criminal complaint.
Barron said Maryland and federal law enforcement officials are “using every legal means necessary to keep Marylanders safe and to disrupt hate-fueled violence.”
“When we are united, hate cannot win,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.