WASHINGTON - Two white supremacists allegedly plotted to go on a national killing spree, shooting and decapitating black people and ultimately targeting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, federal authorities said yesterday.
In all, the two men whom officials describe as neo-Nazi skinheads planned to kill 88 people - 14 by beheading, according to documents unsealed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Tenn. The numbers 88 and 14 are symbolic in the white supremacist community.
The spree, which initially targeted an unidentified predominantly African-American school, was to end with the two men driving toward Obama, "shooting at him from the windows," the court documents show.
"Both individuals stated they would dress in all white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt," the court complaint states. "Both individuals further stated they knew they would and were willing to die during this attempt."
Campaign officials for Obama, the first black presidential nominee of a major party, declined to comment about the allegations or arrests. Secret Service agents began protecting Obama on May 3, 2007, less than three months after he announced he was running for the Democratic nomination - the earliest such protection has been authorized for a candidate.
Although it was unclear how much, if anything, the Obama camp knew about the allegations, his security personnel certainly did. "The United States Secret Service takes all threats against presidential candidates seriously and is actively investigating the allegations," said Richard Harlow, special agent in charge of the agency's Memphis field office.
Sheriffs' deputies in Crockett County, Tenn., arrested the two suspects - Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark. - Oct. 22 on unspecified charges. "Once we arrested the defendants and suspected they had violated federal law, we immediately contacted federal authorities," Crockett County Sheriff Troy Klyce said.
The two were charged by federal authorities yesterday with possessing an unregistered firearm, conspiring to steal firearms from a federally licensed gun dealer and threatening a candidate for president.
Attorney Joe Byrd, who has been hired to represent Cowart, did not immediately return a call seeking comment yesterday. Messages left on two phone numbers listed under Cowart's name were not immediately returned.
The numbers 14 and 88 are symbols in skinhead culture, referring to a 14-word phrase attributed to an imprisoned white supremacist - "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children" - and to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Two 8s, or H's, stand for "Heil Hitler."
Brian A. Weaks, an ATF special agent and a lead investigator in the case, said in a court affidavit unsealed Monday that the two men had hoped to carry out the assassination by driving their vehicle at top speed and firing high-powered rifles at Obama from their car windows.
They allegedly discussed robbing or burglarizing a gun store to be "more equipped" with firearms and ammunition, and Cowart used the Internet to send Schlesselman diagrams and photos of a gun store in Jackson, Weaks said. On Oct. 20, Weaks said, Cowart drove from Tennessee to Arkansas to pick up Schlesselman, and the two discussed attacking a predominantly black school and traveling from state to state to rob and kill individuals.
Cowart owned a .308 caliber rifle, and Schlesselman had a Mossberg Model 500 12-gauge shotgun with a barrel he had shortened to make it "easier to maneuver" during the shootings, Weaks said. In addition, the agent said, Schlesselman stole a Ruger revolver from his father, and Cowart stole two handguns from his grandfather.
On Oct. 22, Weaks said, the men purchased food, nylon rope and two ski masks from a Wal-Mart in Brownsville, Tenn., and then shot out a window of the Beech Grove Church of Christ in Brownsville. Later that day, Weaks said, "they purchased window chalk and wrote numerous racially motivated words and symbols on the exterior of Cowart's vehicle."
They were arrested that night by sheriff's deputies in Crockett County, Tenn. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Thursday in Memphis.
Jim Cavanaugh, a special agent in charge of the Nashville field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, said authorities took the threats very seriously.
The investigation is continuing, and more charges are possible, Cavanaugh said. He said there's no evidence - so far - that others were willing to assist Cowart and Schlesselman with the plot.
The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press contributed to this article.