Federal authorities arrested two individuals for conspiring to attack Baltimore power grids, officials said in a press conference on Monday.
Officials said that Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel “took steps” to shoot at numerous Baltimore electrical substations, aiming to “completely destroy this whole city.” Officials said that the two of them were taken into custody last week before they could carry out their plans.
“The accused were not just talking but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals. 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,” the FBI special agent in charge said at the press conference.
Russell was conspiring to plan out the attacks on the power grid from June 2022 to the present, and encouraged the attack to be done “’when there is greatest strain on the grid,’ like ‘when everyone is using electricity to either heat or cool their homes,’” according to a Department of Justice press release. The release said that Clendaniel was collaborating with him, and discussed her desire to use a specific rifle to shoot at the electrical substations, saying in conversations that “[i]t would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully.”
Both Russell and Clendaniel made their initial court appearances on Monday, with Russell appearing in the U.S. District Court in Orlando, Fla. and Clendaniel appearing before the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Md., according to the press release. If convicted, they would each face a maximum sentence of 20 years for the charge.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen said in the press release that the plan to execute these attacks was “racially motivated.”
“Driven by their ideology of racially-motivated hatred, the defendants allegedly schemed to attack local power grid facilities,” Olsen said in the press release. “The Justice Department will not tolerate those who threaten critical infrastructure and imperil communities in the name of domestic violent extremism.”
Russell and Clendaniel met while incarcerated, and Russell was released from prison in 2021, according to The Washington Post.
Their arrests come months after an individual shot at two electrical substations in Charlotte, N.C., causing roughly 40,000 people in the area to lose power. The FBI is also investigating that attack.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Russell is the founder of neo-Nazi group the Atomwaffen Division. The Atomwaffen Division was founded in 2016 and holds extremist neo-Nazi views, including supporting the idea of lone wolf violence, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Officials said at the press conference that the individuals’ “extremist views” may have motivated their plans to attack the grid.
Russell was sentenced to prison for five years in 2018 for the possession of an “unregistered destructive device and for unlawful storage of explosive material,” according to the Department of Justice. When officials discovered the explosive material, Russell was living with Devon Arthurs, another member of Atomwaffen Division, who was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing two other members of the group at the time, according to the Department of Justice.