A neo-Nazi pair planned to “completely destroy” Baltimore as part of a plot involving an attack on the city’s power grid, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.
The two hoped the plan would help further their racist mission.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, was working with Brandon Russell, who founded Florida-based neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, to plan a series of “sniper attacks” on Maryland electrical substations.
The US Justice Department’s criminal complaint included a photo of a woman authorities identified as Clendaniel wearing tactical gear that bore a swastika and holding a rifle.
According to law enforcement officials, 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 the confidential informant.
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.
Investigators also found a document in Clendaniel’s 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 Adolf Hitler and various terrorists, according to the complaint.
Russell, who founded the 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 US 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.
Recent attacks and threats to the US 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.
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 dates to at least 2018.
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.