BELLS, Tenn. — In a rural Tennessee county where you can't buy alcohol or even find a Wal-Mart, residents of tiny Bells stopped each other to ask if anyone knew the pale-skinned young local accused of plotting to kill dozens of black people, including Barack Obama.
It was a jolt to find out on Monday that a 20-year-old who grew up among them was one of two white supremacists accused of plotting a national killing spree that would ultimately target Obama, the Democratic candidate for president.
The town surrounded by fertile cotton fields is safe and certainly not known for breeding neo-Nazis, they agreed.
"If we had any skinheads in this county I wasn't aware of it. We hardly know what they are," said Sam Lewis, who lives across the street from the mother of suspect Daniel Cowart. Cowart, he said, grew up in the comfortable, well-maintained neighborhood and wasn't known as a troublemaker.
"His mother is a real sweet, nice girl, and this comes as a shock and a surprise," Lewis said.
Cowart is charged along with Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., with planning a killing spree to shoot and decapitate black people and top it all off by attacking Obama. The charges were made public Monday.
Cowart and Schlesselman are charged by federal authorities with possessing an unregistered firearm, conspiring to steal firearms from a federally licensed gun dealer and threatening a candidate for president. They were being held without bond.
Authorities describe the two as neo-Nazi skinheads, and an affidavit from a federal agent says they devised a plot to kill 88 people — beheading 14 of them. The numbers 88 and 14 are symbolic in the white supremacist community.
The killing spree was initially to target a predominantly black school, which was not identified in court documents. It was to end, authorities said, with the two suspects — dressed in white tuxedos and top hats — blasting guns from the windows of a speeding vehicle aimed at Obama.
The young men said they expected to die in the attack, the affidavit said.
Obama's campaign had no immediate comment on the alleged plot.
In Helena-West Helena, on the Mississippi River in east Arkansas' Delta, Schlesselman was described as a "troubled child" by a woman who works with his adoptive father, Mark Schlesselman.
The father works as a parts manager at Riddell Flying Service, said Marty Riddell, a co-owner of the company located in one of the nation's poorest regions, trailing even parts of Appalachia in its standard of living.
Riddell said she tried to offer Paul Schlesselman a pet lizard she couldn't care for, but was warned by his family that "he would hurt it."
"They might have done that man a favor picking that kid up," Riddell said. "He was a troubled child already."
On the other hand, a former high school classmate of Cowart's in Bells said he was quiet but friendly. But it took Lacy Doss a minute to recognize the young man in the news photo brandishing a large rifle.
"I was shocked to think I was sitting in class with this guy and now he's being charged with some crazy stuff," said Doss, 18. "He was a nice person, to me anyway. He was quiet. He really didn't talk much."
Joe Byrd, a lawyer representing Cowart, said he was reviewing the charges against his client "as well as the facts and circumstances of his arrest" and was not yet prepared to comment.
No one answered the door at Cowart's mother's house, and no lights were on inside.
Matt Hawkins, 21, the clerk at a filling station-convenience store in the center of the town of 2,300 residents about 70 miles northeast of Memphis, said customers asked each other about Cowart, looking for people who might know him.
"One friend of mine said he knew who he is, but that's about it," Hawkins said. "We're a small town. Nothing much goes on around here, no shootings or nothing."
City Attorney Jasper Taylor said Cowart most recently lived with his grandparents in a southern, rural part of the county. He moved away, possibly to Arkansas or Texas, then returned over the summer, Taylor said.
Authorities said 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 "8"s or "H"s stand for "Heil Hitler."
Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Nashville, Tenn., field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, said authorities took the threats seriously.
"Even if they were just to try it, it would be a trail of tears around the South," Cavanaugh said.
At this point, there does not appear to be any formal assassination plan, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said.
"Whether or not they had the capability or the wherewithal to carry out an attack remains to be seen," he said.
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.
In Helena-West Helena, police Chief Fred Fielder said he had never heard of Schlesselman. No telephone number for Schlesselman in Helena-West Helena could be found.
However, the reported threat of attacking a school filled with black students worried Fielder. Helena-West Helena, with a population of 12,200, is 66 percent black. "Predominantly black school, take your pick," he said.
Riddell said Mark Schlesselman left work twice Sunday to speak with law enforcement, only to return and say, "I've got a problem."
"He wouldn't condone anything like that," Riddell said. "He did look very, very upset today. He didn't speak about it to anybody at work."
Mark Schlesselman did not return a call left for him at the flying service.
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