The FBI captured two people, one a nationally known neo-Nazi leader, before they could launch an attack on Baltimore's power grid that had the potential to "completely destroy this whole city," authorities said Monday.
The suspects, Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel, were taken into custody last week, in Florida and Maryland, respectively, officials said.
Federal authorities described the alleged plot as “racially or ethnically motivated.” More than 61% of Baltimore residents are Black.
Russell, 27, is a founder of the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group bent on "ushering in the collapse of civilization," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights activist organization. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the group admires Charles Manson and supports "the idea of lone wolf violence."
The alleged plot was first flagged in June after an FBI informant claimed to have been contacted by Russell, who wanted "to attack electrical substations and has provided guidance on how to cause maximum damage," according to the criminal complaint filed against the pair.
Russell then connected the informant with Clendaniel, a Maryland resident, to hash out plans for an attack on stations in and around Baltimore, federal authorities said.
The pair and the informant worked with urgency, as Clendaniel said she was terminally ill with a kidney ailment "and was unlikely to live more than a few months," according to the criminal complaint.
Clendaniel, 34, had five stations in her crosshairs, officials said, in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall, Maryland, and two more "in the vicinity of Baltimore," the complaint said.
Attacks on all five would be a "'ring' around Baltimore and if they hit a number of them all in the same day, they 'would completely destroy this whole city,'" Clendaniel allegedly said in a recorded conversation, the complaint revealed.
Thomas J. Sobocinski, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office, said the suspects were serious in their efforts to paralyze the city of 580,000.
"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," Sobocinski told reporters in Baltimore.
"Their actions threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses.”
Russell got on the FBI's radar in 2018 when his Muslim roommate killed two other roommates who had taunted him about his faith, according to the complaint.
The murder probe in Tampa, Florida, uncovered Russell’s connection to the Atomwaffen, federal authorities said.
Russell was arrested and ultimately convicted of possession of an unregistered destructive device.
Clendaniel appeared in handcuffs Monday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Richard Collins in Baltimore.
Clendaniel, who has shoulder-length red hair, wore a gray jacket with a fuzzy collar. She did not appear to be wearing any shoes, only winter socks.
Collins told Clendaniel that she could face up to 20 years if she is convicted of conspiring to destroy an energy facility. The government asked for her to be held without bail, and the defense did not oppose that request.
A federal public defender was assigned to represent Clendaniel and left court Monday without making any comment.
Russell appeared in a federal court in Florida on Monday, and a magistrate judge ordered him held. He will be transported to U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The public defender assigned to Russell's case declined comment.
Erek L. Barron, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, thanked local and state law enforcement agencies for their collaboration.
"Together we are using every legal means necessary to keep Marylanders safe and to dispute hate-fueled violence," Barron said.
Attacks on the country's power grid came into focus in December after two high-profile incidents.
There were shootings at two electrical substations in central North Carolina in early December, officials said. At the peak of Duke Energy outages, more than 45,000 homes and businesses were in the dark.
They were followed by attacks at four electricity substations on Christmas weekend near Tacoma, Washington, as about 14,000 homes and businesses were forced to do without power, officials said.