Three men who plotted to attack electricity substations in a white supremacist bid to sow national unrest pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors in Ohio said the three planned to disrupt the electricity grid in order to sow civil unrest and economic uncertainty in furtherance of their white supremacist cohort. They hoped to cause unrest and trigger a race war, but the plot never really got past the planning stage, prosecutors said.
Christopher Brenner Cook, 20, of Columbus, Ohio; Jonathan Allen Frost, 24, of West Lafayette, Indiana, and of Katy, Texas; and Jackson Matthew Sawall, 22, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, pleaded guilty after initially claiming innocence.
The three had planned to kill themselves with "suicide necklaces" containing fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, if law enforcement came upon them before they were successful, prosecutors said. When police initiated a traffic stop on Sawall and Cook in Ohio before they could carry out key aspects of their plan, Sawall took his portion of fentanyl but survived.
Justice Department officials said the three represented a serious threat to the nation.
“These defendants conspired to use violence to sow hate, create chaos, and endanger the safety of the American people,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker for the Southern District of Ohio said in a statement. “As this case shows, federal and state law enforcement agencies are dedicated to working together to protect this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said targeting power plants and water supplies is a common aspiration among white supremacists.
“Within both the folklore and history of the racist far right’s plotting over decades has been the glorification of leaderless resistance style targeted plots and attacks, ranging from assassination, infrastructure and intimidation for the purpose of advancing an insurgency, in part through destabilization," he said by email.
Frost and Cook met in an online chat group in fall 2019, and Sawall joined the trio by the end of the year, prosecutors said. Frost had the idea of attacking the power grid, and the three set out to recruit possible participants, they said.
Cook maintained the group's ideology by giving his coconspirators a reading list that reenforced white supremacy and "Neo-Nazism," the Justice Department said in a statement.
The trio decided to disable electricity substations in major regions of the nation essentially by shooting at them, prosecutors said. Frost and Cook trained with an Armalite semiautomatic rifle to prepare, they said.
"They had conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression," according to the Justice Department statement.
The trio initially focused on Columbus, Ohio, where Sawall and Cook painted a swastika with the words "Join the Front" under a bridge in early 2020, the Justice Department said.
Cook and Frost then headed to Texas to continue to plan their power disruption. There, Cook tried to recruit teenagers to help the three, prosecutors said.
It's not clear how the plot unraveled and the case remained under seal. The case was investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Columbus, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Houston.
The defendants were charged Feb. 7. The allegation of providing material support to terrorism carries with it a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Sentencing was not yet scheduled. Defendants were prosecuted in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
Samuel Shamansky, attorney for Frost, described the defendants as misguided young men who went down an internet rabbit hole.
"My client is extremely remorseful for his conduct and understands the potential harm he and his coconspirators could have caused," the lawyer said.
Frost is willing to "remedy" any harm he caused and was "committed to rehabilitation," he said. The defendant has disavowed his white supremacist views, Shamansky said, and now "understands the importance of thinking for himself."
Attorneys for the other defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.