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Catonsville woman, Florida man arraigned in plot to attack Baltimore power grid

Baltimore Sun 3/10/2023 Lia Russell, Baltimore Sun
Power lines near a BGE substation in southeastern Howard County. © Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun/TNS Power lines near a BGE substation in southeastern Howard County.

The Baltimore County woman and Florida man accused of plotting to blow up Baltimore-area electrical substations appeared in federal court Friday morning, where they pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring to attack an energy facility and cause more than $100,000 in damages.

The FBI arrested Sarah Beth Clendaniel of Catonsville and Brandon Russell of Orlando, Florida, last month. Federal prosecutors allege that the pair were planning to destroy five energy facilities in Norrisville, Reisterstown, Perry Hall and other parts of the Baltimore area.

Clendaniel, 34, and Russell, 27, plotted to shoot up and damage the substations because they thought the attacks would “completely destroy this whole city [of Baltimore]” and cause a “cascading failure costing billions of dollars,” according to an FBI affidavit.

The two were indicted Feb. 14 of a single count of conspiring to destroy an energy facility, after being taken into custody Feb. 3.

Clendaniel and Russell appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Beth Gesner Friday morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore in separate arraignment hearings.

Clendaniel, wearing a yellow prison-issued jumpsuit, waved and blew a kiss to family members who attended the hearing, while Russell appeared wearing a red jumpsuit for his first appearance in Maryland.

Clendaniel pleaded not guilty via her attorney, public defender Kirstin Hopkins.

Russell also pleaded not guilty via his attorneys, Kobie Flowers and visiting counsel Ian Goldstein of West Palm Beach, Florida.

Both Clendaniel and Russell face maximum sentences of 20 years each if convicted, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release thereafter.

According to the affidavit, Clendaniel told a FBI source that she had a terminal kidney disease, was “unlikely to live more than a few months” and “wanted to accomplish something worthwhile” before her death.

Two months before her arrest, Clendaniel posted tweets to her still-active Twitter account, referencing previously attempted substation attacks. She also praised Adolf Hitler, the Taliban and Ted Kaczynski.

On Dec. 6, Clendaniel tweeted “MORE... MORE... MORE!” with a screenshot of a Reddit post referencing an attack on two North Carolina substations that left 40,000 people without power. That was a month before FBI agents recorded a series of conversations during which they say Clendaniel and Russell discussed details about an attack on Baltimore-area facilities using a semiautomatic rifle and handgun to shoot each substation in hopes of “completely lay[ing] this city to waste.”

Substations throughout the U.S. have been targeted for attack by extremists in recent years, because of their vulnerability as a critical infrastructure.

In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a review to overhaul security standards at transmission stations after three men pleaded guilty to terrorism charges stemming from a plot to attack power grids and further their “white supremacist ideology,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Clendaniel began corresponding with Russell during a previous stint in prison for armed robbery, and adopted neo-Nazi beliefs after moving to Iowa and dating a man with similar views, according to her mother. Russell was imprisoned from 2017 to 2021 on federal explosive charges. He and Clendaniel had a romantic relationship and discussed having children together, according to the FBI complaint.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment beyond the FBI documents about how Russell and Clendaniel met.

Russell is originally from the Bahamas and served in the Florida Army National Guard. He founded Atomwaffen Division, a decentralized neo-Nazi hate group with international ties that advocates for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government and the establishment of a whites-only ethnostate. The group was tied to five murders between 2017 and 2018.

It rebranded as the Nationalist Social Order after July 2020. One of its adherents is accused of killing Blaze Bernstein, a gay Jewish student, in California. A Virginia man who wrote admiringly about the group is awaiting trial on charges that he killed his girlfriend’s parents after they ended the relationship because of his neo-Nazi beliefs.

The group reveres people like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; James Mason, a former American Nazi Party member who published a newsletter in the 1980s calling for guerrilla warfare against the federal government; and William Luther Pierce, who wrote the Turner Diaries, a racist and anti-Semitic novel depicting a civil war against the U.S. government that inspired McVeigh and other extremists.

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