'It would lay this city to waste:' Catonsville woman conspired with neo-Nazi leader to destroy Baltimore power grid, FBI says
By Ava-joye Burnett,
BALTIMORE -- A Catonsville woman and a Florida man with neo-Nazi ties have been arrested and charged with conspiring to attack Baltimore's power grid, the FBI and local officials announced Monday.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel was allegedly recorded telling an FBI informant her plans to shoot energy substations in Norrisville, Reisterstown, Perry Hall, and Baltimore City. She is accused of collaborating with Brandon Russell, the founding member of an Orlando-based neo-Nazi group called the "Atomwaffen."
Bomb-making materials were discovered during a 2017 murder investigation involving Russell's roommate in Tampa, Devon Arthurs, who fatally shot two other roommates . Russell wasn't home at the time of the shooting.
Russell was on supervised release when in June 2022, he began encouraging an FBI source in an encrypted messenger app to attack substations, according to a criminal complaint.
In January, Russell put the FBI source in touch with Clendaniel, saying the woman was a felon who was struggling to buy new weapons. The two allegedly began communicating in 2018, when they were imprisoned in separate locations.
"The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals," said Thomas Sobocinski, special agent in charge of the FBI Baltimore field office.
Russell allegedly provided instructions and location information to Clendaniel, and described attacking the power transformers as "the greatest thing somebody can do."
In a conversation between the source and Clendaniel, she said she had a terminal illness and was unlikely to live more than a few more months. Officials said she tried to plan the attack and coordinate the purchase of weapons with the source over a phone call.
In her own words, Clendaniel said the attack "would lay this city to waste," according to Sobocinski.
The FBI also obtained a "manifesto" by Clendaniel that allegedly references Adolf Hitler and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
In late December four power substations were vandalized in the Tacoma area of Washington, knocking out power to more than 14,000 customers.
In a statement, BGE and Exelon thanked the FBI for its work and mentioned efforts to prevent attacks on the power grid.
"In the last decade, we have increased our level of investment on grid hardening capital projects, and monitoring and surveillance technologies to work to prevent both physical and cyber-attacks," the companies said. "We remain focused on improving the resiliency of the grid by stocking critical back-up equipment while designing a smarter grid that isolates damage and routes power around it. "
Officials believe Russell started a local neo-nazi group as part of a larger organization with cells in multiple states. According to the criminal complaint, the group's targets include racial minorities, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, journalists, the U.S. Government and vital infrastructure.
"The arrests remind us that extremist hate and domestic terrorism remain an ongoing and growing threat to our communities. Similarly, we have seen a steady rise in antisemitic incidents here in Maryland and across our nation," The Baltimore Jewish Council said in a statement.
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