Believing she had months to live due to a terminal illness, a Catonsville woman and neo-Nazi sympathizer decided she wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” and planned to destroy energy facilities surrounding Baltimore that would “permanently, completely lay this city to waste,” the FBI said.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, has been charged with conspiring with a neo-Nazi leader in Florida, Brandon Clint Russell, 27, who authorities say encouraged attacks that would cause a “cascading failure” of the energy grid.
Clendaniel was recorded telling an FBI source on Jan. 29 that she planned to shoot up energy substations ringing the Baltimore area, including in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall, and sought to acquire firearms to carry out the attacks, according to court documents.
The special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore field office, Thomas J. Sobocinski, said Clendaniel and Russell “were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals.”
He said such attacks “threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses.”
“These plans were stopped thanks to the swift action and collaboration of our federal, state and local law enforcement partners,” said Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron, referring to the plot as “hate-fueled violence.”
Exelon said in a statement that they had been notified that the disrupted plot targeted several BGE electric substations with gunfire.
“Law enforcement acted before the perpetrators were able to carry out their plan, and there was no damage to any of the substations, nor was any service disrupted,” the statement said. “The substations are not believed to have been targeted out of any connection to BGE or Exelon, or because of any particular vulnerability.”
Over the last three months, at least nine substations have been attacked in Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington state, cutting power to tens of thousands of people and underscoring the vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid. Federal regulators have ordered a review of security standards, while some state lawmakers in at least two states have begun proposing new rules.
Sobocinski said there was no indication that Russell or Clendaniel were part of a network connected to the attacks in other states.
Clendaniel was ordered detained at a brief hearing Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court. She was brought into the courtroom in street clothes and no shoes, her hands cuffed from behind. She quietly flipped through the charging document. Her court-appointed public defender declined to comment.
Russell, a former student of nuclear physics at the University of South Florida and a Florida Army National Guardsman, has been on the radar for federal law enforcement since at least 2017, when one of his roommates in Tampa, Florida killed two of their roommates, the FBI said in court papers. During a search of the home at the time, authorities found an explosive device and neo-Nazi materials belonging to Russell.
Russell admitted to being a member of the Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi group that he founded and led, according to court records. On his dresser, authorities found a framed picture of Timothy McVeigh.
The roommate charged in the killings told law enforcement that they had been planning to attack U.S. infrastructure, including power lines along the Interstate 75 corridor in South Florida as well as a Florida nuclear power plant.
Russell pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered destruction device and was sentenced in 2018 to five years in federal prison. He was released from custody in August 2021.
In court papers, the FBI said a source told them that since at least June 2022 someone using an encrypted communication app — who authorities have since said they determined was Russell — was encouraging attacks on electrical substations and providing guidance on how to cause maximum damage. During one conversation with the source, Russell said that “putting holes in transformers ... is the greatest thing somebody can do.”
Russell said at one point that he knew someone in Maryland plotting such an attack, and connected the source with Clendaniel, the FBI said. Clendaniel said she had a terminal illness related to her kidneys, and was looking to “accomplish something worthwhile” before June. She sent a “wish list” of rifles and firearms that she wanted to acquire, according to the complaint. She said she already had hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
She and the source discussed scoping out potential attack sites during the first week of February, and she sent links to infrastructure maps showing the locations of five specific electrical substations, the FBI said.
Authorities say Clendaniel and Russell have been communicating since at least 2018 when they were incarcerated in separate facilities. In some correspondence, they had discussed having children together.
After executing a search warrant on Google accounts used by Clendaniel, the FBI found a written document allegedly written by her that referenced the Unabomber and Hitler. “I would sacrifice **everything** for my people to just have a chance for our cause to succeed,” it said.
Clendaniel was previously arrested in a string of robberies in 2016 in Cecil County, in which police said she wielded a machete and made off with cash and cigarettes. Court records indicate she received a sentence of nine years, and three years of probation. Prior to that, in 2006, she received three years in jail, while pregnant, for robbing a convenience store where she had worked four days earlier until she was fired, according to a report at the time from the Cecil Whig.
In between, state and federal court records show, she lived in Iowa, where she was twice arrested including for allegedly taking part in a 2013 burglary outside Des Moines in which a gun and ammunition were taken. A co-defendant’s case went federal, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. A relative of Clendaniel filed for custody of a child in 2017, and Clendaniel and that man were listed as defendants.
Clendaniel and Russell are charged with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility, a charge that brings a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison.