WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials have arrested two people accused of conspiring to “completely destroy Baltimore” in what they described on Monday as a racist plot to demolish the power grid in a predominantly Black city.
Sarah Clendaniel, 27, of Catonsville, Md., and Brandon Russell, 34, of Orlando, Fla., planned to inflict “maximum harm” by targeting facilities operated by Baltimore Gas and Electric, which serves 1.2 million customers in central Maryland, according to a complaint filed in federal court.
While prosecutors suggested the arrests did not appear linked to recent attacks on the electrical grid in North Carolina, Washington State and Oregon, Mr. Russell is active in a neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen that discussed attacks on electrical and nuclear facilities in Florida in 2017. He was released last August from federal prison after a conviction for bomb making.
“Russell provided instructions and location information,” Thomas J. Sobocinski, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s field office in Baltimore, said at a news conference. “He described attacking the power transformers as the greatest thing somebody can do.”
Ms. Clendaniel, who was responsible for carrying out the attacks, boasted that she wanted to “lay this city to waste,” Mr. Sobocinski said, adding that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies disrupted the plot before it could be carried out.
The charges came a few days after the F.B.I. offered two $25,000 rewards for information on those responsible for shooting and damaging two substations in Moore County, N.C., on Dec. 3 and for targeting another substation in Randolph County, N.C., on Jan. 17. The attack in Moore County caused 45,000 people to lose power, some for five days.
In December, Mr. Russell used encrypted messaging apps to detail his long-term plans to attack the electrical grid, telling a confidential F.B.I. informant that he had recruited Ms. Clendaniel — who had served three years for robbing a convenience store with a butcher’s knife — as a possible accomplice.
Ms. Clendaniel said that striking all five, in rapid succession, with a “good four or five shots,” would “completely destroy this whole city” by setting off a cascade of power failures, and prompting a wave of destructive civil disturbances, according to the complaint.
The communications from Ms. Clendaniel veer from grandiose predictions about the plot to jarring details of her personal and physical travails.
Prosecutors obtained a photograph of Ms. Clendaniel trying to appear fearsome in a death’s-head mask that covered her mouth and nose, as she held a semiautomatic rifle and brandished a holstered 9-millimeter pistol.
But just last month, Ms. Clendaniel confided to the informant that she had a terminal kidney ailment and did not expect to live more than a few months and wanted to accomplish “something worthwhile” before she died.
To her, that meant destroying Baltimore, prosecutors said.
Ms. Clendaniel told associates she had identified several potential locations near the Delaware state line, including one substation that was “literally like a life artery.” But she also said she had trouble finding a suitable weapon, had just obtained a driver’s license and was nervous about driving herself to the attack sites in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall.
Mr. Russell, who began an email correspondence with Ms. Clendaniel when both were behind bars, advised her to carry out an attack “when there is greatest strain on the grid,” like “when everyone is using electricity to either heat or cool their homes,” prosecutors said.
He also provided Ms. Clendaniel with publicly available information about B.G.E.’s facilities, according to the complaint.
There is “no indication” the Maryland plot was related to other attacks or plans, Mr. Sobocinski said on Monday.
The charges came as researchers and homeland security officials have warned that the energy grid, and electrical substations in particular, has become a popular target for far-right extremists.
From 2016 to 2022, white supremacist plots targeting energy systems “dramatically increased in frequency,” according to a study released in September by researchers at the program on extremism at George Washington University
Over that period, 13 people associated with white supremacist movements were charged in federal courts with planning attacks on the energy sector, the study said, and 11 of those defendants were charged after 2020.
In February 2022, three men pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to a planned attack on substations after 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,” the Justice Department said.
That same month, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin warned that domestic violent extremists had recently aspired to disrupt electrical and communications systems as “a means to create chaos and advance ideological goals.”