Two people charged with conspiracy to damage energy facilities – a neo-Nazi leader and a woman with whom he had a personal relationship – allegedly planned to attack electrical substations encircling Baltimore and “completely destroy” the entire city, according to federal court documents.
The Justice Department has charged Brandon Clint Russell and Sarah Beth Clendaniel with conspiracy to damage energy facilities, alleging that the Maryland-focused plot was driven by ethnically or racially motivated extremist beliefs.
They “conspired to inflict maximum harm on the power grid,” Tom Sobocinski, who heads the FBI’s field office in Baltimore, said during a news conference Monday. “The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals.”
The charges come as domestic violence experts have warned that attempts by extremist groups to attack power facilities are trending up.
Clendaniel made her initial appeared in federal court in downtown Baltimore Monday afternoon before District Court Judge Richard Collins. Sitting in the courtroom before the hearing, Clendaniel read parts of the criminal complaint against her, shaking her head as she flipped through several pages.
Kirstin Hopkins, Clendaniel’s court-appointed attorney, consented to the government’s request to keep Clendaniel detained pending further hearings. Clendaniel is expected to enter a plea during a future court appearance. A preliminary hearing in her case is scheduled for February 15.
Russell made his initial appearance in a federal courthouse in Florida on Monday. He will remain detained pending further hearings and his case has been committed to the District of Maryland.
Hopkins declined CNN’s request for comment on Clendaniel’s case and an attorney for Russell has not been listed on the court’s public docket.
In a recorded voice conversation last month, Clendaniel allegedly told the FBI source that targeting the facilities would “completely destroy this whole city.” She and Russell allegedly sent the source information about the facilities, and according to the charging papers, Russell sent the source a YouTube video about a recent substation attack in North Carolina.
The FBI also obtained a document allegedly written by Clendaniel that authorities say resembles a manifesto. In it, she allegedly references Hitler, as well as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the perpetrator of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway.
Russell, according to the the charging documents, ascribes to having neo-Nazi beliefs and had started his own local National Socialist Group.
Before allegedly conspiring to attack the Maryland power grid, authorities say he had plotted with his roommates in Florida to attack energy facilities there. That alleged plot was revealed during an investigation into the 2017 murder of two of Russell’s roommates by another roommate.
Law enforcement officials at Monday’s news conference described Russell and Clendaniel as having both a personal and online relationship, but did not elaborate further.
The Justice Department says that Russell, allegedly under the username “Homunculus,” has been in contact with the FBI’s source since at least June of last year. Homunculus allegedly made several statements to the source throughout 2022 about attacking critical infrastructure.
At one point, as Homunculus and the source discussed Mylar balloons, Homunculus allegedly said that “putting holes in transformers though is the greatest thing somebody can do,” and he allegedly floated other ideas to the source about attacking electrical substations.
Clendaniel, said to be going by the username “Nythra88” and “Kali1889,” introduced herself to the FBI’s confidential source last month, according to the charging papers. She allegedly told the source she wanted “to accomplish something worthwhile,” before she died of a terminal illness, as she sought help obtaining firearms.
The source discussed the plans with Homunculus for Clendaniel to participate in an attack on energy facilities, and the source also taped a nearly two-hour voice conversation he had with Clendaniel on January 24 about the plot, according to the charging papers.
In a separate conversation five days later, Clendaniel told the source in a recorded voice conversation that the targets were facilities surrounding Baltimore.
Corresponding behind bars
Clendaniel and Russell had been corresponding since at least 2018 while both were serving time behind bars in separate prisons, according to the charging documents.
Russell was sentenced to 60 months in prison in January 2018 after pleading guilty to possession of an unregistered device and improper storage of explosive materials.
In that case, according to court documents, Russell’s roommate at the time told authorities that he was the leader of a neo-Nazi group to which their two other roommates belonged and that they were planning to attack US infrastructure, including a nuclear power plant and power lines along the part of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley.
The roommate was being interviewed by authorities after he had killed the two other roommates because, he said, they bullied him for converting from neo-Nazi beliefs to Islam, court documents show.
Russell served his time in the explosive materials case and was on supervised release at the time of his arrest in the newly announced case against him.
For her part, Clendaniel’s record includes a 2006 arrest on several offenses, including armed robbery at a convenience store where she wielded a large butcher knife, according to court documents. She was sentenced to five years in prison.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of a 2011 terrorist attack that took place in Norway. This story also has been updated with additional details and developments.