A federal criminal complaint was unsealed charging Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, of Catonsville, Maryland, and Brandon Clint Russell, 27, of Orlando, Florida, with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility.
The defendants were arrested on Feb. 3. Clendaniel made her initial court appearance Monday in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brendan Hurson. Russell made his initial appearance Monday in U.S. District Court in Orlando, Florida, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Embry Kidd.
“Driven by their ideology of racially-motivated hatred, the defendants allegedly schemed to attack local power grid facilities,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen. “The Justice Department will not tolerate those who threaten critical infrastructure and imperil communities in the name of domestic violent extremism.”
“This alleged planned attack threatened lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders in the cold and dark,” said U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron for the District of Maryland. “We are united and committed to using every legal means necessary to disrupt violence, including hate-fueled attacks.”
“Attacks on multiple electrical substations in Maryland would have caused suffering to thousands of Americans going about their everyday lives, but the FBI and our partners put a stop to that threat,” said Assistant Director Robert R. Wells of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “According to the criminal complaint, the defendants allegedly were taking specific steps to carry out their plans, including selecting targets and trying to illegally acquire a rifle. The FBI and our partners will hold accountable all those who commit criminal acts that threaten the safety of those in our communities, regardless of their motivations.”
“The threat posed by domestic violent extremists is evolving and persistent,” said Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobocinski of the FBI Baltimore Field Office. “The FBI will continue to work closely with our law enforcement and private sector partners to identify and disrupt any potential threat to the safety of our citizens.”
As alleged in the affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint:
From at least June 2022 to the present, Russell conspired to carry out attacks against critical infrastructure, specifically electrical substations, in furtherance of Russell’s racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist beliefs. As alleged, Russell encouraged the use Mylar balloons to short out a power transformer and, in a conversation on Oct. 25, 2022, Russell encouraged an attack be carried out “when there is greatest strain on the grid,” like “when everyone is using electricity to either heat or cool their homes.”
In his conversations on encrypted communications applications, Russell posted links to open-source maps of infrastructure, which included the locations of electrical substations, and he described how a small number of attacks on substations could cause a “cascading failure.” Russell also discussed maximizing the impact of the planned attack by hitting multiple substations at one time.
A Maryland-based woman identified as Sarah Beth Clendaniel, collaborated on a plan to carry out the attacks. Specifically, Clendaniel discussed her desired rifle for the attack. In later conversations, Clendaniel allegedly stated that if they hit a number of electrical substations all in the same day, they “would completely destroy this whole city,” and that a “good four or five shots through the center of them . . . should make that happen.” She further added, “[i]t would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully.”
If convicted, Russell and Clendaniel each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for conspiracy to damage an energy facility.