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'It would lay this city to waste:' Catonsville woman conspired with neo-Nazi leader to destroy Baltimore power grid, FBI says

FBI: Catonsville woman co-conspired to destroy Baltimore power grid
FBI: Catonsville woman co-conspired to destroy Baltimore power grid 02:10

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."

Russell was sentenced to five years in federal prison in 2018 for charges associated with having explosives in his apartment's garage. Federal prosecutors said he planned to use the explosives to harm civilians, nuclear facilities and synagogues. 

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. 


The arrests come about two months after someone opened fire on a substation in North Carolina, knocking out power to some 45,000 people. According to the charging papers, Russell sent the FBI source a YouTube video about the attack.

The "deliberate" attack raised concerns about the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid to sabotage, as many substations are protected by little more than chainlink fences.  

Officials are saying there is not any evidence suggesting these two cases are related, however. 

Russell allegedly co-founded a local neo-Nazi cell of the Atomwaffen, which has chapters 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. It was restructured and renamed the National Socialist Order in 2020. 

"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. 

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. "

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