Friday, March 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Neo-Nazi leader, Maryland woman charged with conspiracy to destroy energy facilities

Authorities say Brandon Russell is the leader of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen, which has previously planned to target critical infrastructure in the United States.

BALTIMORE (CN) — Federal prosecutors announced charges Monday against the leader of a neo-Nazi group from Florida who they say had plotted with his girlfriend to destroy electrical substations in the Baltimore area.

The federal complaint was unsealed Monday in Baltimore, charging Brandon Russell, 27, of Orlando, and Sarah Clendaniel, 34, of Catonsville, Maryland, with conspiracy to damage an energy facility. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors say Clendaniel was recorded telling an FBI informant about the plan less than two weeks ago, stating that there was a ring of substations around Baltimore that, should a number of them get hit all in the same day, “would completely destroy this whole city.” Clendaniel also told the informant she was dying of kidney failure and wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” before her death, according to charging papers.

Russell is a former member of the Florida National Guard who founded the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen, which has been recognized by U.S. law enforcement as a racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist group with cells in several states.

In 2017, Russell’s roommate, Devon Arthurs, murdered two of their other roommates and told the FBI that Russell was the leader of the neo-Nazi group to which they both belonged, and that they planned to attack U.S. infrastructure in Florida, including power lines and a nuclear power plant. Russell was subsequently charged with and pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered destructive device and improper storage of explosive materials and was sentenced to five years in prison. Having concluded that sentence, Russell is now on supervised release.

The government says Russell began corresponding with Clendaniel while he was incarcerated in Florida in 2018 and she was incarcerated at different facilities. It is unclear what offense had put Clendaniel behind bars five years ago, but the complaint notes that she has a 2006 felony conviction for armed robbery of a convenience store with a machete.

“Going to prison was worth it because I might not have met you otherwise,” Russell said in one text to Clendaniel quoted by the government.

The pair allegedly conspired to carry out the attack against critical infrastructure to further Russell’s neo-Nazi beliefs.

Prosecutors say the plot involved using gunfire to attack five electrical substations that service the Baltimore area, including in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall.

Since at least June 2022, authorities say Russell was posting links to open-source maps of infrastructure in Baltimore and talked about how a small number of attacks on substations could cause a “cascading failure."

The complaint quotes Clendaniel as stating to an FBI informant on Jan. 29 that a “good four or five shots through the center” of the substations “would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste.”

Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron said in a statement on Monday that “this planned attack threatened lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders in the cold and dark.”

Russell is expected to make his initial appearance Monday afternoon in Orlando Federal Court, and Clendaniel is expected to appear in Baltimore Federal Court.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.