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Two men charged over Christmas substation attacks in Washington state

While surveillance footage of the suspects proved useful, prosecutors say it was their Gmail account names that gave them away.

(CN) — Court records unsealed Tuesday revealed federal prosecutors have charged two men for a series of substation attacks in Pierce County, Washington, that left thousands without power on Christmas Day.

On New Year’s Eve, the FBI and local law enforcement executed an arrest warrant for Puyallup residents Matthew Greenwood, 32, and Jeremy Crahan, 40, who face federal charges of conspiracy to damage energy facilities. Greenwood is also accused of possessing an unregistered firearm.

The arrests follow attacks on two energy substations in Puget Sound and two in Tacoma that left many residents without power on Christmas Day and potentially caused millions of dollars in damages.

According to the unsealed criminal complaint, the attacks began in the early morning – first with the Hemlock station – temporarily causing power outages for around 8,000 Puget Sound Energy customers. By 5:30 a.m., a second substation, Tacoma Power's Elk Plain substation, was hit, followed by a third, the Graham substation, at 6 a.m., causing 7,500 Tacoma customers to temporarily lose power. Later that day, the Kapowsin substation, located southeast from the three other substations, was hit, bringing the total to four.

The next day, Puget Sound Energy reported the vandalism to the FBI while Tacoma Power provided agents with surveillance footage at the Elk Plain substation. Photos from the complaint indicate surveillance provided useful identifiers of the suspects' clothing and truck. However, it was the examination of cellphone records that gave the suspects' identities away, as investigators were able to identify two phones in vicinity of each of the four substations at the time of the attacks. The phones were linked to Google email addresses with identifiable names.

Using names from the Gmail accounts, the FBI says it pieced together that Crahan was the registered owner of a 1999 Dodge pickup truck that matched surveillance footage provided by Tacoma Power. According to the complaint, Pierce County sheriff's deputies stopped the same truck on Dec. 3 for driving without a license plate in Elk Plain, Washington. Greenwood and Crahan were both in the car.

From that point until the time of their arrest, both suspects were under FBI surveillance, the complaint states. Last Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Christel authorized a search warrant for Greenwood's and Crahan’s residences along with their vehicles, where agents found two guns and clothing matching surveillance footage.

In a post-arrest statement to law enforcement, Greenwood reportedly said he and Crahan disrupted power to steal cash from the registers of local businesses. The veracity of those claims were not addressed in the complaint.

The substation attacks in Pierce County follow a series of attacks on energy facilities elsewhere in the U.S. Last month, a gunfire attack on two substations in North Carolina left thousands without power, while Portland General Electric in Oregon confirmed an attack on a Clackamas substation in late November.

In January 2022, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning that extremist groups in the U.S. have been planning to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020. According to the Associated Press, the report warned that extremists of many ideologies will likely continue to plot and encourage attacks on the nation's energy infrastructure, which includes over 6,400 power plants and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines across the U.S. However, experts say this would be difficult to do nationwide due to “the size and decentralized nature of the grid," the AP report states.

Both Greenwood and Crahan will appear in Tacoma federal court on Tuesday. Prosecutors have asked that they remained detained at the Federal Detention Center at SeaTac pending future hearings, according to U.S. Attorney Nick Brown in the Western District of Washington.

“I commend the work by the FBI to quickly identify these suspects and disrupt any future attacks on the east Pierce County power grid,” Brown said in a statement. “We have seen attacks such as these increase in Western Washington and throughout the country and must treat each incident seriously.  The outages on Christmas left thousands in the dark and cold and put some who need power for medical devices at extreme risk.”

The FBI is continuing to investigate the case with assistance from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, Tacoma Police Department, the Washington State Department of Corrections and the Federal Protective Service.

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Categories / Criminal, Energy, Regional

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