Sarah Clendaniel & Brandon Russell: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

sarah clendaniel brandon russell

Pinellas County Sheriff/Maryland State Police Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel were arrested on federal charges after the FBI said they plotted to attack the Baltimore power grid.

Sarah Clendaniel and Brandon Russell are a couple accused of plotting to attack the Baltimore power grid, federal prosecutors in Maryland said in a criminal complaint unsealed on February 6, 2023.

Russell is the founder of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division group, prosecutors said. According to the FBI, Clendaniel and Russell met while they were both serving time in separate prisons. Russell was sentenced to five years in prison on explosives charges, while Clendaniel was accused of carrying out a spree of robberies while armed with a machete, court records show.

“Clendaniel and Russell conspired and took steps to shoot multiple electrical substations in the Baltimore aiming to ‘Completely destroy this whole city,'” U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Erek Barron said at a press conference. “But these plans were stopped thanks to the swift action and collaboration of our federal, state and local law enforcement partners. Together we are using every legal means necessary to keep Marylanders safe and to disrupt hate-fueled violence. When we are united, hate cannot win.”

Thomas Sobocinski, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore field office, said at the press conference, “Marylanders can rest assured that a threat to disrupt their daily lives by attacking the power grid has been stopped. As alleged in the complaint, Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Russell conspired to inflict maximum harm on the power grid, a key component of our critical infrastructure. The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals.”

Sobocinski said about Clendaniel and Russell, “We know that they had a personal as well as online relationship.” According to the criminal complaint, they began communicating in 2018. They were both arrested “late last week,” Sobocinski said, one in Florida and one in Maryland. They are charged with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility, a charge that carries a potential of five years in prison, court records show. The FBI said they were plotting sniper attacks on at least five substations in the Baltimore area.

Russell, 27, originally of Florida, was serving in the National Guard when he was arrested in 2017 after police found explosives in his Tampa apartment, according to prosecutors. His arrest came after his roommate, Devon Arthurs, was charged with fatally shooting their two other roommates, Jeremy Himmelman and Andrew Oneshuk. All four were members of the Atomwaffen Division, according to prosecutors. Arthurs is still awaiting trial in that murder case, court records show. Russell was released from custody on August 23, 2021, but is still on federal probation, online records show.

Clendaniel, 34, of Catonsville, was arrested in Maryland in 2016 after she and a 59-year-old man were accused of robbing convenience stores while wielding a machete, court records show. Clendaniel pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to serve nine years in prison, Maryland court records show. It was not immediately clear when she was released from prison, but she was eligible for parole, records show. Clendaniel was previously sentenced to three years in prison in 2006 after she was caught robbing a convenience store with a butcher knife while pregnant, the Cecil Whig reported.

Here’s what you need to know about Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Clint Russell:

1. Brandon Russell Described Attacking Power Transformers as ‘the Greatest Thing Somebody Could Do’ & Sarah Clendaniel Said She Was ‘Determined to Do This,’ Saying It ‘Would Lay This City to Waste,’ the FBI Says

FBI Special Agent in Charge Thomas Sobocinski said at the press conference that Russell had “provided instructions and location information. He described attacking the power transformers as ‘the greatest thing somebody could do.’ In her own words, Clendaniel said she was ‘determined to do this.’ She added, ‘It would lay this city to waste.'”

He said, “Their actions threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses. Identifying and disrupting terrorist plots, both foreign and domestic, is one of the FBI’s top priorities. Constant teamwork with our partners helped detect the scheme and stopped this threat. … To those extremists looking to disrupt society and cause chaos in our communities, we will not allow, nor will we tolerate this. We work every day to mitigate these threats, including those to our critical infrastructure, and identify those criminals seeking to inflict harm.”

When asked what the impact of the attack would have been if they were successful, Sobocinski told reporters, “The FBI believes this was a real threat. Our hope that it would have been minimal, but we couldn’t be able to tell you what that result would have looked like.”

Barron added, “We hope today’s charges make clear that the United States Attorney’s Office and our community and law enforcement partners remain vigilant in protecting all Marylanders. I want to thank the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore County Police Department for their excellent work.” He said the Department of Justice’s National Security Division along with the FBI and prosecutors in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., also assisted in the case.

It was not immediately clear if Clendaniel and Russell have hired attorneys who could comment on their behalf. They were scheduled to make their first court appearences in Baltimore federal court on February 6, records showed.

According to the criminal complaint, Russell was using the name “Homunculus” on an encrypted communication app in June 2022 and began talking with an FBI informant. He “encouraged” the informant “to attack electrical substations,” and said sniper attacks could cause a “cascading failure,” the FBI said. He also encouraged the informatn to “read a white supremacist publication that provided instructions to attack critical infrastructure” and said the informant could “use Mylar baloons to short out a power transformer,” saying, “putting holes in transformers though is the greatest thing somebody could do.”

The FBI wrote in the complaint about a conversation between the confidential human source (CHS) and Russell:

On November 5, 2022, Homunculus asked CHS-1 if it was snowing in CHS-1’s area yet and added: ‘i think you should wait until like a week after it starts snowing for that other thing we talked about.’ CHS-1 reported that the ‘other thing’ was a reference to an attack on an electrical substation. Homunculus also stated that the ‘goal is for when most people are using max electricity’ and that ‘follow on [attacks] could lead to cascading failure costing billions of dollars.’ CHS-1 replied with an emoji of a shocked rubber duck.

The FBI said Russell asked the informant to “colloborate” with a “Maryland-based woman to carry out the attacks,” a reference to Clendaniel. According to the complaint, Russell told the informant Clendaniel was “100 percent ‘serious and can be trusted,'” and described her as a “felon” who “had their weapon stolen” and was “struggling to obtain a new weapon.”

2. Clendaniel, Who Wrote a Manifesto, Told an FBI Informant She Had a Terminal Illness & Wanted to ‘Accomplish Something Worthwhile’ Before Her Death, Prosecutors Say

sarah beth clendaniel

US DOJA photo of Sarah Beth Clendaniel included in the prosecutor’s criminal complaint.

Clendaniel, using the name Nythra88 on an app, began talking to the same informant in January 2023, the FBI said in the criminal complaint, after Russell told the informant to work with her. According to the complaint, Clendaniel told the FBI informant she had a “terminal illness related to her kidneys and was unlikely to live more than a few months.”

Clendaniel, who also used the username “kali1889,” told the informant she wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” before she died and wanted help getting a rifle in the coming weeks so she could “accomplish as much as possible” before June 2023. The FBI wrote in the criminal complaint that they found a document in her Google records that appeared to be a manifesto that referenced “Unabomber” Ted Kacynski, Adolf Hitler and far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2012 mass shooting:

The Google records also contained screenshots of a document that states that it is not a manifesto; however, the FBI assesses that it contains many aspects that would be included in a manifesto. The document starts: ‘If this is being posted online, I can only hope that some of my plans were at least partially successful.’

The document references Kaczynski, Brevic, Hitler and others while stating that
‘I would sacrifice **everything** for my people to just have a chance for our cause to succeed.’ The document later states: ‘Unfortunately, I have very little experience with firearms. But once I get my license, I hope to get at least a couple hours of practice in . . . What a shame I don’t have a rifle yet. This storm would be the perfect time to hit some substations and knock out power.’

In a message to the informant talking about the weapons they would need, the FBI said Clendaniel wrote, it “would really be ideal, for us both to have 30 round mags. Especially for what we’re doing. {lease get us each like, 4 of them. For what I’m hoping to do, we will need them. If we can pull off what I’m hoping… this would be legendary. This is MAJOR tier, and definitely doable.”

According to a 2016 report by WMAR, a machete-wielding Clendaniel demanded cash and cigarettes when she robbed a convenience store in Cecil County, Maryland. She was later arrested by Maryland State Police. She was linked to three other armed robbery cases, the news station reported.

In 2006, the Cecil Whig reported Clendaniel was sentenced on charges related to an armed robbery of a store where she had previously worked. She also stole items from a pawn shop, according to the report. She was pregnant at the time, the newspaper reported.

“Clendaniel’s lawyer, assistant public defender Bonnie G. Schneider, asked for local incarceration after reporting that her client is hampered by ‘mental health issues.’ Clendaniel had been institutionalized in the past, Schneider said,” the Cecil Whig wrote. “Schneider also reported that Clendaniel, whose pregnancy is considered high-risk anyway, is taking methadone.”

3. Russell Had a Framed Photo of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh on His Dresser, Along With Neo-Nazi & White Supremacist Literature, Guns, Ammo & Military Gear Featuring the Atomwaffen Logo in His Apartment When He Was Arrested in 2017, the FBI Says

brandon russell, devon arthurs, brandon russell oden, brandon russell atomwaffen

US DOJBrandon Russell and Devon Arthurs posted this photo, with their faces covered through Photoshop, on a neo-Nazi message board in 2016. They were both members of the Atomwaffen group.

According to court documents, Russell was not home at the time his two roommates were killed by their other roommate because he was on National Guard duty. He was later arrested in Key Largo, Florida, after leaving the Tampa area, with two rifles he bought just before he was taken into custody, according to prosecutors.

When investigators searched Russell’s room in his apartment they found “neo-Nazi paraphernalia, a picture of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the high explosive hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (‘HMTD’) and, among other items, numerous explosive precursors,” according to court documents. They also found white supremacist literature, guns, ammunition and military gear featuring the Atomwaffen logo.

Prosecutors said Russell admitted to subscribing to Nazi beliefs and said he started his own group, the “Atomwaffen,” which is German for atomic weapons. In the criminal complaint from his 2023 arrest, the FBI said, the group is known to be a “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist group with cells in multiple states.”

The FBI added in the complaint, “The group’s targets have included the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the United States government, journalists and criticual infrastructure. AWD reportedly has international ties. Since the arrest of Russell and other AWD members, the AWD has renamed itself the National Socialist Order.”

In the 2023 criminal complaint, the FBI wrote, “Devon Arthurs was arrested and charged with murdering his two roommates. Arthurs was interviewed by law enforcement agents, and he stated that he had recently converted from Neo-Nazi beliefs to Islam. Arthurs stated that he murdered his roommates because they bullied him over being a Muslim.”

The FBI added, “Arthurs said that Russell was the leader of the Neo-Nazi group to which he and his roommates had belonged. Arthurs stated that, before he killed his roommates, they had been planning to attack U.S. infrastructure, including power lines along ‘Alligator Alley’ (a nickname for the part of Interstate 75 that crosses South Florida) as well as a Florida nuclear power plant.”

Prosecutors said in a press release in 2018:

During a search of the residence, law enforcement officers discovered a cooler in the garage containing the explosive HMTD (Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine), along with various other explosive precursors, multiple pounds of ammonium nitrate, nitro-methane, empty shell casings, fuses and electric matches in close proximity.

In Russell’s bedroom, officers found neo-Nazi and white supremacist propaganda, including a framed picture of Timothy McVeigh on his dresser. Russell’s closet contained his own military uniform, firearms and ammunition, and camouflage military-type gear containing the name and symbols of ‘Atomwaffen.’ Law enforcement officers also located various books, military gear and flags throughout the apartment that are commonly associated with white supremacist extremist organizations.

Upon questioning, Russell admitted that he had manufactured the HMTD located in the garage and that the explosive precursors belonged to him. He also admitted to being a member of the ‘Atomwaffen.’ The following day, Russell was arrested on federal criminal charges in Key Largo, where he was found with two long rifles and ammunition that he had purchased after leaving the Tampa area.

Russell served in the Army National Guard prior to his arrest, according to court documents. He was found outside of his apartment in his Guard uniform when police arrived on the day of the murders, May 19, 2017, and told them he had found his roommates dead, according to court documents. When he was being questioned, he said he wanted to go see his father in West Palm Beach, but then disappeared, prosecutors said.

“The following morning, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office arrested Russell while he was inside a restaurant in Key Largo. FBI agents took Russell
into custody and advised him of his rights. Russell described coming home and finding his roommates murdered. Russell advised that he had been friends with the victims for about a year. He stated that he and Arthurs had known each other for about three or four years and had met in an online chat room,” prosecutors wrote. “When asked what the chat room was about, Russell described it as ‘about world events’ and said that the United States is not the only place that matters in the world.”

Prosecutors added, “Russell’s friend advised that early on May 20, Russell had arrived at the friend’s house in Bradenton, Florida, wearing his military uniform. Russell told his friend about the murders and said that he wanted to get away and clear his head. Russell’s friend grabbed clothes, his life savings of $3,000, and quit his job on the way out of town. Russell’s friend told agents that he thought he might not return home. He thought that he and Russell were initially going to Russell’s father’s house in West Palm Beach, but as they got closer Russell changed his mind because he thought law enforcement might be looking for him. According to Russell’s friend, they had no specific destination in mind and had no plans to hurt anyone or do any harm. As they traveled south, the pair stopped at a sporting goods store where Russell purchased the firearms and ammunition (allegedly for self-defense).”

Prosecutors wrote, “The fact that Russell lied about going to see his father and was found in Key Largo (at a restaurant and not his final destination), with long rifles and ammunition that he purchased less than 24 hours after being interviewed by the FBI, camouflage gear, and a skull mask, shows the character of someone prepared to follow-through with his violent ideology when called to arms.”

4. While Awaiting Sentecing, Russell Shared a Quote in a Letter Saying, ‘I Don’t Care HOW Long You Put Me in Jail, Your Honor, … As Soon as I Get Out, I Will Go Right Back to Fight for My White Race & My America’

Russell pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered destructive device in Florida federal court in 2017 and was sentenced in January 2018 to 60 months in prison along with three years of supervised release, according to court documents.

Ahead of his sentencing, a letter Russell intended to send to someone outside of jail included a quote from a 16-year-old Nazi who told a judge in 1962, “I don’t care HOW long you put me in jail, your Honor, … as soon as I get out, I will go right back to fight for my White Race and my America,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing in the 2017 case while asking for him to serve 11 years in prison, the maximum possible sentence.

In the court filing, prosecutors wrote, “The night of the murders, Russell voluntarily spoke with law enforcement. He admitted to making the HMTD found in the garage. He claimed that he had been a member of an engineering club at the University of South Florida and that the HMTD was for setting off model rockets and balloons. Notably, officers found nothing in the apartment related to model rockets, and USF officials advised the FBI that at no time did the club use explosive material. Russell further stated he had made the HMTD over a year ago but had not gotten rid of it. He admitted to the possession of the ammonium nitrate and other precursors found in the garage, as well as the electric matches that could be used as initiators. Russell told officers that he just wanted to go to West Palm Beach to see his father.”

Prosecutors wrote, ” According to trained agents, the HMTD combined with the amount of ammonium nitrate and nitro methane found in the garage would create a bomb that could easily cause a vehicle to explode, killing all of the occupants and causing grave damage within a large distance around the explosion site. Russell knew exactly what he was making in his garage—he admitted to manufacturing the HMTD—and kept his mini-lab directly under his living space. Only a single wall separated the garage from unsuspecting third parties who also lived in the apartment complex. Russell showed not an ounce of concern for his own life, his roommates’ lives, or his neighbor’s lives.” They added:

Russell admitted in two separate interviews that he made the HMTD found in his residence and that the precursors and other materials that could be used to make a bomb belonged to him. Yet Russell still maintains, despite his guilty plea and other overwhelming evidence of his intent, that he did not intend to assemble a destructive device with these materials. A simple survey of the crime scene, coupled with Russell’s own admissions and actions, belies that assertion and demonstrates that Russell fails to accept responsibility for his actions.

The dangerousness of Russell’s conduct in this case cannot be understated. With respect to the nature and circumstances of the offense, the United States incorporates by reference the arguments made above in its request for an upward departure. Additionally, however, the evidence of Russell’s intent found inside his apartment, his conduct up through the time of his arrest, his lies to law enforcement, and his continued conduct while incarcerated show that Russell’s character is that of a person with an ideology that is paired with a call to violence.

Russell’s motivation, intent, and the danger that he poses is clear from one look at his bedroom. Russell’s bedroom has bare walls, a mattress, a lamp,
a dresser, and one single, solitary framed picture on his dresser—Timothy McVeigh, in his military uniform. In Russell’s closet, under his own military uniform, is a pile of camouflage military-type gear and clothing, gun cases, several firearms, and ammunition. The ‘Atomwaffen’ name and symbol have been drawn in black marker on some of the gear. In this case, an often-used quote says it best— ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Russell had a place of prominence for the picture of his idol, Timothy McVeigh, someone who turned his ideology into violent action. A photographic journey through Russell’s apartment—the backdrop of the murder scene—is a chilling confirmation of Russell’s intent to follow in the footsteps of his hero.

The first entry into the apartment reveals the prominent placement of the North Korean flag. Nearby, above the dining room table, hangs the Atomwaffen flag. The prominently displayed books on the living room shelves and table include, among others, multiple copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Musolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism, Hammer of the Patriot, The Turner Diaries (the same extremist book that influenced Timothy McVeigh and is known as a “bible” for extremists), Oswald Mosley’s My Life, Terrorism in Perspective, and World War 2 Waffen SS Solider Stories: Eyewitness accounts from Hitler’s Elite WW2.

Notably, peppered amongst these books are others such as Electronic Formulas, Symbols & Circuits, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, Oxford’s Dictionary of Science, A Field Guide to Radiation, U.S. Army Guide to Boobytraps, Atomic Physics, U.S. Army Improvised Munitions Handbook, and A Short History of Nuclear Folly. A short distance down the hall, in the bedroom where his roommates were murdered, hang a Confederate flag and the flag of the Azov Battalion, a special operations group of the Ukrainian Army which gained notoriety in recent years after being associated with torture and war crimes, as well a large portion of its members having Nazi sympathies and using associated symbols.

According to Rolling Stone, Russell was able to release a propaganda video from prison after his sentencing. The video thanked his supporters for their loyalty and named people he said betrayed their neo-Nazi group, Rolling Stone reported in 2018.

5. There Are Growing Concerns About Violent Extremist Attacks on Infrastructure, According to a Recent Report by the George Washington University Program on Extremism

The arrests of Russell and Clendaniel come after sniper-rifle attacks on power stations in North Carolina that left thousands of residents without power for several days in December 2022. The shootings that damaged two Duke Energy substations in Moore County have not been solved, according to authorities.

When asked if there was any connection to other attacks and plots, Sobocinski said at the press conference, “The FBI is aware of those and have disrupted several over the last few months. We have no indication that this was anything larger, but the investigation continues.”

Experts have warned of a growing threat to infrastructure, including the electrical grid, from violent extremist groups. The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report in September 2022 about the threat.

“While a variety of violent extremist movements have attempted to assault American critical infrastructure throughout modern history, the Department of Homeland Security and other national security authorities have recently sounded the alarm that U.S.-based violent extremists have developed ‘credible, specific plans’ to attack critical infrastructure,” the report said.