As the FBI offered up to $50,000 in new rewards for information on those responsible for sabotaging three North Carolina power plants in December and January, the sheriff in the county where two of the shooting attacks occurred accused a local utility company of stonewalling investigators.
The two separate $25,000 rewards for information leading to the identification, arrests and prosecution of a suspect or suspects in the power substation attacks in Moore and Randolph counties was announced on Wednesday by the FBI, and came on top of $75,000 announced last last year by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper in the unsolved Moore county incidents.
On Dec. 3, gun-wielding saboteurs shot up two power substations, 11 miles apart, one near the town of Carthage and another in West End. The two Moore County attacks occurred almost simultaneously and caused 45,000 Duke Energy customers to lose electricity, some for several days, officials said.
On Jan. 17, a power substation maintained by EnergyUnited in Randolph County was damaged by gunfire, but did not cause customers to lose power, officials said.
Just three days before the Moore County attacks, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning "lone offenders and small groups" could be plotting attacks and that the nation's critical infrastructure was among the possible targets.
No suspects or persons of interest have been announced in the Moore and Randolph county incidents.
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields has accused Duke Energy of slowing down the investigation of the twin attacks in his county by stonewalling investigators seeking the personnel files of some of the utility company's current and former employees.
Fields said Duke Energy is requiring his department to get court orders for personnel files and company records, according to a statement he gave The Pilot newspaper of Southern Pines, North Carolina.
"Mainly what we were looking at was trying to get some personnel records and other records, such as people they might have had trouble with, terminated employees and things of that nature," Fields said. "Everything I get, I have to get a court order to get it. That's understandable. Do I like that? No, I don't. It just puts a lot of pressure on a lot of things. That's the way they're going to play ball, and that's the way we're going to have to play."
In response to the sheriff's statement, Duke Energy said that seeking court orders for personnel records is a standard practice and mandated by law in some cases.
Duke Energy claims it "has complied with all court orders as quickly as possible and continues to assist in the ongoing investigations," according to a statement the utility company released to ABC affiliate station WSOC-TV in Charlotte.
"We, too, are eager to see those who attacked our substations brought to justice," Duke Energy said in its statement.
A Homeland Security bulletin issued on Nov. 30 advised that individuals and groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and personal grievances "continue to pose a persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland."
"Targets of potential violence include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media, and perceived ideological opponents," the bulletin reads.
The bulletin followed one issued by Homeland Security in January, warning that domestic extremists have been developing "credible, specific plans" to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020.
A Florida man and a Maryland woman were arrested last month on federal charges of plotting to attack multiple energy substation with the goal of destroying Baltimore, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.
The suspects, Sarah Clendaniel of Catonsville, Maryland, and Brandon Russell of Orlando, Florida, were allegedly fueled by a racist extremist ideology as they "conspired to inflict maximum harm" on the power grid with the aim to "completely destroy" Baltimore, U.S. Attorney Erek Barron and a top FBI official said at a Feb. 6 news conference.
Russell is quoted in court documents saying that attacking power transformers is "the greatest thing somebody can do."