COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Three men have pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to attack power grids across the United States in a racially motivated plot.  

A release from the U.S. Attorney’s Southern District of Ohio’s Office, announced Christopher Brenner Cook, 20, of Columbus, Ohio; Jonathan Allen Frost, 24, of Katy, Texas and of West Lafayette, Indiana; and Jackson Matthew Sawall, 22, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin; have each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. 

“According to these pleas, three individuals engaged in a disturbing plot to attack our country’s energy infrastructure, damage the economy, and stoke division in our society, all in the name of white supremacy,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The Justice Department will continue to investigate and disrupt such violent plots, and to hold perpetrators accountable in a courtroom, where the rule of law and the Constitution prevail.” 

Court documents state that in fall 2019, Frost and Cook met in an online chat group. Frost shared the idea of attacking a power grid with Cook, and within weeks, the two began efforts to recruit others to join in their plan. 

“If these guys had been successful, who knows how much damage they could have caused,” said retired FBI Special Agent Harry Trombitas.

The release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office states:

As part of the recruitment process, Cook asked literary questions and circulated a book list of readings that promoted the ideology of white supremacy and Neo-Nazism.

By late 2019, Sawall – a friend of Cook’s in real life and online – joined the conspiracy and assisted Cook with online recruitment efforts, operational security and organization.

“It’s one thing to be in a chatroom and discuss wild ideas and things,” Trombitas said. “But when you actually take steps to promote that idea and advance that idea.”

As part of the conspiracy, each defendant was assigned a substation in a different region of the United States. The plan was to attack the substations, or power grids, with powerful rifles. The defendants believed their plan would cost the government millions of dollars and cause unrest for Americans in the region. They had conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression.

In February 2020, the co-conspirators met in Columbus, Ohio, to further discuss their plot. Frost provided Cook with an AR-47 and the two took the rifle to a shooting range to train.

Frost also provided Cook and Sawall with suicide necklaces during the Columbus meeting. The necklaces were filled with fentanyl and were to be ingested if and when the defendants were caught by law enforcement. Both Cook and Sawall expressed their commitment to dying in furtherance of their mission.

Upon arriving in Columbus, Sawall and Cook purchased spray paint and painted a swastika flag under a bridge at a park with the caption, “Join the Front.” The defendants had additional propaganda plans for their time in Ohio, but they were derailed during a traffic stop, during which Sawall swallowed his suicide pill but ultimately survived.

Court documents detail that Cook and Frost continued in furtherance of the conspiracy to travel together after their Ohio meeting, and drove to Texas in March 2020, where Cook stayed in different cities with various juveniles he was attempting to recruit for their plot.

Release from the U.S. Attorney’s Southern District of Ohio’s Office

“These defendants conspired to use violence to sow hate, create chaos, and endanger the safety of the American people,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker said. “As this case shows, federal and state law enforcement agencies are dedicated to working together to protect this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

“It’s not unique to Columbus, but it does happen here and that’s why the citizens of Columbus really need to be on their toes and not assume it can’t happen here,” Trombitas said. “So if they see something, again, we always say, ‘See something, say something.'”

“The defendants in this case wanted to attack regional power substations and expected the damage would lead to economic distress and civil unrest,” said Assistant Director Timothy Langan of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “These individuals wanted to carry out such a plot because of their adherence to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist views. When individuals move from espousing particular views to planning or committing acts of violence the FBI will investigate and take action to stop their plans. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to protect our communities.”

Cook, Frost and Sawall were each charged by a Bill of Information that was filed on Feb. 7. The defendants face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.