Judge revokes bond and seizes devices from defendants awaiting sentencing in neo-Nazi terror plot
Courtesy US Justice Department

A federal judge has revoked bond for two men awaiting sentencing for their role in a white supremacist terror plot to attack the national power grid.

Christopher Brenner Cook, Jonathan Allen Frost and Jackson Matthew Sawall each pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support for terrorists earlier this year. According to the government, the three men, who called themselves “the Front,” used encrypted apps when they hatched a plan to use powerful rifles to shoot out transformers at regional substations, with the aim of causing confusion and unrest that they hoped would give rise to a race war. Among other texts, group members circulated Siege, a text widely embraced by accelerationist neo-Nazis that advocates for societal collapse as a necessary precondition for fascist revolution.

As a measure of their commitment, Sawall and Cook mutually pledged to give their lives for the cause, and according to the government, Frost made “suicide necklaces” filled with fentanyl for the three men. Sawall swallowed his necklace during a traffic stop in Columbus, Ohio, according to court filings, but survived.

The three men are scheduled to be sentenced in April in the Southern District of Ohio, with the government recommending prison sentences ranging from 92 to 108 years.

On Dec. 5, Judge James L. Graham issued an order revoking bond for Cook and ordering his arrest, while ordering that “all computers and other devices with internet access used by the defendant be seized for inspection to determine compliance with the conditions of release.” Subsequently, Judge Graham ordered US marshals to transfer a hard drive, two flash drives, a flip phone and a laptop computer that were seized from Cook’s home to his probation officer.

As justification for the order, Graham found that Cook “presents a substantial risk to the safety of himself and the community and that he presents a substantial risk of flight.”

The order to revoke Cook’s bond and seize his devices came two days after a gunfire attack on two substations in North Carolina’s Moore County, leaving about 40,000 people without power for four days.

The order to revoke Cook’s bond and seize his devices was first reported by independent journalist Molly Conger. Court documents detailing those developments were unsealed by Judge Graham in an order filed on Dec. 23.

It is unclear whether Cook’s arrest and the seizure of his devices is related to the North Carolina attack, but even before that the same judge ordered the arrest of Sawall, Cook’s codefendant, apparently based on concerns about his mental health.

Sawall, who had been working and attending Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisc., turned himself in for arrest at his probation office on Dec. 2, according to court documents.

“In revoking Mr. Sawall’s bond, the court has expressed that it believes Mr. Sawall’s mental health issues create a substantial risk to the safety of himself and the community and that he presents a substantial risk of flight,” the defendant’s counsel wrote in a court filing.

According to a letter from his psychiatrist that was submitted to the court, Sawall voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital in July 2019, prior to his involvement in the terror plot, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. The psychiatrist, however, cast doubt on the diagnosis, writing that he could say “with absolute clinical certainty,” that Sawall does not have schizophrenia.

Judge Graham denied a motion to reconsider filed by Sawall on Dec. 8, and subsequently ordered him to be subjected to a psychological examination.

In sentencing memoranda filed in late October, the government argued that “general deterrence warrants a significant sentence of incarceration” for the three codefendants. Prosecutors admonished: “Domestic terrorism is on the rise. Others thinking about conspiring to commit acts of terrorism — especially for racially motivated ends — must receive an unequivocal message: Such behavior will not be tolerated by the United States criminal justice system.”

Over the past two months — long since Cook, Sawall and Frost pleaded guilty in February 2022 — the United States has seen a string of attacks against the power grid. In addition to the Moore County attack on Dec. 3, vandals reportedly damaged a substation in Carteret County, also in North Carolina, on Nov. 11, cutting power for more than 12,000 residents for about two hours. Oregon Public Radio and KUOW Public Radio reported at least six attacks on substations in Oregon and western Washington from mid-November through early-December, including at least two involving gunfire. And on Christmas Day, four substations in the area of Tacoma, Wash. were reportedly attacked, leaving about 14,000 customers without power.

Prosecutors said that considering that Cook, Sawall and Frost “conspired to attack the national power grid with powerful assault rifles” and expressed their “willingness to die for the white supremacist cause,” they present “a threat to the public.”

The sentencing memoranda for the three added: “Not only would execution of the conspiracy have disrupted critical infrastructure and the daily lives of Americans, as well as potentially having severe economic consequences for the country — as the defendants themselves realized — it likely would have resulted in deaths.”