In June 2018, when 18-year-old Jackson Sawall failed to show up to work a Friday shift at Murdock’s Southern Bistro in Cocoa, Florida, his grandfather got worried. After the authorities were alerted, his grandfather took to Facebook to ask for help. He wrote that Sawall’s phone went straight to voicemail, but his bank reported no strange use of his debit card — in fact, it showed no activity at all.
The sheriff’s departments in Florida coordinated a search, while members of the online websleuths community started digging. Everyone knew that timely efforts were essential to any chance of finding Sawall alive. Luckily, within days, he was located in Montana. He was unharmed and hadn’t been abducted. He’d simply run away.
Four years later, that same teenage runaway would make national headlines again, and once again, his plans were both wildly half-baked and quite unexpected. This time, Sawall, now 22, was arrested along with two other neo-Nazi counterparts — Christopher Cook from Ohio and Jonathan Frost of Texas — for conspiring to bring down the nation’s power grid in hopes of starting a race war.
Frost, the alleged mastermind, first met Cook in an online chat group. The two bonded over fascism and eventually got to talking about the power grid. Once Cook was bought in, they started to look for other like-minded young domestic terrorists to join their mission. The duo developed a curriculum for any new members, and Cook even put together a racist reading list, which featured infamous screeds like Siege, a manual and manifesto that makes the case that mass violence by “lone wolves” is the ideal playbook for white supremacists, and A Squires Trial, another lone-wolf neo-Nazi starter text.
But recruitment didn’t always go so well. In 2019, an unnamed fourth man who wanted to be part of the group attempted to cross the Canadian border to visit Cook in Ohio, but was stopped by a border patrol officer. He was traveling with “a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun,” and on his phone were “multiple images of Nazi, white power and anti-LGBTQ propaganda.” The border authorities tipped off the FBI, who decided to pay a visit to Cook.
When they made it to his home, Cook informed the FBI agents that he’d met the Canadian man online, as they were both gamers. The Canadian had called Cook during his border stop, which, Cook told the FBI agents, was the reason why he’d deleted all of their communication. Cook also wasn’t shy about his political views, describing them as “traditionalist.” To that end, he had a growing personal library of books by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and “lone wolf” cheerleaders and accelerationists.
His mother attempted to minimize the agents’ concerns, telling them that she’d already made her son take down the swastika flags in his bedroom. After they left, the agents began an investigation into Cook and his known associates.
It was toward the end of 2019 that Sawall linked up with Cook and Frost. (He and Cook had known each other offline before becoming white power buddies.) Together, they primed themselves with more research. Frost, a computer information and technology major, shared a link to a Department of Energy report, “Large Power Transformers and the U.S. Electric Grid,” which outlined the grid’s weak points, like how transformers had to be replaced in certain patterns so as not to interrupt the function of the power grid.
The attack plan they devised, which they dubbed “Lights Out,” took a regional approach. Being a native Texan, Frost would bring down the power grid in the Southwest. Cook, in Ohio, would take out the Northeast sector, and Sawall, now in Wisconsin, would be responsible for the Midwest. There were also two co-conspirators responsible for the Southeast and Southwest, but their names have been withheld from the public because they’re minors.
The plot, of course, was rife with flaws. Perhaps the most glaring was the focus on what would happen after the lights went out as opposed to how to knock them out, which they intended to do by shooting up power stations with assault rifles. Afterward, they theorized, the nation would be plunged into darkness. Fear would take hold. People wouldn’t go to work. The economy would crater. A call to arms would emerge. White leaders would rise up. And soon, a white paradise would descend over the earth.
They wanted their plot fully operational by 2024, or “sooner if President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid in November 2020.” As the numbers in their online group chat swelled, Frost expanded the plan. He was determined to form an 18-member group of neo-Nazis who would be willing to give their lives for the race war. It was particularly important to them to draft minors. Their reasoning was simple: Young neo-Nazis were less likely to be undercover FBI agents. But as it turned out, one of the group chat’s members snitched to the FBI anyway, and almost immediately, an undercover FBI agent joined the chat.
In February 2020, Frost, Cook and Sawall planned an IRL meetup at Cook’s place in Columbus, Ohio. The FBI made sure to surveil the trio during their time together. Sawall arrived first. He and Cook bought some spray paint and then sprayed a giant swastika under a bridge. They added the words “Join the Front” and took pictures, which they showed to Frost when he arrived.
Frost drove to Columbus from Indiana, where he was living as a student at Purdue University. He brought with him an AR-47, a ghost gun he’d agreed to sell to Cook. He told Cook and Sawall that he was planning on selling ghost guns to all future members of their operation. He brought something else with him to share as well: suicide necklaces. Designed to hold a supposedly lethal amount of fentanyl, the necklaces would help the young men die for their cause if their plan was ever compromised.
Next, the threesome took the ghost gun out to a range so that Frost could teach Cook and Sawall how to use it. Later, Sawall paid for them to share a hotel room, and they talked about what they were gonna do while they were all together in Columbus — namely, put up posters, cut down a telephone pole and spray-paint racist graffiti on the side of a mosque. Their motel-room dreams, however, were foiled by a routine traffic stop. When pulled over by police, Sawall apparently panicked and decided to ingest the fentanyl from his suicide necklace. In the end, there wasn’t enough fentanyl to kill him, but it did leave him in bad shape.
While he recuperated, his fellow neo-Nazis left him behind. The next month, in March 2020, Cook and Frost headed south for spring break in Texas, where they hoped to meet more young bigots they could draft into their terror cell. But when they stopped in Oklahoma to link up with one recruit, the recruit lost his phone. Things were only made worse when the person who found the phone answered it when they called and told the neo-Nazis that they planned to give the phone to police. Cook and Frost immediately erased all contacts and messages with the recruit from their phones.
The pair did finally make it to Katy, Texas, but almost immediately, a law enforcement officer confronted Cook as he talked with yet another young recruit. Watching from afar, Frost began to have serious doubts about his group’s operational security. He and Cook split up soon thereafter, with Cook staying behind in Texas and Frost returning to college, where he graduated that spring.
Meanwhile, the FBI had seen enough. Agents searched the homes of Cook, Sawall and Frost in August 2020. Frost had multiple weapons seized, including an AR-15 ghost gun. At Cook’s residence, agents found books from his neo-Nazi reading list, as well as other racist digital assets. He also had weapons and plenty of ammo. Sawall had no weapons to speak of, but he did have a laptop that outlined their recruitment process, various propaganda and images of their swastika graffiti.
On February 7th of this year, all three men entered guilty pleas as part of their plea agreements with federal prosecutors. Each is now staring down a 15-year sentence in federal prison. In a phone interview with the Washington Post, Samuel Shamansky, Frost’s attorney, said that Frost has “improved immensely” since his arrest on domestic terror charges. Shamansky also reported that his client “completely disavowed” his previous racist views and that he now “understands how hurtful and immoral those positions were and are.”
In the end, their plot was mostly the stuff of fantasy. And they obviously lacked the skill and wherewithal to pull it off. It was, in that regard, as farcical as it was fantastical. But plenty of terror and extremism experts have warned that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have a particular fascination with the national power grid, seeing it as the first domino to fall in the race war they so badly want to stoke.
In other words, while these Neo-Nazis may be a joke, there are still plenty of others equally interested in turning this warped fantasy into reality.