Law enforcement agents have broken up a plot by two neo-Nazi skinheads to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and shoot or decapitate 88 black people, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Monday.
In court records unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Tennessee, federal agents said they disrupted plans to rob a gun store and target a predominantly black high school in a murder spree that was to have begun in Tennessee. Agents said the skinheads did not identify the school by name.
Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of ATF's field office in Nashville, Tennessee, said the men planned to kill 88 people, including 14 African-Americans by beheading. The numbers 88 and 14 are symbolic among white supremacists.
The men also sought to go on a national killing spree after the Tennessee murders, with Obama as its final target, Cavanaugh told The Associated Press.
"They said that would be their last, final act, that they would attempt to kill Sen. Obama," Cavanaugh said. "They didn't believe they would be able to do it, but that they would get killed trying."
An Obama spokeswoman traveling with the senator in Pennsylvania had no immediate comment.
The men, Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee, and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, are being held without bond. Agents seized a rifle, a sawed-off shotgun and three pistols from the men when they were arrested. Authorities alleged the two men were preparing to break into a gun shop to steal more.
The two men were arrested Oct. 22 by officers from the Crockett County, Tennessee, sheriff's office. "Once we arrested the defendants and suspected they had violated federal law, we immediately contacted federal authorities," said Crockett County Sheriff Troy Klyce.
Attorney Joe Byrd, who has been hired to represent Cowart, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday. Messages left on two phone numbers listed under Cowart's name were not immediately returned.
No telephone number for Schlesselman in Helena-West Helena could be found immediately.
Cowart and Schlesselman are charged with possessing an unregistered firearm, conspiring to steal firearms from a federally licensed gun dealer and threatening a candidate for president.
Jasper Taylor, city attorney in Bells, said Cowart was arrested Wednesday. He was held for a few days in Bells, then moved over the weekend to another facility.
"It was kept under lid until today," Taylor said.
Until his arrest, Cowart lived with his grandparents in a southern, rural part of the county, Taylor said, adding that Cowart apparently never graduated from high school. He moved away, possibly to Arkansas or Texas, then returned over the summer, Taylor said.
The investigation is continuing, and more charges are possible, Cavanaugh said.
The court records say Cowart and Schlesselman also bought nylon rope and ski masks to use in a robbery or home invasion to take money to finance their spree, during which they allegedly planned to go from state to state and kill people.
For the Obama plot, the legal documents show, Cowart and Schlesselman "planned to drive their vehicle as fast as they could toward Obama shooting at him from the windows."
"Both individuals stated they would dress in all white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt," the court complaint states. "Both individuals further stated they knew they would and were willing to die during this attempt."
Cavanaugh said there was no evidence so far that others were willing to help Cowart and Schlesselman with the plot.
He said authorities took the threats very seriously.
"They seemed determined to do it," Cavanaugh said. "Even if they were just to try it, it would be a trail of tears around the South."
An ATF affidavit filed in the case says Cowart and Schlesselman told investigators the day they were arrested they had shot at a glass window at Beech Grove Church of Christ, a congregation of about 60 black members in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Nelson Bond, the church secretary and treasurer, said no one was at the church when the shot was fired. Members found the bullet had shattered the glass in the church's front door when they arrived for evening Bible study.
"We have been on this site for about 120 years, and we have never had a problem like this before," said Bond, 53 and a church member for 45 years.
The court documents say the two men met about a month ago on the Internet and found common ground in their shared "white power" and "skinhead" philosophy.
The numbers 14 and 88 are symbols in skinhead culture, referring to a 14-word phrase attributed to an imprisoned white supremacist: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children" and to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Two "8"s or "H"s stand for "Heil Hitler."
Helena-West Helena, on the Mississippi River in east Arkansas' Delta, is in one of the nation's poorest regions, trailing even parts of Appalachia in its standard of living. Police Chief Fred Fielder said he had never heard of Schlesselman.
However, the reported threat of attacking a school filled with black students worried Fielder. Helena-West Helena, with a population of 12,200, is 66 percent black. "Predominantly black school, take your pick," he said.
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tennessee, and Jon Gambrell in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.