Terror Plot in Tennessee
The Crockett County, Tennessee, Sheriff's Office, along with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), uncovered and prevented what could have been the deadliest extremist shooting spree in years.
According to court documents, Crockett County officers and the ATF opened an investigation after evidence of firearms violations were found by officers responding to a disturbance call. The investigation resulted in the arrest on October 22, 2008, of two suspects: Daniel Cowart, 21, of Bells, Tennessee, and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of West Helena, Arkansas.
Cowart and Schlesselman were arrested on suspicion of possessing an unregistered firearm, conspiring to steal firearms from a federally licensed gun dealer, and threats against a major candidate for the office of president. Agents seized a sawed-off shotgun, a rifle, and three pistols from the men during the arrest.
Both suspects were racist skinheads, and Cowart had recently been involved with the Supreme White Alliance
, a hardcore racist skinhead group with members from several states, mostly in the Midwest. In April, Cowart even attended a Hitler's Birthday celebration held by the group in Cincinnati. The previous month he handed out racist flyers in front of a local Wal-Mart.
The two suspects allegedly informed officers they were planning a "killing spree" that would involve killing 88 people, including schoolchildren, and beheading an additional 14 African-Americans. Both numbers have symbolic significance to white supremacists. The number "88"
is code for "Heil Hitler," while "14"
is a reference to the "14"
Words," a white supremacist slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
Court documents indicate the two suspects discussed a multi-state killing and robbing spree, including targeting a predominantly African-American school. The murder spree would allegedly end with an attempt to assassinate presidential candidate Barack Obama with a high
According to the ATF, Schlesselman and Cowart discussed robbing a gun dealer to get weapons and ammunition for their planned actions. Cowart allegedly took photographs and drew a diagram of a specific federal gun dealer in nearby Jackson, Tennessee, and sent the images to Schlesselman to review. Schlesselman allegedly created an illegal sawed off shotgun, according to court documents, to "make it easier to maneuver" during the "killing spree," and both of them brought other weapons. They also reportedly cased houses to rob to fund their killing spree, and purchased nylon rope and ski masks.
The plot that Schlesselman and Cowart had allegedly concocted was a serious one, one that could have resulted in many deaths even if their plans for Obama were unlikely to succeed. Moreover, this plot was merely one of the most recent of a series of violence-related incidents associated with the burgeoning racist skinhead subculture in the United States over the past several years.
A Once and Future Threat
In the past five years, most sections of the country have seen a significant and troubling resurgence of racist skinhead activity.
This renewed growth includes a rise in the number and membership of organized racist skinhead groups as well as a rise in the number of "independent" or unaffiliated racist skinheads. It also includes a rise in the amount of skinhead-related criminal activity, primarily hate crimes but also including a few attempted acts of terrorism.
The skinhead subculture originally arose among working class whites in Great Britain in the 1970s. As it cohered, skinheads adopted similar dress, musical styles, tattoos, and rituals. Although typically violent, the skinhead subculture was not originally racist-and, in fact, today around the world there remain many nonracist or explicitly anti-racist skinheads (often called sharps, for "skinheads against racial prejudice"). However, by the early 1980s, thanks in large part to rock musician Ian Stuart, a breed of white power skinheads emerged in Great Britain and soon after, in the United States.
Racist skinhead activity became a problem in many areas of the United States in the 1980s, especially on the West Coast, where skinhead-related hate crimes frequently occurred. Perhaps the most notorious skinhead-related crime in the 1980s was the brutal baseball bat murder of an Ethiopian immigrant, Mulugeta Seraw, in Portland, Oregon, in 1988 by three members of a racist skinhead group, East Side White Pride.
The violence and aggressiveness of racist skinheads made them attractive to established white supremacist groups. Leaders of many of these groups, sensing a new pool of haters, attempted to recruit racist skinheads, with limited success. In the 1990s, the number of racist skinhead groups actually decreased, even as the nation experienced a resurgence of white supremacist activity. Only on the West Coast did the racist skinhead presence remain strong, although skinhead-related hate crimes occurred throughout the decade in all parts of the country. With the increased presence of white supremacist groups such as the National Alliance, the World Church of the Creator, Aryan Nations, and the National Socialist Movement, many individual racist skinheads increasingly tended to join such organizations.