By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Investigators disrupted an improbable plan to assassinate Sen. Barack Obama and kill 102 other African Americans in a spree fueled by white supremacist ideology, officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said yesterday.
Federal prosecutors in Jackson, Tenn., unsealed a criminal complaint charging two men with conspiracy, possession of an unregistered sawed-off shotgun and making threats against a presidential candidate. Daniel Cowart, 20, and Paul Schlesselman, 18, remain in federal custody.
The men met online nearly a month ago through a mutual friend who was not identified in court papers. Their chats intensified and their scheme took shape, according to a sworn statement by ATF agent Brian A. Weeks.
Using a .308-caliber rifle and a high-powered weapon they planned to steal from a gun store, the men plotted to "drive their vehicle as fast as they could toward Obama shooting at him from the windows," the affidavit said. "Both individuals stated they would dress in all white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt."
Cowart traveled from Tennessee to Arkansas to pick up Schlesselman at his residence Oct. 20. From there, they planned to rob a gun shop, target a predominately African American school and ultimately attack Obama (D-Ill.), who is leading in most national polls in his bid for the White House.
The far-fetched plot soon fell apart, however. The day after they met in person, the men attempted to rob a home in Bells, Tenn., only to be deterred when they spotted a dog and two vehicles on the premises, Weeks wrote.
On Oct. 22, while driving around randomly, they shot a window out of the Church of Christ of Beech Grove in Brownsville, Tenn., then returned to Cowart's grandfather's house, according to court papers. The same day, they purchased chalk and drew swastikas and other "racially motivated words and symbols" on the hood of their car, court papers said. The Crockett County sheriff took the men into custody that night.
Authorities recovered a short-barreled shotgun, two handguns, a rifle and ammunition, they reported.
"It is critical that the alleged plot was interrupted," said James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the ATF's Nashville office.
Richard Harlow, special agent in charge of the Memphis field office of the U.S. Secret Service, said the agency "takes all threats against presidential candidates seriously."
Joe H. Byrd Jr., an attorney for Cowart, said that he was investigating the facts and circumstances of the case and had no further comment. A spokeswoman for the federal public defender's office in Jackson, which is representing Schlesselman, declined to comment.
Both men are scheduled to appear again in court Thursday for a detention hearing, said Lawrence J. Laurenzi, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.