U.S. authorities report racist plot to assassinate Obama
In all, the two men whom officials described as neo-Nazi "skinheads" planned to kill 88 people, including 14 by beheading, according to documents unsealed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Tenn.
The numbers 88 and 14 are symbolic in the white supremacist community.
The rampage, which initially targeted an unidentified predominantly African-American school, was to end with the two men driving toward Obama, "shooting at him from the windows," the court documents show.
"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."
An Obama spokeswoman travelling with the senator in Pennsylvania had no immediate comment.
Arrested in Tennessee
Sheriffs' deputies in Crockett County, Tenn., arrested the two suspects — Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., and Paul Schlesselman 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark. — Oct. 22 on unspecified charges.
"Once we arrested the defendants and suspected they had violated federal law, we immediately contacted federal authorities," said Crockett County Sheriff Troy Klyce.
The two were charged by federal authorities Monday 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.
2 suspects met online
Lawyer Joe Byrd, 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 immediately found.
The numbers 14 and 88 are symbols 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.
HH or two eights stand for "Heil Hitler."
Court records say Cowart and Schlesselman also bought nylon rope and ski masks to use in a robbery or home invasion to fund their plot, during which they allegedly planned to go from state to state and kill people.
Agents said the two did not identify the African-American school they were targeting by name.
Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Nashville, Tenn., field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, said authorities took the threats very seriously.
"They said that would be their last, final act — that they would attempt to kill Senator Obama," Cavanaugh said. "They didn't believe they would be able to do it, but that they would get killed trying."
He added: "They seemed determined to do it. 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, Tenn.
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.
More charges possible
The investigation is continuing and more charges are possible, Cavanaugh said, adding that there's no evidence so far that others were willing to assist Cowart and Schlesselman with the plot.
At this point, there does not appear to be any formal assassination plan, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said.
"Whether or not they had the capability or the wherewithal to carry out an attack remains to be seen," he said.
Zahren said the statements about the assassination came out in interviews after the men were arrested last week.
The Secret Service became involved once it was clear that an Obama assassination attempt was part of a violent, far-reaching plot.
"We don't discount anything," Zahren said, adding that it's one thing for the defendants to make statements, but it's not the same as having an organized assassination plan.
Helena-West Helena, on the Mississippi River in east Arkansas's Delta, is in one of the country'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 per cent black.