Two men have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with attacks on several electrical substations that left thousands of customers around Tacoma, Wash., without power on Christmas Day last year, a criminal pact that the authorities said was part of a burglary scheme to rob A.T.M.s and local businesses.
Jeremy Crahan, 40, and Matthew Greenwood, 32, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to damage energy facilities and could each face up to 20 years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $250,000, according to the plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. However, prosecutors are recommending that the defendants be sentenced to no more than 21 months, according to the plea deal.
Mr. Greenwood, who has been in intensive drug treatment since his arrest, entered a plea agreement in April, and Mr. Crahan pleaded guilty on Tuesday.
As part of the agreement, the Justice Department dropped a charge of possession of an unregistered firearm against Mr. Greenwood. Mr. Greenwood was in the possession of a short-barreled rifle, equipped with what appeared to be a homemade silencer, and a short-barreled shotgun when he was arrested late last year, prosecutors said.
According to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Washington, the two men “hatched a scheme” to cut power to four substations in Pierce County, which includes the city of Tacoma, by using various methods that included manipulating circuit breakers and tampering with switches.
The men used bolt cutters to get through fences and padlocks at the Hemlock Substation in Puyallup, the Elk Plain substation in Spanaway and the Graham and Kapowsin substations in Graham, all located south of Tacoma. At the Kapowsin substation, their tampering with a switch led to sparks and flames, according to the Justice Department. At least 15,500 customers lost power as a result.
The men assumed distinct roles, the Justice Department said in its statement: Mr. Greenwood tampered with the switches while Mr. Crahan primarily served as a lookout.
After the power disruption, Mr. Greenwood and Mr. Crahan went to a restaurant, drilled out a lock and stole an unspecified amount from a cash register, according to court documents. Over the next few days, then men looked for additional ways to cause power outages by cutting down trees near main power lines, according to court documents.
Mr. Greenwood and Mr. Crahan were identified as possible suspects through phone records, security footage and a truck that was believed to be connected to the attacks, federal prosecutors said at the time of their arrests. Law enforcement executed a search warrant on Dec. 31 and found Mr. Greenwood inside a trailer, wearing clothing that partly matched what he had been seen wearing in surveillance footage. Mr. Crahan was detained shortly after at a nearby home.
The U.S. attorney’s office estimated that the damage to at least two of the substations, which were operated by Tacoma Power, added up to at least $3 million and could take up to 36 months to repair.
The attacks came amid a spate of similar attacks across the country that cut power to tens of thousands of customers. Over the course of three months, at least nine substations were attacked, including in North Carolina and Oregon, highlighting a growing concern that the power infrastructure could be a target for extremist groups. In response, federal regulators ordered a review of security standards for the nation’s power grid.
A lawyer for Mr. Greenwood, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 17, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sentencing for Mr. Crahan is scheduled for Dec. 8.
Lance Hester, a lawyer for Mr. Crahan, said that despite the “significant concern by the authorities” that extremist ideology could be behind such an attack, there was no evidence that either man had engaged in that kind of conduct or even knew about it.