A county sheriff in Tennessee says a call from a concerned parent helped disrupt an alleged plot by two skinheads to assassinate Barack Obama and kill and behead scores of blacks across the country.
Haywood County Sheriff Melvin Bond told MyFOXMemphis.com that a woman called his office worried about her daughter. "As the investigation led on, we found out who these individuals were," the Tennessee lawman said.
Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., and Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., are accused of dreaming up a plan in which they'd drive into the candidate while wearing top hats and tuxedos. They have a federal court hearing scheduled for Thursday morning in Memphis.
While authorities say the men had guns capable of creating carnage, documents show they never got close to getting off the ground.
Among the blunders: They drew attention to themselves by etching swastikas on a car with sidewalk chalk; they knew each other for only a month; they couldn't even pull off a house robbery; and a friend ratted them out to authorities.
"Certainly these men have some frightening weapons and some very frightening plans," said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who studies the white supremacy movement. "But with the part about wearing top hats ... it gets a bit hard to take them seriously."
While authorities say that the incident may have been far-fetched, they still conjure images of the segregation era for some.
"These incidents, isolated though they are, serve as a reality check," journalist John Seigenthaler said about the arrests. The 81-year-old was U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant and was attacked with the Freedom Riders anti-segregation activists during the Civil Rights era.
"Yes we've changed in significant ways, but there are those that haven't," said Seigenthaler.
The alleged plot "should serve as a low voltage electric shock. We're a new South, but there are elements of the old South still under the surface."
The Rev. James Lawson, an 80-year-old Freedom Rider who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and is now a visiting distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University, said he was not surprised by this latest threat to Obama.
He said he has had conversations with fellow blacks at various places, not just the South, since Obama's candidacy began nearly two years and they have been afraid for Obama's life.
"In the black community, there's been all over the country anticipation of his being in harm's way," Lawson said. "That is a reflection of the fact that, by and large, the black community still experiences racism when it comes to access to jobs, in unemployment levels, in housing discrimination and predatory lending in housing."
The alleged plot highlights tensions that both blacks and whites say exist in Helena-West Helena, a predominantly black east Arkansas city that has struggled economically.
I think that [Schlesselman] just made a bad choice," Helena-West Helena resident Betty Hunt told MyFOXMemphis.com. "That's what I think. I feel he made a bad choice. But I don't really know him."
Mayor James Valley said he doesn't believe Schlesselman's involvement in the alleged plot indicated any organized effort by white supremacists in the city, but he said there has been at least a political tension among blacks and whites.
"The white community controls the finances and the black community here controls the ballot box, so that's where you're going to see it," said Valley, who is black.
One Helena-West Helena resident, Larry Johnston, said he was not surprised that white supremacists had been plotting to kill Obama. Johnston, who is white, said he voted for John McCain during early voting and that he didn't believe the country is ready for a black president.
"You look at all your big cities that have black mayors and you have trouble," said Johnston, 58. "That's what I'm afraid of with Obama."
Despite making sure the plot was stopped, authorities did not believe Cowart and Schlesselman had the means to carry out their threat to assassinate Obama, said a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Asked whether the two suspects had Obama's schedule or plans to kill him at a specific time or place, a second law enforcement official who also was not authorized to speak publicly said, "I don't think they had that level of detail."
The two met online about a month ago, introduced by a friend and bound by a mutual belief in white supremacy, according to an affidavit written by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who interviewed them.
Schlesselman's family said Tuesday that it was unlikely he was seriously planning an attack, even though he expressed hatred for blacks. A high school dropout who was unsuccessful finding work, he often spent time on the computer, his 16-year-old sister, Kayla said. She said she often argued with him about his racial beliefs, and he would say things like "Obama would make the world suffer."
He hated his tiny Delta hometown of Helena-West Helena because it was predominantly black, she said.
"He just believes that he's the master race," she said. "He would just say things like 'white power' and 'Sieg Heil' and 'Heil Hitler."'
Comments like those and the plot uncovered are inevitable as the region still struggles with its past, said Dan Fountain, assistant professor of history at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fountain said those views are no longer mainstream in the South, but have not completely disappeared either.
"Those people who stood in the doorways had children, and their ideas still passed on and still live on to some extent today," Fountain said.
Doug Shipman, executive director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, says threats to Obama and blacks in the South are remnants of the Old South, but not the face of most of today's South.
"But these kinds of feelings are harbored by individuals and will probably continue to be in the future," he said. "The political season has shown race is still a relevant issue, but it's much more complicated than in the past."
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WASHINGTON — Two white supremacists allegedly plotted to go on a national killing spree, shooting and decapitating black people and ultimately targeting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, federal authorities said Monday.
In all, the two men whom officials described as neo-Nazi skinheads planned to kill 88 people _ 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 spree, 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 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 traveling with the senator in Pennsylvania had no immediate comment.
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.
Cowart and Schlesselman were 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.
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.
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.
Attorney Joe Byrd, who has been hired to represent Cowart, said in a written statement that he was was investigating the charges against his client and would have no further comment. Messages left on two telephone numbers listed under Cowart's name were not immediately returned.
No telephone number for Schlesselman in Helena-West Helena could be found immediately.
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."
Court records say Cowart and Schlesselman also bought nylon rope and ski masks to use in a robbery or home invasion to fund their spree, during which they allegedly planned to go from state to state and kill people. Agents said the skinheads did not name the African-American school they were targeting.
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 Sen. 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.
The investigation is continuing, and more charges are possible, Cavanaugh said. He said 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 in the investigation once it was clear that an Obama assassination attempt was part of the plot. Obama received a Secret Service detail in May 2007, the earliest a candidate has ever been assigned protection, in part because of his status as a prominent black candidate.
"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' 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.
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