Alex Constantine - October 31, 2008
By Hannah Strange
October 28, 2008
Two white supremacist skinheads have been charged over a bizarre plot to kill 88 African Americans including presidential candidate Barack Obama on a state-to-state killing spree.
Described by the authorities as neo-Nazis, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman allegedly planned a deadly rampage through southern states, beheading 14 of their victims in a brutal homage to skinhead culture before ultimately gunning down the man who hopes to become America’s first black president.
The pair planned to drive as fast as they could at the Democratic nominee while wearing white tuxedos and top hats, blasting shotguns at him from the windows, court documents showed.
Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee, and Schlesselman 18, of West Helena, Arkansas, were charged with making threats against a presidential candidate, illegal possession of a sawn-off shotgun and conspiracy to rob a gun dealer. Appearing in a Memphis court yesterday, the pair were refused bail and remanded in custody until a further hearing on Thursday.
The plot – the second against the Illinois senator to be uncovered - did not appear to be very advanced or sophisticated, court documents showed.
“We’re unsure of their ability or if they have the wherewithal to carry out any of their threats,” a source close to the investigation said.
The pair allegedly met on the internet one month ago, said an affidavit filed by Brian Weaks, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
After finding common ground in their shared “white power” and “skinhead” philosophy, they “began discussing a “killing spree”” the papers said.
“They further stated that their final act of violence would be to attempt to kill/assassinate presidential candidate Barack Obama,” Mr Weaks said. The young men said they expected to die in the attack, he added.
Cowart and Schlesselman had stolen guns from family members and planned to travel from state to state robbing and killing 88 people, 14 of whom would be decapitated. An unnamed high school with predominantly African-American students was to be the first target, agents said.
The two men had planned their first robbery for last Wednesday but left without breaking in and instead went shopping for ski masks, food and rope to use in later attempts. They were arrested later that day in Crockett County, western Tennessee. On the exterior of Cowart’s car were racially motivated words and symbols, including, on its hood, a swastika and the numbers “14” and “88”
Both numbers are symbolic in skinhead culture. The number 88 stands for “Heil Hitler” as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, special agent in charge James Cavanaugh said. 14 is a reference 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."
Agents seized a rifle, a sawn-off shotgun and three pistols from the men when they were arrested and said the two men were preparing to break into a gun shop to steal more.
The pair, who detailed the plot in interviews following their arrest, also told investigators that on the day of the aborted robbery they had shot at a glass window at Beech Grove Church of Christ, a congregation of about 60 black members in Brownsville, Tennessee.
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 Mr Bond, 53 and a church member for 45 years.
Mr Cavanaugh said authorities took the assassination threats very seriously. “They seemed determined to do it,” he said. “Even if they were just to try it, it would be a trail of tears around the South.”
Mr Obama’s campaign had no immediate comment on the alleged plot. The 47-year-old Democrat would become the first black president in US history if he defeats Republican John McCain in the November 4 election, some four decades since the end of segregation in the south.
Concerns about Mr Obama’s safety led the secret service to provide round-the-clock protection from early in his campaign. During the Democratic convention in Denver, three men were arrested in connection with a possible assassination plot and are currently awaiting trial on drugs and weapons charges, suggesting that the scheme was not particularly developed.
In Bells today, residents were shocked by the arrest of Cowart, who neighbours said seemed like a normal boy.
“If we had any skinheads in this county I wasn’t aware of it. We hardly know what they are,” said Sam Lewis, who lives across the street from Cowart's mother. Cowart, he said, grew up in the comfortable, well-maintained neighborhood and was not known as a troublemaker.
“His mother is a real sweet, nice girl, and this comes asa shock and a surprise,” Mr Lewis said.
No one answered the door at Cowart’s mother’s house, and no lights were on inside. Jasper Taylor, the City Attorney, said that Cowart had most recently been living with his grandparents in a southern, rural part of the county.
But In Helena-West Helena, on the Mississippi River in east Arkansas’ Delta, Schlesselman was described as a “troubled child" by a woman who works with his adoptive father, Mark Schlesselman.
Marty Riddell said she tried to offer Paul Schlesselman a pet lizard she couldn’t care for, but was warned by his family that “he would hurt it.
“They might have done that man a favour picking that kid up,” Ms Riddell said. “He was a troubled child already.”