Lights come back on in North Carolina county as police search for suspect in power station attacks




CNN
 — 

The lights flickered back on in homes, businesses and along streets in a North Carolina county Wednesday after a dayslong outage caused by what authorities have described as targeted gun attacks on power substations.

Multiple law enforcement sources told CNN that while the motive behind the attacks in Moore County remains unknown, investigators are zeroing in on two possible threads centered around extremist behavior: writings by extremists on online forums encouraging attacks on critical infrastructure, and a series of recent disruptions of LGBTQ+ events across the nation by domestic extremists.

While investigators have no evidence connecting the North Carolina incident to a drag event at a theater in the same county Saturday night, the timing is being considered in context with armed confrontations around similar LBGTQ+ events across the country, the sources told CNN.

Also, less than two weeks before Saturday’s substation damage, the FBI said there had been an increase in reported threats to electric infrastructure. At least five electricity substations in Oregon and Washington were attacked in November.

No suspects in the North Carolina outages have been announced.

As investigators – including on the local, state and federal levels – probe the incident, the primary utility company in the county finished restoring power Wednesday to all of the 45,000 homes and businesses that initially lost power.

The outage made for a headache for residents, who had been without heating, running refrigerators or traffic lights since Saturday evening, when the county was blanketed in darkness, prompting schools, businesses and churches to close.

The power returned gradually, a few thousand homes at a time. And there may still be minor issues since the equipment was off for several days, Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks warned.

With the lights back on, a nightly curfew that’s been in place since Sunday is set to end for good at 5 a.m. Thursday, along with a state of emergency.

Meanwhile, as life returns to normal in Moore County, local businesses that didn’t have backup generators to help them stay open must deal with the costs.

Moore County Manager Wayne Vest said local businesses “have lost a tremendous amount over the last few days.”

The outages affected more than 600 food establishments, according to Moore County Health Director Matt Garner.

“We know our residents are going to end the day and go through the night in power and light and in safety. But there’s another element of our population is still suffering … and that’s our local merchants,” Pinehurst Mayor John Strickland said.

“If you’re dining out, if you’re only going to go out once, go out twice. If you were going to shop and buy one package, buy two packages,” Vest said.

Workers with Randolph Electric Membership Corporation work Tuesday to repair the Eastwood Substation in West End, North Carolina.

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields has for days been saying whoever attacked the substations “knew exactly what they were doing.”

Investigators recovered from both scenes where substations were damaged nearly two dozen shell casings from a high-powered rifle, law enforcement sources told CNN.

While no rifle has been recovered, the ballistics may still offer critical evidence. Bullets pulled from a transformer station and brass shell casings found a short distance away are being examined, according to the sources.

The casings can be entered into a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives database and matched to any other shell casings fired by the same gun at another crime scene, or to the gun itself if it’s found.

The locations of the casings may also offer clues.

On Wednesday, the sheriff asked the public to provide any surveillance footage from the areas that were hit and announced $75,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.

A resident who lives near the West End substation told CNN affiliate WRAL he heard around 20 gunshots in quick succession the night of the attack on the station. He said the power did not go out for about 30 minutes after that, the station reported.

“Me and my wife were just sitting on the couch just watching a movie and all of the sudden, about 8:45, about 20 shots fired off right across the street,” Spencer Matthews told WRAL.

In the past two years, anti-government groups began using online forums to urge followers to attack critical infrastructure, including the power grid. They have posted documents and even instructions outlining vulnerabilities and suggesting the use of high-powered rifles.

One 14-page guide obtained by CNN cited as an example the 2013 sniper attack on a high voltage substation at the edge of Silicon Valley that destroyed 17 transformers and cost Pacific Gas and Electric $15 million in repairs.

The caliber of the bullets in the California incident is different from those used in North Carolina, a law enforcement source told CNN.

The sheriff on Sunday said investigators had not been able to tie anything back to a local drag show, as chatter circulated on social media that the attack was an attempt to thwart the show.

The drag show was scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, shortly before the power was cut. Audience members used their phone flashlights to light the stage for one last song, but after that, the performance couldn’t continue due to the power outage, according to Sandhills PRIDE.

Duke Energy workers repair an electrical substation Tuesday in Mineral Springs near Pinehurst, North Carolina.

As crews rushed to restore power amid the mass outage, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told CNN on Tuesday the country needs to have “a serious … conversation about protecting our critical infrastructure.”

The FBI has received reports of threats to electric infrastructure by people espousing racially or ethnically motivated extremist ideology “to create civil disorder and inspire further violence,” the FBI said in a November 22 bulletin sent to private industry, which CNN obtained.

While the investigation continues in Moore County, Duke Energy said it is also working closely with the FBI after reports of shots fired near the Wateree Hydro Station in Ridgeway, South Carolina, a spokesperson told CNN.

“There are no outages reported. There is no known property damage at this time,” Brooks, the Duke Energy spokesperson, said.

Ridgeway is about 146 miles from Moore County and 26 miles north of Columbia.

The outage in Moore County came after at least five electricity substations in Oregon and Washington were attacked in November, according to energy companies.

A Bonneville Power Administration spokesperson told CNN in an email a company substation was damaged in Clackamas, Oregon, during the Thanksgiving Holiday in what BPA is calling a “deliberate physical attack.”

“BPA operators discovered a cut perimeter fence and damaged equipment inside,” the spokesperson said. The company is working with the FBI on the incident.

In a separate email to CNN, a spokesperson Washington-based Puget Sound Energy said the company experienced two attacks in November at substations.

“We are aware of recent threats on power systems across the country and take these very seriously. We are monitoring our infrastructure and can confirm we had two incidents occur in late November at two different substations,” the statement from Puget Sound Energy read. “Both incidents are currently under investigation by the FBI.”

Puget Sound Energy did not specify the location of the incidents. The utility provides service primarily in Puget Sound region of western Washington.

Two Cowlitz County Public Utility District substations were also vandalized in mid-November in the Woodland area, company spokesperson Alice Dietz told the Seattle Times in a written statement. “At this time, we do not have any further comment … Our facilities have since been repaired,” Dietz told the Times.

Cowlitz County is located Southwest Washington state along the border with Oregon.

CNN has reached out to the FBI’s office in Seattle for comment.



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