Poor lead in Moore County substation attacks as stiffer penalties mooted

Three months after attacks at two electrical transmission substations knocked out power to much of Moore County for four days, investigators are still trying to piece together any leads that could lead to an arrest.

Progress appears to be slow and is hampered by a lack of evidence for investigators with the Moore County Sheriff’s Office, the State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. Officials declined to discuss their work in detail, saying they did not want to jeopardize the investigation.

Part of the delay, law enforcement officials say, came from Duke Energy itself, which they say stopped short of providing some documentation to detectives. Investigators must obtain a court order forcing Duke to release certain personnel records, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said.

“Mainly what we were looking for was trying to get some personnel records and other records, like people who might have had problems, terminated employees and things of that nature,” Fields said.

“Everything I have, I have to get a court order to get,” he said. “You understand. Do I like that? No, I don’t, it just puts a lot of pressure on a lot of things. That’s the way they’re going to play ball, and that’s the way we’re going to play.”

According to Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks, the utility company followed its process whenever personnel information is requested.

“It’s just to protect the privacy of the information,” he said.

While the investigation is ongoing, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office still has a group of investigators dedicated to the case.

“I have designated a team to work with this,” Fields said. “This team is working with the federal people and the states together to try to formulate and do as much as we can to collect information. We have not stopped, and the FBI has not stopped.”

Hate groups investigated

Those investigators continue to conduct interviews and follow up on the tips that come in. Speculation has been rife and widespread that the December 3 shootings at substations in the West End and Carthage were the work of a white nationalist organization or some other hate group, especially after two whites. Nationalist banners spewing hate messages were hung by US 1 riders on December 18 and 25.

However, no such groups have been linked to the attacks, Fields said.

The Sheriff’s Office confiscated the banners and is waiting at the SBI crime lab for any DNA results.

“The white supremacist group, we’re still waiting for the lab to send us some of this information. It takes time,” Fields said. “We’re still looking for the Proud Boys group; there are a lot of groups we’re looking at.”

A poster released by the FBI looking for information or suspects in the electrical substation shooting in Moore County.

Making faster progress is legislation in the NC General Assembly which would increase penalties for those convicted of future attacks. And lawmakers continue to question Duke Energy about overall safety for its vast grid.

According to a report last month by WSOC-TV in Charlotte, the FBI has issued search warrants asking Google to provide any data that can identify known cell phone users in a certain area during a specific time window. Search warrants were also issued to cell phone service providers T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon.

Increase penalties and protections

While the investigation continues, a bill seeking to make substations less vulnerable to sabotage is being tabled in the General Assembly.

Introduced in January by Rep. Ben Moss, House Bill 21 would require electric companies to “provide security systems at substations to protect against vandalism and other security threats.” Companies will also be required to “continuously operate security systems 24 hours a day.”

Since the attack, Duke Energy has posted cameras at its West End and Carthage substations, as well as several others. Officials also said they are working on a plan to “harden” such facilities from future attacks.

The proposed legislation passed an initial reading on January 30. It was then referred to the House Committee on Energy and Public Utilities, which has not yet scheduled a hearing.

“Right now it’s just sitting there waiting to be heard in committee,” said Moss, whose district includes Moore and Richmond counties. “It’s frustrating.”

An aerial view of a West End power substation where crews are working to repair damage after two deliberate attacks on power substations in Moore County Saturday night.  An energy expert in Charlotte was surprised to see that the attack resulted in thousands of people losing power since a similar event 10 years ago did not result in a large loss of power.

An aerial view of a West End power substation where crews are working to repair damage after two deliberate attacks on power substations in Moore County Saturday night. An energy expert in Charlotte was surprised to see that the attack resulted in thousands of people losing power since a similar event 10 years ago did not result in a large loss of power.

Despite the slow progress, Moss said the bill has been received favorably by his fellow legislators and constituents. The measure has bipartisan support from more than 20 sponsors.

“The project makes perfect sense and a lot of people have taken an interest,” said Moss. “I still have e-mails (about it) from people all over the United States. In fact, a lady just left my office who wanted to come in and talk about the project. I remain positive and hope that it will pass to through the committee process.”

In a previous interview with The Pilot, Moss said bullet-resistant fencing and security cameras could help deter vandals. Cameras were not in place at either of the two substations attached in Moore County.

Fields said the facilities’ lack of security systems made criminal investigations more difficult.

Another Republican lawmaker representing Moore County is involved with a separate bill introduced in response to the attacks.

State Senator Tom McInnis, a resident of Pinehurst, is one of the primary sponsors of Senate Bill 58, which increases the penalties for people convicted of intentionally damaging the property of a public utility, including energy companies, but also those involved in providing telephone, broadband or cable service. The proposal is moving faster than House Bill 21, which has already cleared several committees in the Senate.

Under McInnis’ bill, those convicted of an attack on critical infrastructure would face increased prison time and a fine of up to $250,000.

“What we have now doesn’t carry a lot of charges, or punishments if you will, or fines,” Fields said. “Sen. McInnis’ bill is going to increase that. Some of these are misdemeanor crimes, trespassing things, and he wants to upgrade some of them to felonies. Damage to infrastructure will be felony charges, and they should be.

Moss said he supports the Senate bill, but believes additional measures should be taken.

“It’s a little bit easier of a sale in my mind versus strengthening security measures,” he said. “I don’t agree that penalties should be increased, but more needs to be done. Increasing penalties will not solve this problem.”

He added: “The main focus of my energy is protecting our energy.”

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