WASHINGTON — Federal authorities in Tennessee announced Monday that they had arrested two alleged white supremacists who were reportedly planning a killing spree that would end with the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of West Helena, Ark., were charged in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Tenn., with the illegal possession of a sawed-off shotgun, conspiracy to rob a gun store and making threats against a major presidential candidate -- the Democratic senator from Illinois.
"They said that would be their last, final act -- that they would attempt to kill Sen. Obama," said James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Tennessee. "They didn't believe they would be able to do it, but that they would get killed trying."
Brian A. Weaks, an ATF special agent and a lead investigator in the case, said in a court affidavit unsealed Monday that the two men had hoped to carry out the assassination -- by driving their vehicle at top speed and firing high-powered rifles at Obama from their car windows -- in a grand style.
"Both individuals stated that they would dress in all-white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt," Weaks said. "Both individuals further stated they knew they would and were willing to die during this attempt."
The two men also allegedly discussed shooting 88 other people to death and decapitating 14 African Americans, choosing those numbers because, officials said, "they have special significance within the white power movement."
The eighth letter of the alphabet is "H," and the number 8 twice signifies "HH" -- for the Nazi greeting "Heil Hitler." And 14 is the number of words in a white power slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
Campaign officials for Obama, the first African American presidential nominee of a major party, declined to comment about the allegations or arrests. Secret Service agents began protecting Obama on May 3, 2007, less than three months after he announced he was running for the Democratic nomination -- the earliest that such protection has been authorized for a candidate.
Although it was unclear how much, if anything, the Obama camp knew about the allegations, his security personnel were certainly aware of them. "The United States Secret Service takes all threats against presidential candidates seriously and is actively investigating the allegations," said Richard Harlow, special agent in charge of the agency's Memphis field office.
Cowart and Schlesselman were being held without bond after agents seized a rifle, a sawed-off shotgun and three pistols. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.
According to Weaks, the two men met a month ago on the Internet through a mutual friend. They claimed to have "very strong beliefs regarding white power and skinhead" leanings, Weaks said.
They allegedly discussed robbing or burglarizing a gun store to be "more equipped" with firearms and ammunition, and Cowart used the Internet to send Schlesselman diagrams and photos of a gun store in Jackson, Weaks said. On Oct. 20, Cowart allegedly drove from Tennessee to Arkansas to pick up Schlesselman, Weaks said, and the two discussed attacking a predominantly African American school and traveling from state to state to rob and kill people.
Cowart owned a .308-caliber rifle and Schlesselman had a Mossberg Model 500 12-gauge shotgun with a barrel he had shortened to make it "easier to maneuver," Weaks said. In addition, the agent said, Schlesselman had stolen a Ruger revolver from his father, and Cowart had stolen two handguns from his grandfather.
On Oct. 22, Weaks said, the men bought food, rope and two ski masks from a Wal-Mart in Brownsville, Tenn., then shot out a window of the Beech Grove Church of Christ in Brownsville. Later that day, Weaks said, "they purchased window chalk and wrote numerous racially motivated words and symbols on the exterior of Cowart's vehicle. This included a swastika and the numbers 14 and 88 on the hood."
They were arrested that night by sheriff's deputies in Crockett County, Tenn. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Thursday in Memphis.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta, traveling with the Obama campaign, contributed to this report.