White Power Outage: Inside a Hilliard teen’s fascist terror plot

Christopher Cook was sentenced last year in a white supremacist plot to attack the nation’s power grid, capping his evolution from isolated suburbanite to neo-Nazi radical.
Designed image
Designed imageCourtesy Columbus Monthly

They’d need weapons. Preferably ghost guns – untraceable, assembled at home without serial numbers. And some explosive material, fireballs to distract from the main event. 

Ideally, about 40 people would spread across the country, attacking electrical substations with assault rifles, damaging the transformers and crippling the power grid. With the lights out, chaos would reign, leading to deaths and an economic depression. 

The end goal of this particular attack, though, was even more sinister. The group’s three co-conspirators – Jonathan Frost of Texas, Jackson Sawall of Wisconsin and Christopher Brenner Cook, a Central Ohio native who attended Hilliard Darby High School – met online and bonded over neo-Nazi ideology. They dreamed of an Aryan homeland, and they didn’t believe the white America they envisioned could be realized without destroying the entire system. Revolution was the only answer, and an attack on the power grid seemed like the perfect way to create unrest, division and, ideally, a race war. The group’s manual stated that its members would not stop “until every enemy of Fascism has a rope around their neck.”

The two young men and Cook, who was 17 when he began plotting the attack in 2019, were willing to die for the cause. Frost made suicide necklaces with fentanyl for the trio, and during a February 2020 traffic stop outside of Columbus on I-70, Sawall ingested his vial but survived. The three friends had met up at a Holiday Inn Express in Dublin, where Frost provided Cook with an untraceable AR-47. They trained at an outdoor shooting range in London, Ohio. They also made time for propaganda, spray painting a huge swastika above the words “Join the Front” under a bridge near Reibel Woods Park in Hilliard. They had hoped to spread their hateful message further by defacing a mosque and distributing flyers, but the traffic stop thwarted those schemes. While searching Sawall’s Chevy truck, a trooper found the AR-47, firearm magazines, a Nazi flag, white supremacist propaganda and nearly a dozen cans of spray paint.

The trio’s plans began to unravel over the next several months as federal agents collected information. In August 2020, law enforcement searched the residences of Cook, Frost and Sawall, and in February 2022, Kenneth Parker, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, charged each with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. All three pleaded guilty.

Since 2016, Ohio has increasingly become a hub of white supremacist and extremist action. Andrew Anglin, the founder of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, grew up in suburban Worthington and until 2017 received donations at a Worthington office space leased by his father. In 2019, white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, pleaded guilty to 29 hate crimes after he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. In the summer of 2022, a group of extremists met at the Drury Inn and Suites in Dublin, where federal agents said the group organized a terror plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And in March 2023, Aimenn Penny, an Alliance, Ohio, man alleged to have been part of a neo-Nazi “white lives matter” group, was arrested on federal charges for firebombing a Chesterland church that planned to host a drag queen story hour.

This apparent uptick of activity could be attributed in part to Ohio trending from a politically purple state to a more reliably red one, says Paul Becker, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton whose research focuses on right-wing extremism. Becker says the political transformation has heightened tensions between reliably Democratic strongholds such as Columbus and the more conservative surrounding areas. “There are a lot of flashpoints that happen [in Columbus],” he says, “and all of those things are ways for [extremists] to get people involved.”

“Maybe it's a Midwest thing,” Cook says in an email from FCI Bennettsville, the South Carolina prison where he’s serving a 92-month sentence, his disturbing evolution from Hilliard suburbanite to neo-Nazi radical having followed an all-too-familiar path.

Christopher Cook in March 2020, when he was arrested on a trespassing charge in Tennessee
Christopher Cook in March 2020, when he was arrested on a trespassing charge in Tennessee Courtesy Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office

Born the eldest child to Matthew and Diane Cook in 2002, Christopher was described by his mother in a letter to the court as “a very energetic and precocious child.” But when his parents enrolled him at Mary Evans Child Development Center at age 4, he struggled to adjust and became increasingly difficult to manage. These behavioral challenges intensified to a point where Cook’s parents made an appointment with a child psychologist, who diagnosed Cook with ADHD and sensory processing disorder, placing him on medication as he started first grade.

Cook’s elementary years, according to his mother, were unremarkable. He participated in Boy Scouts and enjoyed camping and the beach. His dad coached his soccer team. In school, though, Cook struggled, his teachers adopting a similar refrain: He’s a smart child, but he lacks focus and doesn’t work to his potential. Cook also had trouble connecting with his peers.

These difficulties intensified during his time at Heritage Middle School, where Cook had a few minor disciplinary issues but mostly faded into the background. Two former classmates described the preadolescent Cook as someone who moved quietly and didn’t make waves, with one recalling a middle school group project in which Cook declined to take on a leadership role, more content to go with the flow.

Absent school friends, Cook sought connection on the web, both in internet forums such as 4chan and via online gaming on his PlayStation 4 and PC, with favorite games including Minecraft and Mount & Blade. And while Cook says he first became interested in white supremacy ideation at age 13, his radicalization intensified as he ventured deeper into these online worlds. Cook’s mother wrote that within this space, he discovered a sense of acceptance he did not have at school, and that his youth and credulity left him vulnerable to the influence of hateful ideologies. “He chose a very dark path,” she told the court.

Posting to 4chan, Cook found himself drawn in by the sense of intellectual independence he discovered. Writing from prison, Cook says he was compelled by a fractured community where “mulatto trannies triumphantly post alongside Christian traditionalists, antivaxxers and technocrats.” Cook also found the site funny; two former high school classmates described his humor as deeply informed by the edgier memes and language adopted by those who lurked anonymously within these forums.

Journalist and conspiracy theorist expert Mike Rothschild says the anonymity offered by 4chan removes the guardrails and allows users to indulge their worst impulses. It can also connect a variety of antisocial types drawn in by the anarchic feel of the space, in many cases speeding the radicalization process. This dark and hyperbolic online culture – often described as “edgelord” – can desensitize participants. “Once horrifying and unspeakable things seem not just common, but funny,” Rothschild says. “And it makes you feel important and special in a way that's not actually real.”

Edgelord humor and memes have increasingly been used by extremists as tools of radicalization, says Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Instead of starting with a post about launching a race war, extremists might begin with a “meme about Michelle Obama being trans,” Lewis says, allowing them to cloak some of their overt Nazism. “It becomes an opening for falling into those deeper spaces,” he says.

In emails, Cook repeatedly describes himself as someone who, within these forums, uncovered a secret knowledge that elevated him above the nameless masses, writing: “It introduced a child who knew his adolescent bubble to a man he’d become”; “It made me more worldly”; “It wasn’t ‘The Man’ telling me these things, and I liked that.”

A belief that one is privy to some untapped, outsider knowledge is common in circles where people become radicalized, Lewis says. And it can easily progress from a group developing coded language based in hyper-online, racist humor to sharing works such as “Siege,” a text by neo-Nazi writer James Mason that promotes violent racial terrorism. “A lot of this does line up cleanly with how we’ve seen the far right, and especially neo-Nazi spaces, evolve,” Lewis says. “The core root of it is that in-group, out-group sentiment. It’s ‘us versus them.’”

Issues at home also played a role in Cook’s transformation. His parents separated when he was 13 and divorced four years later. At that point, Cook lost touch with his father and withdrew from his mother, who described her son at the time as increasingly hostile, sullen and depressed. Never a good student, his grades continued to suffer. At 16, Cook transferred from Hilliard Darby High School to Tolles Career & Technical Center in Plain City, where he intended to pursue a career in business before losing interest as the terror plot began to take hold. Looking back, Cook says the divorce “shattered the illusion of family functionality” and opened him up to more volatile beliefs.

Jackson Sawall, left, and Christopher Cook pose with their graffiti under a bridge near Hilliard’s Reibel Woods Park in February 2020
Jackson Sawall, left, and Christopher Cook pose with their graffiti under a bridge near Hilliard’s Reibel Woods Park in February 2020Source photo found on Sawall’s iPhone

Cook began looking for ways to put his neo-Nazi ideology into action in 2019 at age 17. He first met Frost, who is about five years older, in a chat group, then recruited Sawall, who’s three years older than Cook. The group, which dubbed itself the Front, landed on the radar of authorities in October 2019, when a recruit who met Cook on Discord entered the United States from Canada with plans to connect with Cook in Ohio. During a vehicle search, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found the book “White Power” by George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. The Tactical Terrorism Response Team interviewed the Canadian and inspected his phone, finding images of Nazi propaganda that the recruit said he downloaded from 4chan.

Cook played an integral role in recruitment for the Front. He enlisted Sawall partly for his graphic design skills, which came in handy making propaganda. A document recovered from Sawall’s laptop describes the way propaganda and recruitment worked hand in hand. The Front’s “Propaganda Cell” would “recruit individuals gifted in the art of producing and disseminating propaganda” across as many online platforms as possible, along with in-person poster campaigns. “Through the use of shock propaganda we can ensure the media will pick up on any postering action in local areas,” the manual noted.

Interested recruits had to complete a white supremacist reading list, which included “Siege” and two texts by the neo-Nazi founder of National Alliance, William Luther Pierce: “The Turner Diaries” (a source of inspiration for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh) and “Hunter,” which Cook described as “essential reading” in recruitment chats.

After recruits completed the readings, the manual recommends they “commit to an action to prove their worth.” The manual also contained an Oath of Allegiance: “l swear on my honor that I shall do my duty as a Soldier of the Front, which is to fight by any means necessary for a free and independent Aryan homeland. … [l] am prepared at any point to risk my life for this oath.” After initiation, members were admitted to the Front’s encrypted chat group. Those who passed additional screenings gained access to another subgroup, “Lights Out,” where Cook shared a link to a U.S. Department of Energy report that contained information about the power grid. Specifics of the attack were shared in an even smaller subgroup, “Lights On,” which was limited to Cook, Frost, Sawall and a few others.

Cook also traveled the country – Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas – to meet recruits. These trips coincided with a time just after Cook’s 18th birthday in February 2020, when his mom kicked him out of the house for not following her rules. Some of the recruits Cook visited were juveniles; younger recruits were preferred because they were less likely to be federal agents or other infiltrators.

And yet it seemed everywhere Cook and his friends traveled, law enforcement was on their tail. Just two days after the traffic stop near Columbus on Feb. 21, 2020, Sawall was pulled over alone in his home state of Wisconsin. Officers found a Nazi flag, face masks and camouflage jackets. By Feb. 25, Sawall told a recruit he was no longer in the Front. Cook also told the Lights On group chat that Sawall “got scared. … If anyone’s scared, may as well pussy out now. Something needs to get fucking done and a lack of dedication moves us back 10 steps.” “Amen, we need men with balls,” Frost responded.

Cook and Frost continued planning and recruiting, but on March 1, an anonymous 911 call brought police to a Lowe’s in Clarksville, Tennessee, where Cook and a 17-year-old from Georgia were sleeping in a shed in the parking lot. Cook, who had a semiautomatic rifle, several rounds of ammunition and two magazines with him, was arrested on a criminal trespassing charge. Two weeks later, Cook was with Frost in Texas, where they were again stopped by law enforcement, who found a Nazi flag, military uniforms, burner phones and fentanyl from the suicide necklaces. A day after that, police approached Cook sitting on a curb alongside a juvenile recruit outside of a CVS in Fulshear, Texas. The officer called the teen’s father, who had never heard of Cook and didn’t realize his son was meeting with him.

Law enforcement’s descriptions of Cook and Frost offer a contrast to the pair’s brazen demeanor and edgelord humor in the chat rooms. In the Texas traffic stop, the trooper noted that “both the driver and passenger were extremely nervous and shaking uncontrollably.” If a recruit was involved, though, Cook could put on a show. In a police report, the cop outside the CVS described him as “very cocky and fast talking as if he was trying to confuse me” and said Cook’s relationship with the recruit “seemed awkward and not like they were friends. … The situation resembled a human trafficking situation, with Cook leading.”

The Front’s plans began to fall apart in March. “Shit happened, we are going to disappear for a while. Both are possibly going to get arrested,” Frost wrote in Lights On. In an email around the same time, Frost wrote to a friend, exasperated by law enforcement. “We came to the conclusion that groups will not work in the US, the feds are simply too good,” he said. “Officially we are done with all of our previous ideas.”

“We knew we were going to be caught,” Cook says.

In May, Cook visited Sawall in Wisconsin, and again the authorities got involved, but this time Sawall called the cops, telling them Cook had a panic attack and ran out of the apartment with a full-size replica of a Roman sword. When police caught up with Cook, he told the officer that after a verbal disagreement about fast food, he got overwhelmed “because he is extremely sensitive about confrontation,” the report stated. (Cook says he doesn’t remember the details of the incident.) 

Cook went back home to Ohio in June, and in August 2020, authorities searched the residences of the three co-conspirators. Cook still had a copy of “Siege” on his bedroom nightstand.

When authorities searched Cook’s residence, they found neo-Nazi texts that promote violent racial terrorism
When authorities searched Cook’s residence, they found neo-Nazi texts that promote violent racial terrorismCourtesy U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio

In recent years, physical threats against the power grid have risen sharply, according to Department of Energy data. Power providers reported 185 instances of attacks or threats against the grid in 2023 – nearly double the number reported in 2021.

Many of the physical attacks planned or executed against the grid were initiated by homegrown violent extremists, says Jonathan Monken, a grid security expert with the consulting firm Converge Strategies, echoing a 2022 Department of Homeland Security memo that warned of “credible, specific plans” by domestic groups to attack the power grid. In 2023, two neo-Nazis were arrested on federal charges that they planned to attack electrical substations outside of Baltimore, Maryland. In August 2021, four neo-Nazis in North Carolina were charged with a conspiracy after plotting to take down a critical substation with firearms and explosives. And in December 2022, unidentified shooters carried out a successful attack on two Duke Energy substations in Moore County, North Carolina, knocking out power to more than 40,000 residential and business customers.

Monken attributes the increased focus on the power grid to multiple factors, including a belief that the grid is increasingly viewed as a proxy for the U.S. government among extremists. These attacks also tend to draw intense media coverage, offering “an easy way into that big-splash impact.”

Perhaps most notably, power substations are relatively soft targets, susceptible to unsophisticated attacks by equally unsophisticated actors. The sheer number of substations spread across the country – many of which are located in remote areas – also makes them difficult to guard. Previously, Monken served as senior director of system resilience and strategic coordination for the PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest regional power transmission organization, which he says includes more than 5,600 substations. “You can’t go out and harden more than 5,000 locations against all forms of physical attack,” he says.

In 2020, a 14-page document released in a Telegram messaging app channel featured a white supremacist instruction guide to low-tech attacks meant to bring chaos, including how to attack a power grid with guns. Cook says he had no knowledge of the document, though the Front’s stated goals align with other homegrown neo-Nazi terrorists who have used the text and also ascribe to the concept of “accelerationism.” Within white supremacism, the accelerationist set sees the modern world as irredeemable and in need of a complete collapse to establish a fascist ethnostate.

The Front encouraged its members to discuss accelerationism on all platforms. “All of our propaganda efforts must be focused on radicalizing those with militant potential,” the group wrote in its manual, “and awakening them to the reality of the situation that revolution is the only option to take towards this System."

Lewis of George Washington University says the increased foothold of accelerationism within the radical fringe could be linked with the rising popularity of James Mason’s “Siege,” first published as a newsletter from 1980 to 1986 and repackaged as a single volume in 1992. Violent and deeply supportive of racial terrorism, Mason’s work has been championed since 2015 by members of the Iron March forum and associated hate groups, including Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi organization whose members have been linked with multiple deaths. Cook, his co-conspirators and others in these neo-fascist terrorist networks often wear black-and-white skull masks.

The violence in “Siege” is jarring, with Mason writing of an American slaughter so widespread that “there will be no need for concentration camps of any kind, for not a single transgressor will survive long enough to make it to that kind of haven.” Yet Cook now projects confounding ambivalence when discussing the text. “It’s not a book that you have strong opinions about,” he says.

In emails, Cook often adopts language used by Mason, making references to “the system,” a controlling force against which Mason advocated terroristic warfare. Cook also references a “clairvoyant explanation of social isolation” offered by Mason in a public speech, likely one given in 2002, three years after his release from prison on weapons charges. In one group chat, a recruit asked Cook when he was meeting with Mason, who has a home in Denver and has been known to receive admirers. (“Dunno man,” Cook replied.)

Cook shares an even more damning tie with the Chillicothe, Ohio-raised Mason, who in 1991 served 30 days in jail after he pleaded guilty to illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material – charges that arose from photographs Mason took of a 15-year-old girl in 1982. Cook, on the other hand, was allegedly connected to British teenager Rhianan Rudd, who became infatuated with right-wing extremism at age 14. Her mother grew so concerned with Rudd’s turn that in September 2020 she referred the teen to Prevent, a government-led anti-terrorism program. Within a month, Rudd had been arrested by counter-terror detectives. In April 2021, at age 15, she was charged with six terrorism offenses.

But a BBC report found that around the time of Rudd’s October arrest, MI5 had evidence in hand that the teenager had been exploited by Cook in online chats. In interviews with police, the BBC reported, Rudd described being coerced and groomed, and having sent sexually explicit images of herself to Cook. Rudd’s description of the abuse led to a formal finding of exploitation, and in December 2021, the prosecution of Rudd was halted. Six months later, in May 2022, Rudd died by suicide at age 16 while living in a children’s home. (Cook declined to comment on anything related to Rudd – the only time he opted not to respond.)

Published in January 2023, the BBC investigation reported that Ohio courts had only recently been made aware of Cook’s conduct toward Rudd, which “had not been part of the original case against him despite the FBI’s long-standing knowledge of his abuse.” When the courts learned of his behavior, Cook’s bond was revoked, and he was placed in custody ahead of sentencing.

Co-conspirator Jonathan Frost, photographed during a traffic stop near Columbus in February 2020
Co-conspirator Jonathan Frost, photographed during a traffic stop near Columbus in February 2020Courtesy U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio

At various times during the power grid plot, each of the three co-conspirators could have been considered the leader. Cook says he begrudgingly held the role of leader, but that “Sawall was far more apt for such a role. Frost was the logistics guy. I was the Organizer. Of course, being the Organizer meant I was often forced to adopt that role of 'leader.' I don't really think there was one. It was a debacle, really. Nobody really wanted to do it.”

In April 2023, U.S. District Judge James L. Graham gave Cook the longest sentence: 92 months, plus 30 years supervised release. Frost got 60 months and 30 years of supervision. In April of this year, Sawall was released with time served and 30 years of supervision after being discharged from the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, where he was sent for treatment of a mental illness.

The government had recommended 108, 100 and 92 months for Cook, Frost and Sawall, respectively. In a sentencing memo, assistant U.S. attorney Jessica Knight said the three “acted as co-equals. The trio shared decision-making authority.” But the government argued at sentencing that Cook demonstrated continued pride in his ideology. Sawall’s attorney also mentioned in a sentencing memo that "Cook had demonstrated a continued idealization of white nationalism even after pleading guilty."

Cook disputes the claim. “There are many examples which could've been quoted to support my 'de-radicalization,’ ” he says, “whether it was supporting people of color pursuing medical degrees or immigrant visas to practice medicine in the United States.”

Cook’s matter-of-fact emails from prison couldn’t sound more different from the note Sawall sent to Judge Graham last summer while incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center. “I wish I could go back before it took swallowing a tablet in the back of a cop car to reveal that trapping myself in fantasies was not the solution to dealing with my past,” Sawall wrote. “The only gift to come out of all my mistakes is the realization that I cannot use the past to excuse the actions of the present. With this in mind, I made it my goal since I left Ohio in 2020 to never let myself stop improving.”

Cook is more evasive. He expresses contentment with his sentence and says he doesn’t regret where he’s ended up in his life. “I’m young and I still will be when I’m released.” As for the idea of being reformed or deradicalized, Cook says he doesn’t understand the concepts and isn’t sure what they mean to him.

“I still think liberals are gay (both literally and metaphorically), conservatives are scientifically illiterate conspiracy theorists, as are all the silly Black power initiatives about ancient flying pyramids and Egyptian pharaohs and such,” he says. “Most fascists are fat rejects who'd be killed in their own dream states.”

Cook harbors modest plans for life after prison. “I am going to buy land, probably some cows, and read lots of books. I will certainly homeschool my children,” he says. “I plan on making cool content online, maintaining my health, and rearing a family when I return home. I don't care what society has to offer. I'm not interested in it. But I've changed. I'm not bitter or angry at it, either. … I can't be angry at everyone anymore. I can only be an aristocrat in my own little world.”

In Cook’s sentencing memorandum, his attorney said his client “was young and has matured over the last few years. He would be the first to tell you he does not recognize himself from that time period.” Cook strikes a different tone. “I wouldn't say that I'm MUCH older or more mature,” he says. “I shouldn't think that too much ‘focal clarity’ has occurred since 2020.”

This story, a collaboration between Columbus Monthly and Matter News, also appears in the June 2024 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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