Law enforcement in Moore County seeking search warrants as power is fully restored

Workers with Randolph Electric Membership Corporation work to repair the Eastwood Substation in West End Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. Two deliberate attacks on electrical substations in Moore County Saturday evening caused days-long power outages for tens of thousands of customers. (Travis Long/tlong@newsobserver.com)

Law enforcement agencies forged ahead Thursday with their investigation into who shot out two electrical substations Saturday, causing Moore County to lose power for days.

Richard Maness, chief deputy of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office, said detectives have sought approval for several search warrants that they began drawing up as early as Sunday. Maness declined to provide specifics about people or property that sheriff’s detectives want to search.

“Several search warrants have been applied for, the status of those I’m not prepared to comment on at this time,” he said. “But obviously with any criminal investigation like this that’s an invaluable tool for law enforcement.”

Maness said the sheriff’s office hasn’t identified suspects. The search warrants are part of the effort to identify possible suspects.

“We’re looking at everybody from all walks of life who had the expertise and the knowledge of the electrical grid and what could disable it,” he said.

Search warrants must be approved by a state judge who reviews them to determine whether law enforcement has provided probable cause for a search.

Maness confirmed that shell casings were found on Duke Energy property. “We collected multiple shell casings and we have not released the weapon type or weapon caliber,” he said.

Maness said he could not confirm an ABC News report, attributed to anonymous law enforcement sources, that federal search warrants are also being drawn up. State, local and federal agencies are investigating the substation attacks.

He also shed more light on what the sheriff’s office did when visiting Emily Grace Rainey, an outspoken opponent of a drag show that was held the night the substations were attacked.

The former Army psychological operations officer is a right-wing activist known locally for her protests of pandemic restrictions and drag shows. She led a group of about 100 people to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Fox host Tucker Carlson featured Rainey in his docuseries about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, “Patriot Purge.”

Rainey had claimed on Facebook that she knew why the power went out. She later said on Facebook that God was responsible.

Maness said a team of sheriff’s detectives visited her almost immediately Saturday evening and interviewed her. Sheriff Ronnie Fields was not among them, Maness said. At a Sunday news conference, Fields told reporters her claim was “false.”

Maness wouldn’t discuss whether Rainey told detectives anything that might aid them in their investigation.

“I’m not going to tell you what was said in that conversation because it was part of our investigation,” Maness said. “The only thing I will confirm is we talked with her, and we talked with her pretty quickly after we saw that post.”

Power back on

While most of Moore County regained power Wednesday, a day ahead of the initial schedule, the final handful of customers had their power restored by Thursday morning.

Duke Energy’s outage map indicated that service was on to all of its customers in the county. Power had mostly been restored Wednesday, but a handful of customers remained in the dark.

No arrests have been made in connection with Saturday’s gunfire that damaged substations in Carthage and West End, knocking out power for days.

The countywide curfew that had been in effect officially lifted at 5 a.m. Thursday. Emergency shelters, meals and laundry all closed around mid-day Thursday.

Moore County Schools said the district planned to make an official announcement about classes on Friday by 4 p.m. Thursday, but that its intention was to resume classes.

Click here to read more of our coverage on the Moore County power outages.

Anyone with information about the incident can call the Moore County Sheriff’s Office at 910-947-4444, and tips can also be sent to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or by contacting a local FBI office.

Duke Energy, Moore County and the State of North Carolina have each announced $25,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people who damaged the substations.

Other infrastructure attacks?

There were also reports Thursday of gunfire near Duke Energy’s Wateree Hydro Station in Ridgeway, South Carolina.

“No individuals were harmed. There are no outages reported. There is no known property damage at this time. We are working closely with the FBI on this issue,” Duke Energy said in a statement.

Another North Carolina substation was intentionally damaged last month, The News & Observer reported.

Someone intentionally damaged transformers on Nov. 11 at a substation near Maysville, causing them to leak coolant, according to the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative. About 12,000 homes lost power for a couple of hours in the incident, which remains under investigation.

A recent federal law enforcement memo points to an online call to attack critical infrastructure as a possible catalyst for a spate of substation attacks last month in the Pacific Northwest, NewsNation reported.

”In recent attacks, criminal actors bypassed security by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, shooting equipment from a distance or throwing objects over the fence and onto equipment,” the memo said, according to NewsNation.

At least four substations in Oregon and Washington were damaged, prompting the FBI to investigate, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

A security specialist with the Bonneville Power Authority, which markets hydropower in the region, cited extremist groups calling for the attacks and providing instructions in an email obtained by the public broadcaster.

“There has been a significant uptick in incidents of break-ins related to copper and tool or materials theft, but now we are dealing with quickly escalating incidents of sabotage,” security specialist Kenneth Worstell wrote, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.