Investigators Search for Suspects in 4 Seattle-Area Substation Attacks

Dec. 27, 2022
The four Pierce County electrical substation break-ins started early Christmas morning, and Washington law enforcement officials aren't ready to connect the attacks with similar incidents elsewhere.

SEATTLE — Law enforcement officials still don’t have suspects or a motive for break-ins that badly damaged four Pierce County electrical substations on Christmas Day and left hundreds of customers without power Monday afternoon.

Nor are police ready to say whether the incidents were coordinated or connected to a recent string of similar incidents at substations in the Pacific Northwest and on the East Coast.

“People want to associate (Sunday’s incidents) with whatever’s going on in North Carolina and Oregon and Southern Washington,” said Sgt. Darren Moss, a Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, referring to the locations of several earlier incidents at substations.

But “we’re (just) guessing until we have more information,” Moss added.

The Pierce County break-ins, which started early Christmas morning, struck Tacoma Power substations in Spanaway and Graham and a Puget Sound Energy substation in Puyallup.

Just after 7 p.m., police received reports of a fourth incident, this one at a PSE substation on the Kapowsin Highway northeast of La Grande, where damage caused during the break-in started a fire.

“The suspect(s) gained access to the fenced area and vandalized the equipment which caused the fire,” according to the sheriff’s department, which has beefed up patrols near county substations.

All four incidents involved forced entry and heavily damaged equipment, and initially cut power to more than 14,000 customers in eastern Pierce County, according to police and utility officials.

Power was restored to most of those affected customers Sunday evening, but some areas were still without electricity Monday, according to utility maps.

As of about 11 a.m. Monday, around 500 PSE customers and around 650 Tacoma Power customers were still without power due to the vandalism, the utilities said.

PSE said around 2 p.m. Monday that power for all its affected customers had been restored. Power was restored to Tacoma Power customers by 4 p.m. Monday, according to a tweet by the utility.

“We know this has been a long couple days for our customers without power,” the utility said. “While conducting final checks, our crews discovered another issue that must be fixed before deploying a mobile substation to restore around 650 customers.”

Customers are likely to have their power back well before law enforcement officials are able to explain who broke into the substations or why they did it.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department still has no suspects in any of the incidents.

Moss said many substations have camera systems, but declined to say what investigators had learned by reviewing any video of the incidents. The cameras will “be a big help in the investigation, but we can’t really release … any details just yet.”

Moss said Pierce County is taking the lead in the investigation but that federal law enforcement could be involved later. In the meantime, Pierce residents are asked to call 9-1-1 to report any suspicious activity near a power facility.

Police were also careful to avoid characterizing the incidents as attacks or linking them to other similar incidents at power facilities in recent months.

The motives in those earlier incidents aren’t clear. But energy experts have long warned that the nation’s power grid would be a top target for domestic terrorists. Members of white supremacist and anti-government groups have been linked to some previous plots.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo warned in January that extremist groups have been creating “credible, specific plans” to attack power facilities since at least 2020. This month, two North Carolina electricity substations were shot up and damaged, causing thousands of people to lose power.

Vandals have also hit power facilities in Clackamas County, Oregon, and near Woodland, Cowlitz County, just north of Portland, according to reporting by KUOW and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Although the four break-ins on Sunday were similar in many respects to some of the earlier attacks, Moss said it was too early to conclude whether the incidents were all coordinated and politically motivated, or whether at least some were potentially copycat incidents.

Moss acknowledged that many area residents were anxious to know who was behind the break-ins and what their motives are. But he also said the incidents have spurred numerous conspiracy theories online.

“You see George Soros, you see extreme right-wing, you see Antifa and extreme left-wing,” Moss said. In one case, Moss said, a local journalist had contacted him and asked whether Moss thought “that this could possibly be related to homeless people and not extreme right-wing people?'”


©2022 The Seattle Times.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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