BELLS, Tenn. - Two white supremacists charged with plotting to behead blacks across the country and assassinate Barack Obama while wearing white top hats and tuxes were likely too disorganized to carry out the plot, authorities said, and their planning was riddled with blunders.
Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., and Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells are accused of dreaming up the plan. While authorities say they had guns capable of creating carnage, documents show they never got close to getting off the ground.
Among the blunders: They drew attention to themselves by etching swastikas on a car with sidewalk chalk, only knew each other for a month, couldn't even pull off a house robbery, and a friend ratted them out to authorities.
"Certainly these men have some frightening weapons and some very frightening plans," said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who studies the white supremacy movement. "But with the part about wearing top hats ... it gets a bit hard to take them seriously."
Despite making sure the plot was stopped, authorities did not believe Cowart and Schlesselman had the means to carry out their threat to assassinate Obama, said a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Asked whether the two suspects had Obama's schedule or plans to kill him at a specific time or place, a second law enforcement official who also was not authorized to speak publicly said, "I don't think they had that level of detail."
The two met online about a month ago, introduced by a friend and bound by a mutual belief in white supremacy, according to an affidavit written by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who interviewed them. Together, they chatted about how they could carry out such a terroristic spree, officials said. Schlesselman volunteered a sawed-off shotgun that would be "easier to manuever," and also took a gun from his father, according to an affidavit.
The plot referenced two numbers important to skinhead culture by aiming to take the lives of 88 people, and 14 of them would be beheaded. The number 14 refers to a 14-word phrase attributed to an imprisoned white supremacist: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children" and to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Two "8"s or "H"s stand for "Heil Hitler."
But that may have been as detailed as it got. Last week, Cowart drove to pick up Schlesselman from his Arkansas home so the plot could begin, according to the affidavit. They decided to start with a house robbery, and asked a friend to drive them. But when they got to the driveway, they saw a dog and two vehicles, and got spooked.
Armed with ski masks and nylon rope they purchased at a Wal-Mart, they tried again the next day to get started. Authorities say they decided to fire on the windows of a church, then bragged about it to a friend. She told her mother, who alerted the local sheriff. Investigators were able to trace the shell casings to the pair, and took them into custody after spotting their car, decorated with chalk-drawn swastikas and racially motivated words, along with the numbers "88" and "14."
Schlesselman's family said Tuesday that it was unlikely he was seriously planning an attack, even though he expressed hatred for blacks. A high school dropout who was unsuccessful finding work, he often spent time on the computer, his 16-year-old sister, Kayla said. She said she often argued with him about his racial beliefs, and he would say things like "Obama would make the world suffer."
He hated his tiny Delta hometown of Helena-West Helena because it was predominantly black, she said.
"He just believes that he's the master race," she said. "He would just say things like 'white power' and 'Sieg Heil' and 'Heil Hitler.'"
His father, Mike, also doubted the plot was serious. "I think it's just a lot of talk. He would never do something like this," he said.
Cowart worked at a grocery store in Bells for about a year, according to Scotty Runions, 54, who supervised him. Runions said Cowart was preoccupied with computers and bagged groceries at the store until about May 2007, before moving to Texas.
"The guy I saw on TV last night was not the same person that I knew, and I saw him about a month ago," Runions said. "This is something he's created in the past month - that's not the young man that we know."
The Southern Poverty Law Center traced Cowart to the Supreme White Alliance, a skinhead hate group organized this spring that describes itself on its Web site as a "Club based on Racial beliefs. and for those of you who don't know what that means, we are in fact Racist's."
But the link doesn't appear strong, and the group apparently kicked him out earlier this year. A post on the alliance's Web site accused the law center of lying about the extent of its connection with Cowart, but acknowledged that "one of the two young men was in fact a probate earlier this year but was ousted."
The group's leader on Tuesday condemned the plot and denied that Cowart had been a part of his "club," but nevertheless said he was resigning as its president over negative publicity the case generated.
"We don't go out and start trouble. We are more like a social club. We just hang out," Steve Edwards of Central City, Ky., told The Associated Press.
Potok, the law center's intelligence director, said Cowart is shown in a photograph of an April alliance gathering to commemorate Hitler's birthday.
"The chances are excellent he was booted out when he was in the news in a way that didn't reflect wonderfully on them," Potok said.
Attorneys for Cowart and Schesselman haven't commented, but Schlesselman's sister said Tuesday she spoke with him after the charges were made public. "He said he's sorry about everything he's done," she said.
The plot was the third high-profile incident involving death threats against Obama in the last three months.
Raymond Hunter Geisel, 22, has pleaded not guilty to charges he threatened to assassinate Obama and President Bush. Authorities said Geisel kept an arsenal of weaponry and military gear and made the threats while attending a training class to become a bail bondsman.
A group of men who sparked fears of an assassination plot against Obama during the Democratic Party's presidential convention in Denver in August. Authorities said the men had guns and bulletproof vests and made racist threats against Obama, but were high on methamphetamine and posed no true danger.