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The story of Jason Woodring, the Arkansas power grid vandal 

The FBI calls him a 'terrorist.'

Jason Woodring

Jason Woodring

"During daytime a great clap of lightning / Ill omen from the bearer of tidings"

— Nostradamus, "The Prophecies"

The lights went out in Cabot one morning last August, and the only person who knew why was a 37-year-old self-employed pool guy named Jason Zebulin Woodring.

Heavyset, bald and bearded, Woodring lived with his mother in nearby Jacksonville, in a house that one person who knew him described as a "maze" and a "hoarder's junkyard." He'd long been fascinated by engineering, but had recently taken a special interest in the mechanics of electricity, and for the better part of a month had been making the trek to a particularly impressive high-voltage transmission tower by a wooded stretch of railroad track outside the Cabot city limits. For a number of reasons, most of which he would keep to himself, it had become apparent to him that the tower would have to come down. The only trouble was how he'd do it.

The enormous metal structure was secured to its concrete base by 125 thick steel bolts, which he began removing, a few per visit, until there were only five left. He then strung a steel cable from 25 feet up the tower to the top of a tree on the other side of the tracks, a tree he scaled by nailing slabs of wood into the trunk to make a ladder. With some blue plastic hose, the type he used at his day job, he insulated the cable so that it wouldn't trigger the track's defect detector as he pulled it over the tracks, but this didn't do the trick. The cable wasn't strong enough; it was snapped by the first passing train. This is how Woodring found himself climbing to the peak of the transmission tower, 100 feet in the air, in the early morning hours of Aug. 21. With a hacksaw, he sawed away at the connectors holding up one of the power lines until he severed them, and the line, still live and carrying 500,000 volts of electricity, fell draped over the track. He dropped the saw, climbed down, got back in his truck and drove home. It was the day before his birthday.

That same morning, a Union Pacific freight train struck the downed power line and burst through it, causing immediate outages in the area and damage that investigators would later estimate at over $100,000. The FBI, speculating that whoever caused the attack must "possess above-average knowledge or skill in electrical matters," offered a $20,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. But no information was forthcoming. And as far as Woodring was concerned, he'd failed: The tower didn't fall.

***

A few years earlier, Gerald Mabrey was driving down Jacksonville's John Shelton Road, coming home from work, when he came across a pile of garbage in the street blocking his way: a box-spring, a ripped mattress, several other odds and ends. It was directly in front of a house that he recognized immediately as belonging to his neighbors, the Woodrings. He was hesitant to do anything that might provoke them. There were the gunshots and loud music at all hours of the night, the ominous black plastic tarp that circled their property and the huge, inexplicable circus tent in the back yard, visible from the street and somehow unnerving to most who noticed it. Mabrey had heard strange stories.

The junk was too vast to get around, so he got out and started dragging things off the road. Right away he heard cursing coming from the darkened house, and an angry voice rang out: "Quit throwing that stuff in my ditch." He got back in his car and drove the rest of way home. Frustrated by the unfairness of the situation, though, he decided to go back and confront his neighbor, and so climbed up on their porch and knocked on the door. As soon as it opened, he launched into his prepared speech, saying that he shouldn't have to deal with this kind of thing in the middle of the road. Jason Woodring stood back, surprised and pale, and withdrew quietly into the clutter of the house.

Other altercations would follow. Mabrey's girlfriend's daughter was visiting one afternoon when she ran into the house and announced that there was a man shouting at her from the trees. He went outside and, sure enough, Woodring had climbed a tree on his property and was yelling something incoherent at them through a megaphone. This time Mabrey decided to call the police. When they arrived, the officers seemed, if anything, unsurprised. They warned Mabrey against confronting his neighbor, and admitted it wasn't the first time they'd been called about him. They told him of the steadily escalating rivalry between Woodring and some of the local kids: They'd been painting insulting comments about him on the street in front of his house, and in response, most recently, he'd thrown a glass of urine at them. He'd also set up a new sign in his yard that read, "If I catch you speeding up and down this street I will stab you in the face with a soldering iron."

Mabrey decided at this point that he'd be better off letting it go, leaving his neighbor be. He was unsettled, but he also felt something else, something like sympathy. "I'm sure he drew first blood," he said, "but people can be driven over the cliff if they're already close to it. And there is two sides to every story. For all I know he could have been a Vietnam veteran or something of that nature."

Jason Woodring isn't a Vietnam veteran. He was born in 1976, a year after the war ended, in Fallbrook, Calif., a city not much bigger than Jacksonville and situated near the lower tip of the state, in that region sometimes called the Inland Empire. His father, Ed, worked construction, and his mother, Jeanne, worked mostly for debt collection agencies. One relative described him as a "happy little clumsy kid."

The trouble started when he left home after graduation and enrolled in a local tech school. He couldn't hold down a job and became briefly homeless, living out of his van. His friends mention "drama with his girlfriend," and the Riverside County, Calif., Sheriff's Department cites an outstanding warrant for vandalism and criminal trespassing. He dropped out of school before finishing his second year, and when his mother decided to follow his older brother to Arkansas in the mid-'90s, it didn't take much to convince Jason to join them. It would be a fresh start.

One person who knew Woodring in these years remembers him as "talented" and "book smart." He liked to read, to research and be knowledgeable about things. "If he set his mind on something, he would go and try to figure out as much as he could about it." He played lead guitar and sang in a band, and fell in with a group that bonded over a shared love for heavy metal. Also, crystal meth. Woodring had been into drugs since high school, and rural Arkansas presented new opportunities in this realm.

"He could be a lot of fun," his friend remembered. "He just didn't know when to stop." One night, when he was living and working as the pool maintenance man at Eastwood Apartments in Jacksonville, he decided to throw a party in the complex's pool. He invited all of his friends, and bought fireworks for the occasion. They got stoned and the fireworks got progressively more ambitious. He set off the grand finale by the back door of an elderly disabled woman who lived in the building. Frightened, she fell and broke her arm.

"He's arrogant," his friend said. "I remember he'd get wasted and tell us he was God. Everybody called him Fat Bastard."

***

The second attack came a little over a month after the incident with the train. Woodring knew the FBI was involved at this point, but this didn't concern him. At around 4:30 a.m. Sep. 29, he broke into an Extremely High Voltage switching station off U.S. Highway 165 outside Scott, one of those fenced-in compounds that holds transformers, reactors and other devices used to regulate power flow. He'd scouted the substation for several days before he acted, parking his truck nearby, waiting and making sure it was the right spot for his purposes.

When he'd made up his mind, he used bolt cutters to break through the fence and to cut two padlocks at the door to the control house. He'd brought along a gallon jug of E85 ethanol gas and motor oil, and when he was inside he splashed the mixture all over the control panel and the floor. By now, he would have known that the alarms had already been activated and that the power company, Entergy, had received a series of intruder alerts. He would have had to move quickly.

When the local sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene, the station was in flames and Woodring was gone. The control house was, as the FBI would later report, "consumed" by the fire, and damages this time exceeded $2 million. The deputies also found a message Woodring left behind, scrawled on a metal panel near the entry gate in black marker. He wrote it with his left hand, to disguise his handwriting. It seemed to combine a slogan for Anonymous, the mysterious network of Internet activists, with an oblique reference to the federal government, a kind of paranoid double entendre.

It said: "YOU SHOULD HAVE EXPECTED U.S."

***

Woodring's life in Arkansas hadn't worked out the way he had hoped. His brother got a divorce, joined the military and was stationed in Germany. His father, who had separated from his mother years before, moved to Missouri, where he lived off disability from a bad back. Pool maintenance was OK in the warmer months, but for much of the year he was forced to find work elsewhere. In the winter, he worked at grocery stores and video rental shops and gas stations earning minimum wage. He moved in with his mother.

One bright spot came in 2007, when his girlfriend had a child, a son they named Jason. His mother often took care of the boy, but noticed right away that something was off. The boy didn't look like him. In fact, though his name was on the birth certificate and he volunteered to act as the boy's father, Woodring wasn't, according to someone close to the family. That September, at barely a month old, the child died in its sleep. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. "I know he always wanted a kid," one friend said. "He wanted to be a dad."

Woodring's drug use got worse. He'd spend as much as $500 a week on meth, which he'd started taking intravenously. The friend describes him as becoming "vindictive" and "very unpredictable." There are stories, the friend said, about him cutting the brake lines on someone's truck, chasing after someone else with a cattle prod, throwing rocks and sticks at an acquaintance's windows in the middle of the night after a bar fight. There were DWIs. By 2009, he was in court for credit card debt, and soon after that he was sued for writing a bad check.

Meanwhile, Woodring kept up on his reading. He read the Bible. He was always surrounded by books on engineering, and had become increasingly fixated on various conspiracy theories, on "subliminal messages coming from the TV" and other plots. "He was really stuck on the whole Nostradamus thing," his friend said, referring to the 16th century French seer who supposedly predicted all manner of contemporary world-historical events in his "Prophecies."

His fits of rage soon started flaring up even with strangers. He was arrested in 2010 for taking a shovel to someone's truck in the parking lot of a Walmart in North Little Rock. The truck's owner claimed not to know him, that it was "very bizarre." Early last year, a woman filed a restraining order against him after he kicked in the fender of her car at a Lowe's because he didn't like her parking job. The day before he was supposed to show up in court for the arraignment, she woke up to find someone had poured green paint all over the car. According to the prosecuting attorney in the case, Hugh Finkelstein, they found no direct evidence linking Woodring to the paint. "Just coincidence," Finkelstein said, laughing.

***

A week after the fire at the substation, Woodring struck again. The FBI reward had been raised to $25,000, and Woodring's court dates for the criminal mischief cases were stacking up and fast approaching. There was a certain route he took sometimes while walking his dog in the miles of fields around Billy Lane and Phillips Road behind his house. He must have looked up one day, out on one of these walks, and noticed the power lines.

He borrowed a chain saw and tried cutting through one of power poles, right there in his own neighborhood. He cut the guy wires and splintered the pole, but it didn't fall. He went home and got an axe. He would have been sweating, his pupils likely dilated from the meth and the effort. He walked to a second pole nearby and swung the axe as hard as he could against it over and over, to force it down. He tried a splitting wedge, too, bashing it into the pole to break it apart, but it still wouldn't fall.

Across the street from his house, the power company had left a tree-trimming vehicle called a Kershaw SkyTrim, a kind of tractor with large treaded wheels and a long boom with a rotating saw at the end that could be extended high into the air. It was perfect, so Woodring stole it. He drove it off-road, back into the fields, and used it to finish the job, dragging down one of the poles and immediately thrusting 10,000 local customers of First Electric Cooperative into the dark.

A few days later, at around noon on Oct. 11, someone reported an explosion in the neighborhood. Sheriff's deputies responded to the call and found blue hose lying by the road, the type used by a pool maintenance man.

That afternoon, Gerald Mabrey was coming home from work again on John Shelton and noticed a line of cars along the street stretching for about a hundred yards. There were police cars and South Bend Fire Department trucks and a black, unmarked van with a crime lab in the back. The block was swarmed by men in bulletproof FBI vests. "They told me he'd done it," Mabrey said, "and I said, 'OK, it don't surprise me none.' "

Inside the house, Lt. James Kulesa of the Lonoke County Sheriff's Office made his way through the mess and found Woodring's room. There was a sawed-off shotgun under the bed and a plastic wrapper filled with white powder on a shelf nearby. He kept looking and found a glass jar filled with "reddish powder," one with "dark liquid" and a tube attached to the lid, countless boxes of matches, a plastic funnel and a bottle of iodine. Outside, they found acid, a grinder, a jar filled with more white powder and various bottles of chemicals. There were two rifles and two more shotguns. There was a boat behind the house that had been reported stolen months before.

***

Woodring was charged with five felonies in Lonoke County and indicted on eight counts by a federal grand jury. Appearing in federal court in November, he wore a dark blue shirt and shackles. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Volpe asked him a number of questions, beginning with his name, but Woodring stayed silent.

"I'm not really sure what to do here," Volpe said. He moved on to another defendant, and then came back to Woodring, who once again refused to answer any questions. "Is this an issue of defiance, or has Mr. Woodring got a mental problem?" he asked, and then, "Is there some reason you're not speaking?" Woodring shook his head and said, "I have the right to remain silent, do I not?"

Among the federal charges Woodring faces, domestic terrorism is the most serious. He appears in this context, as a terrorist, in the FBI's new budget request for 2015. "Woodring claimed he committed the acts alone," the document reports, "and stated his motivation was anger with the direction of the country and a belief his actions would garner attention and get people talking." (The FBI declined to comment for this story.) He is set to stand trial Oct. 14, and if convicted on the terrorism charge, he'll face life in prison. For now, Woodring is in Little Rock, in the custody of federal marshals at the Pulaski County Jail. Mental evaluations were ordered at both the state and federal level, though the state psychologist began his report by noting that Woodring refused to speak during his interview. A federal psychologist was more successful. The evaluation, which was held in Los Angeles earlier this year, concluded that he doesn't suffer from a mental disorder, that he's fit to understand his charges, stand trial and defend himself, but it's a strange, bleak document.

Woodring and the examiner talked about his childhood, about the time he cut a boy's hair off with scissors and threatened to throw him out of a window. The report claims that as a child, Woodring "kind of" tortured animals. That with his friends, he would throw mud balls at passing cars, urinate in Laundromat dryers and put " 'nasty things' such as pee, dog feces, vomit, in people's cars who had their windows open." They would "bow hunt and corner animals to do 'bad things' to them."

They discussed his relationship history. "In his longest relationship of 4 years," the examiner writes, "his girlfriend had four abortions against his will." They discussed his son. "He reported that he had a relationship with a 'drug addict' who killed his 5-week-old son in September 2007 because she was taking medications while breastfeeding the child."

The evaluator also interviewed Woodring's mother, who "spoke at length on [Jason's] beliefs about the government and the current state of the world, including his lack of interpersonal interactions and intense focus on technology." Jeanne Woodring told them that the first time she visited him in jail, his eyes were clear. "He smiled," she said, and "looked alive for the first time." She said it was "like having my son back."

Gerald Mabrey still drives by the Woodrings' house every day. "I see his red truck sitting in his driveway right where he left it," he said, "and I can't help but feel compassion for the man knowing he's in an 8-by-10 cell somewhere. It's sad to see his truck still sitting there day after day after day, and knowing he probably won't ever get out of prison. In spite of it all, he's one of God's children."

Woodring's friends just wonder what else he could have done with his life, had he devoted his energy elsewhere. "He could have been in a popular band," one said. "He could have been an engineer."

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