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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.

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