Jan. 29 incident at county’s Carlton Water Treatment Facility near Venice similar in nature to other domestic terrorist attacks

44-year-old North Port woman charged on variety of accounts, including trying to disrupt operations of public utility facility

Maegan N. Grimes. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

A 44-year-old North Port woman was arrested on Jan. 29 after driving a pickup truck through two gates at Sarasota County’s T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Water Treatment Facility outside Venice, striking three county employees following her exit from the vehicle, and then hitting a button that shuts off the plant’s operations, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has reported.

County staff told The Sarasota News Leader that the facility’s service was not disrupted.

Maegan Nichol Grimes, of 6098 Hollywood Ave. in North Port, has been charged with multiple counts, as noted in the Sheriff’s Office Probable Cause Affidavit: disruption of a public utility system; burglary with assault or battery; property damage of $1,000 or more; and resisting an officer without violence.

The affidavit explains that Grimes “entered a secure area by ramming two gates with her pickup truck, resulting in damage exceeding $1,000, and “willfully and without authorization physically tampered with an electronic device” that could disrupt the water treatment facility’s operations.

In response to a News Leader inquiry about the situation, Sarasota County staff issued the following statement on Jan. 30: “The County was made aware of an incident Monday morning at the Carlton Water Treatment Facility.

“An individual crashed their vehicle through the gates leading to the facility, and thereafter gained access to the inside, but not to our water supply. No staff were injured during the incident, nor were there any disruptions to service.

“Local law enforcement was notified immediately, and the Sheriff’s Office is investigating the situation. We are assisting with the investigation as needed,” the statement concluded.

A county resident who contacted the News Leader via email on the morning of Jan. 30 described the scene outside the facility: The first gate, near the Mabry Carlton Parkway, “has been torn away and lies bent in a pile of rubble.

“The second gate at the plant itself has also been completely demolished and lies in pieces inside the razor wire perimeter,” the resident added.

The Carlton Facility provided 16% of the county’s drinking water supply in 2022, as shown in the county’s Public Utilities Department’s annual report for that year.

Mike Mylett, then the Public Utilities director, told the county commissioners in November 2023 that the Carlton plant is expected to provide 32% of the supply this year, thanks to a rehabilitation initiative that staff completed in 2023. That work raised the facility’s production capacity to 12 million gallons a day. (Mylett retired in November 2023.)

As of Feb. 1, Grimes was continuing to be held under a total of $22,500 bond on part of the counts, with her arraignment set for Feb. 9, the Sheriff’s Office’s Corrections Division report showed.

The incident was reported just after 9 a.m. on Jan. 29, the affidavit notes. The Carlton Facility stands at 1255 Mabry Carlton Parkway in Venice.

Although a variety of physical attacks — characterized as domestic terrorism — have been reported on power plants across the United States in recent years, and numerous cyber attacks have been documented in regard to water treatment systems, Evan Keats, director of the Sheriff’s Office’s Community Affairs Division, told the News Leader that a Sheriff’s Office sergeant who was on the scene on Jan. 29 had reported that “there appears to be no nexus to terrorism” in this situation. Nonetheless, Keats added in a Jan. 31 email, “The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) was notified following the incident.”

How the incident unfolded

This Public Utilities Department graphic shows the location of the facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Upon arrival at the facility, the Probable Cause Affidavit says, a deputy learned from “multiple victims on scene” that they saw a black truck “flying down the road that led to the Water Treatment Plant and crash into a concrete light pole.” After Grimes exited the truck, the affidavit continues, she “started running around and stripping her clothes off.”

County workers walked outside to find out what was going on, the affidavit adds.

Then, Grimes started hitting two of the employees, the affidavit says, before she “grabbed a fire extinguisher from the building, pointed it at the victims, and threatened them.”

Following that action, the affidavit notes, she ran into the generator room, “saying she was going to start a fire.”

All of the victims tried to stop her from entering the room, “which she did anyway,” the affidavit says.

One of the employees followed her into the room, the affidavit adds, “where he saw her hit the ‘system shut off’ button, which stops the operations of the water treatment plant.”

As the employees tried to stop her from pushing more buttons, the affidavit says, she struck one of them in the face. Finally, the employees were able to remove Grimes from the building, the affidavit adds.

The Sheriff’s Office sergeant who was on the scene when the deputy arrived told the deputy that “he observed [Grimes] attempting to put her clothes on. She refused to comply with [the sergeant’s] commands and began pulling away as he was trying to detain her,” the affidavit continues. The sergeant told the deputy that he had to force Grimes onto the ground to handcuff her.

After Sheriff’s Office personnel read Grimes her Miranda rights, the affidavit adds, she “made several excited utterances …” The copy of the affidavit that Keats of the Sheriff’s Office provided to the News Leader — at the publication’s request — redacted the line containing those statements.

The incident was captured by video surveillance, the affidavit says.

This county graphic shows details about the upgrades at the Carlton Water Treatment Facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Prior charges against Grimes

A News Leader check of the records of the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller found that Grimes previously was charged with speeding in August 2021 and then, in March 2022, with battery on a person age 65 or older.

In fact, Grimes still was on probation in the aftermath of sentencing in the latter case when the Jan. 29 incident occurred at the Carlton Water Treatment Facility, court and Sheriff’s Office records show.

The Probable Cause Affidavit in the battery case said that that incident was reported at a single-family home, though the address was redacted.

When a Sheriff’s Office deputy arrived at the residence, the affidavit noted, Grimes’ husband, Evan, explained that “his wife became physically and verbally abusive to the family after she decided she wanted to purchase a motorcycle. He said she has been behaving in an erratic manner lately and has begun self medicating with marijuana instead of seeing a doctor.”

The affidavit added that Evan Grimes “said he is afraid for the safety of the family due to  her behavior. Evan made a vague statement that he had been slapped by his wife but had no visible signs of being struck and no other family member corroborated his statement. He said that he saw his wife shove the Victim, causing her to hit the wall.”

Circuit Judge Donna Padar. Image from the court’s website

The victim, whose name was redacted in the affidavit, then told the officer “that Maegan was yelling and causing a disturbance. [The victim] said that while in the hallway of the home Maegan put both hands on [the victim’s] upper chest/shoulder area and shoved her forcefully backward where she struck a wall. Victim described hitting the wall with enough force to cause her head to hurt,” but the affidavit noted that the victim declined medical treatment.

The 8-year-old son of Maegan and Evan Grimes provided an account of the event that “matched what both Evan and Victim had told me,” the deputy wrote in the affidavit’s narrative.

“Maegan denied striking anyone and said she just wanted to buy a motorcycle,” the affidavit said.

In May 2022, court records show, Maegan Grimes entered a plea of nolo contendere — No Contest — in that case and was sentenced to two years of probation.

In June 2023, Grimes, acting on her own behalf, filed a motion seeking early termination of the probation. Written by hand, the document said she had completed all conditions of her probation, including taking a parenting class and finishing a 16-week anger management program, along with paying the court costs and fines.

However, in an order dated July 25, 2023, Circuit Judge Donna M. Padar denied Grimes’ request, pointing out that Grimes had failed to show up for the hearing on the motion, and the State Attorney’s Office had objected to the request for early termination of probation.

Domestic terrorism cases involving power stations

In January 2023, TIME magazine published an article documenting incidents that had raised concerns among federal authorities that extremists had begun targeting the nation’s power grid.

The article, by Vera Bergengruen, explained, “A string of mysterious attacks on power stations across the U.S. has rekindled fears about the vulnerabilities of America’s electricity infrastructure, which security officials have warned presents a growing target to extremists and saboteurs.”

Bergengruen continued, “Attacks and suspicious activity at U.S. power stations reached a decade-long high last year, with more than 100 reported incidents in the first eight months of 2022, according to a TIME review of the Department of Energy’s most recent data, which runs through August [2022]. Since then, there have been at least 18 ore publicly reported attacks or potential attacks on substations and power plants in Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington.”

The article noted that at least half a dozen attacks involved Duke Energy facilities in Florida.

In “the most high-profile incident,” the article reported, intruders breached the gates and opened fire on two Duke Energy substations in Moore County, N.C., in early December [2022], damaging equipment in what local authorities called a ‘targeted’ attack that cut off the power for more than 45,000 people.”

Then the article explained, “It’s not clear who’s behind all this. But the surge has alarmed federal officials and security analysts, who warned last year of ‘credible, specific plans’ by violent domestic groups to attack the power grid. Violent conspiracies focused on targeting and destroying energy infrastructure have become one of the top themes on extremist social-media platforms and messaging apps.”

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