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Terrorism suspect told police he damaged power facility for ‘greater good’

Updated January 10, 2023 - 7:24 pm

A terrorism suspect told Las Vegas police that he was not trying to sabotage the power facility when he set a car on fire last week at the MGM Mega Solar Array.

Mohammed Mesmarian “admitted he knew setting a vehicle on fire could cause damage to the unit, but stated he did it for the big message, larger picture, greater good,” an officer wrote in an arrest report released Tuesday afternoon. “He explained the greater good was clean energy.”

Earlier Tuesday, a Las Vegas judge ordered a competency evaluation for the 34-year-old suspect after he was removed from a courtroom for twice interrupting another defendant’s hearing.

According to the heavily redacted arrest report, Mesmarian broke into the facility on the 10500 block of U.S. Highway 93, 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas, by crashing a maroon Toyota Camry through a fence at 3:57 p.m. on Jan. 3. He then spent the next few hours taking photos, turning off part of the “transfer switch,” and driving his car closer to the transformer in the facility’s control room.

Mesmarian set the car on fire about 10 minutes after midnight and spent nearly 20 minutes sitting in a chair watching the flames before leaving the property, the report said.

Although employees arrived at the facility at about 6 a.m. on Jan. 4, they did not discover the burnt vehicle until nearly 11:30 a.m., the report said.

Mesmarian told police he had been in Las Vegas for about five days and had spent some time working on the Toyota, which belonged to his grandmother.

“Mesmarian made comments he was born in Iran, works odd jobs and was in town with his mother,” the report said.

He said he burned the vehicle “because it uses gasoline and oil as well as produces carbon emissions.” Destroying the vehicle was to send messages that the car “reminded him of harmful memories,” and “to let go of the old forms of energy which were represented by the burning vehicle,” the report said.

About seven hours before the car crashed through the facility fence, employees caught Mesmarian trespassing at a Republic Services landfill near U.S. Highway 93 and Interstate 15, less than 7 miles from the solar array. Police were called to the landfill and spoke with Mesmarian, but it was unclear if he was detained.

The MGM Solar Array is a collection of 323,000 panels arranged across 640 acres, which produces up to 90 percent of MGM Resorts’ Las Vegas daytime power needs across 13 properties. The solar array is the hospitality industry’s largest directly sourced renewable electricity project worldwide.

Although the extent of the damage is unclear, an employee told police that the entire facility would have to be shut down until an inspection is complete, which could take several weeks, the report said.

Chicago-based array owner and operator Invenergy has said the facility is expected to be fully operational this week.

Courtroom interruptions

During Tuesday’s court hearing, Mesmarian raised his hand and asked if he could speak before he stood up and started talking.

“There’s so much wrong in the whole system since I entered here,” Mesmarian told Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Nadia Wood before officers led him out of the room. “There’s just a bunch of Black people stuck in a room together.”

When Mesmarian was brought back into the courtroom, Wood said the defendant’s attorney had requested that he undergo a competency evaluation.

Mesmarian answered “OK” when the judge told him he was being ordered to undergo the evaluation. As he was led out of the room, Mesmarian interrupted the proceedings again.

“What are we doing about changing things?” Mesmarian said, laughing.

His defense attorney, Nicholas Pitaro, declined to comment on the case following the hearing.

After Mesmarian’s iPhone was found in the back seat of the burnt vehicle, he was arrested Thursday at the Boulder Beach campground in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, police said.

It is unclear how Mesmarian got to the campground from the power facility. The arrest report indicated only that investigators located him using “advanced investigative techniques.”

Mesmarian was found in a travel trailer with an Idaho license plate, the report said. Inside a Dodge Ram pickup truck at the campsite, police found multiple firearms and a notebook with the word “solar” written on the first page.

The suspect tried to run from police while at the campsite, while being taken into an interview room at Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, and while being taken to the Clark County Detention Center, the report said.

When asked why he tried to escape, Mesmarian said he “wanted to experience the feeling of what Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors felt when they were tazed by the police.”

Other attacks

Mesmarian faces charges of committing an act of terrorism, escape by a prisoner, and two counts each of arson and destruction of property valued at $5,000 or more, court records show.

The FBI is helping Las Vegas police investigate the attack. Nationwide, the number of attacks on power grid facilities increased in 2022, and more recent attacks on substations on Christmas Day knocked out power in five states.

An officer wrote in the arrest report that recent attacks across the U.S. have coincided with “propaganda circulating online … to attack critical infrastructure, including power grids.” Investigators believe that a recent attack in Moore County, North Carolina, was motivated by an online document that listed specific facilities to target, including several locations in the Las Vegas Valley, the report said.

The officer who authored the report noted that Mesmarian’s “true motivations” are unknown.

“At this point in the investigation it’s too early to rule anything out,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Dickerson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Tuesday. “But I can say that we don’t currently have any information that directly connects him to any of those other attacks.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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