Nearly two dozen shell casings from a high-powered rifle have been recovered from the sites where gunfire disabled two North Carolina electric substations last weekend and left much of a county without electricity service for days, according to law enforcement sources.
While investigators haven’t found a rifle, the casings still could offer critical evidence.
Gunfire damaged two substations in central North Carolina’s Moore County Saturday night – shootings officials have said were a “malicious” and “intentional” attack. Tens of thousands of utility customers were left without power through at least Wednesday morning, forcing schools to close, shuttering businesses that don’t have generators, and leaving many residents without heat.
Duke Energy utility expects most of its customers in the county to have power restored by late Wednesday, a Duke spokesman said. More than 33,000 utility customers were without power at 9 a.m. Wednesday, out of 63,800 tracked in the county, according to PowerOutage.us. More than 40,000 customers initially were affected Saturday night, Duke has said.
The outages began just after 7 p.m. Saturday, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office said, and no suspects or motives have been announced.
Bullets recovered from the sites, and the brass shell casings found a short distance away, are the few pieces of physical evidence that investigators have to work with.
Because of the heat generated in a high-powered rifle’s chamber during rapid fire, fingerprints are burned away – and nearly impossible to recover from spent casings. Still, the brass may offer valuable clues.
Investigators can enter the casings into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a database from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The database records three-dimensional images of shell casings and can match them to any other shell casings that may have been fired by the same gun at another crime scene or to the gun if the weapon is recovered.
The spot where the casings were found can give investigators a way to pinpoint the firing positions. Knowing where the shooter fired from could lead to discoveries such as shoe prints and tire tracks.
Without heating or electricity for medical equipment, some Moore County residents are staying at a shelter as crews rush to get power back on.
Power in Moore County is expected to be restored by late Wednesday, Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks said Tuesday.
But for now, schools are closed through Thursday, many stores and restaurants are shut, homes are without heating or running refrigerators, drivers are traversing intersections with no traffic lights, and a countywide 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is still in place.
A Red Cross-run emergency shelter was set up at the Moore County Sports Complex to help provide shelter, food, showers and other services to people impacted.
Nakasha Jackson, who came to the shelter to pick up some hot food, said the outage has been difficult for her 1-year-old child.
“No lights, no power, can’t really do nothing. The kid is scared of the dark,” she told CNN.
Jackson said sometimes she has to travel up to an hour one way to buy food. “It’s ridiculous. It should never have been done,” Jackson said.
Residents who rely on electricity-powered medical equipment have also seen their lives upended. One woman told CNN she came to the shelter because she had no power for her CPAP machine at night.
After two days of sleeping without it, she said she began to feel ill and came into the shelter for help.
Others have sought shelter fearing for their safety as they struggled to keep their homes warm.
“It’s different. It’s kind of hard to sleep, you know. But at the end of the day, I’d rather be somewhere where it’s warm, where we have food, where we’re taken care of than to be somewhere it’s freezing cold,” said Amber Sampson.
On top of having to stay at the shelter, Sampson hasn’t been able to work since Sunday after her employer also lost power – an issue that could end up costing her hundreds of dollars.
Authorities have expressed anger over the attack, with Carol Haney, mayor of Southern Pines – a town of about 15,900 residents that completely lost power – calling it a cruel and selfish act.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper voiced concern over businesses and residents in nursing homes.
“When we look at all the money that’s being lost by businesses here at Christmastime, when we look at threats to people in nursing homes having lost power, hospitals having to run off generators and not being able to do certain kinds of operations at this point – all of those are deep concerns here, and we can’t let this happen,” the governor told CNN on Tuesday.
“This was a malicious, criminal attack on the entire community.”
Duke Energy, which has about 47,000 customers in Moore County, has made “significant progress” since Saturday, Brooks said Tuesday, and expects most customers to have power restored by Wednesday, just before midnight.
“That will not happen all at once,” Brooks said. “You will see waves of customers coming on. A few thousand at a time.”
Brooks has said from the start that restoring power will be no easy task, since the gunfire damaged some equipment beyond repair.
“This is a very complicated process that involves equipment that has been moved into place to install,” Brooks said at a Tuesday news conference.
“It’s there but now we’re going through the process of calibrating and testing it and preparing it to synchronize with the electric grid, which is a very complex process.”
Cooper told CNN the state needs to learn from the incident and have a serious conversation about protecting critical infrastructure.
“It was clear that (whoever is behind the gunfire) knew how to cause significant damage, and that they could do it at this substation, so we have to reassess the situation,” Cooper said Tuesday.
Brooks, the Duke Energy spokesperson, said it’s up to investigators to determine whether the person or persons responsible for the outage knew how to cause widespread damage to the system.
“They hit the locations that created the outage, so take that for what it’s worth,” Brooks said Tuesday.
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields has said whoever fired at the substations “knew exactly what they were doing.” No group “has stepped up to acknowledge or accept they’re the ones who (did) it,” the sheriff said Sunday.
Investigators were trying to determine whether both substations were fired at simultaneously, or one after the other, the sheriff said Monday.
Officials are not disclosing whether cameras were at the two affected substations, because that is “part of the investigation that they do not want to reveal at this time,” Cooper said.
“If someone with a firearm can do this much damage and get power out to tens of thousands of people, then obviously we need to look at the different layers of infrastructure and hardening and make better decisions here,” Cooper said.