Nearly two dozen shell casings from a high-powered rifle have been recovered from the sites where gunfire last weekend knocked out two electrical substations in North Carolina and left much of a county without electricity for days, according to police sources.
While investigators have not found a gun, the casings may still provide crucial evidence.
Gunfire damaged two substations in central North Carolina’s Moore County Saturday night — shootings were a “malicious” and “intentional” attack, officials said. Tens of thousands of utility customers were without power at least Wednesday morning, forcing schools to close, businesses without generators to shut down and many residents without heating.
The power company Duke Energy expects most of its customers in the province to have power restored by late Wednesday, a Duke spokesperson said. More than 33,000 utility customers were without power as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, of the 63,800 being tracked in the county, according to PowerOutage.us. More than 40,000 customers were initially affected Saturday night, Duke said.
The disturbance began just after 7 p.m. Saturday, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office said, and no suspects or motives have been disclosed.
Bullets found at the sites and the copper casings found a short distance away are the few pieces of physical evidence for investigators to work with.
Due to the heat generated in the chamber of a high-powered rifle during rapid fire, fingerprints are burned off – and nearly impossible to recover from used casings. Still, the copper can provide valuable clues.
Investigators can enter the casings into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a database maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The database records three-dimensional images of shell casings and can match them with other shell casings that may have been fired from the same weapon at a different crime scene or with the weapon if the weapon is recovered.
The site where the shell casings were found may provide investigators with a way to pinpoint the firing positions. Knowing where the shooter fired from can lead to discoveries such as shoe prints and tire tracks.
With no heat or electricity for medical equipment, some Moore County residents are staying at a shelter as crews scramble to turn the power back on.
Power in Moore County is expected to be restored by late Wednesday, Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said Tuesday.
But for now, schools are closed through Thursday, many shops and restaurants are closed, homes have no heating or refrigerators, motorists drive through intersections with no traffic lights, and there is still a nationwide curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
A Red Cross-led emergency shelter was set up at the Moore County Sports Complex to provide shelter, food, showers and other services to those affected.
Nakasha Jackson, who came to the shelter to pick up some hot food, said the disturbance was difficult for her 1-year-old child.
“No light, no power, really can’t do anything. The boy is afraid of the dark,” she told CNN.
Jackson said she sometimes has to travel an hour to buy food. “It’s ridiculous. It should never have happened,” Jackson said.
Residents who rely on electrical medical equipment have also seen their lives turned upside down. One woman told CNN she came to the shelter because she had no power for her CPAP machine at night.
After going without sleep for two days, she said she started feeling sick and came to the shelter for help.
Others have sought shelter in fear for their safety as they struggle 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 warm, where we have food, where we’re taken care of, than somewhere where it’s ice cold,” says Amber Sampson.
In addition to having to stay at the shelter, Sampson has been unable to work since Sunday after her employer also lost power — a problem that could end up costing her hundreds of dollars.
Authorities have expressed anger at the attack, with Carol Haney, mayor of Southern Pines — a town of about 15,900 that lost power completely — calling it a cruel and selfish act.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper expressed concern for businesses and residents in nursing homes.
“When we look at all the money companies are losing here at Christmas time, when we look at threats to people in nursing homes that have lost power, hospitals that have to run generators and can’t perform certain types of surgeries at the moment. — those are all big 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 back on Wednesday, just before midnight.
“It’s not going to happen all at once,” Brooks said. “You see waves of customers coming. A few thousand at a time.”
Brooks has said from the start that restoring power will not be an easy task as the gunfire damaged some equipment beyond repair.
“This is a very complicated process that involves equipment being moved into place to be installed,” Brooks said at a news conference Tuesday.
“It’s there, but now we’re going through the process of calibrating and testing and preparing to sync with the power 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 do significant damage, and they could do it at this substation, so we need to reassess the situation,” Cooper said Tuesday.
Brooks, Duke Energy’s spokesperson, said it is 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 caused 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 forward to acknowledge or accept that they are the ones who (have) done it,” the sheriff said on Sunday.
Investigators were trying to determine whether both substations were fired on at the same time or one after the other, the sheriff said Monday.
Officials are not disclosing whether there were cameras at the two affected substations because that is “part of the investigation that they are not willing to divulge at this time,” Cooper said.
“If someone with a firearm can do that much damage and power tens of thousands of people, then of course we need to look at the different layers of infrastructure and pavement and make better decisions here,” Cooper said.