SALT LAKE CITY — An Escalante man who investigators say had plans to knock out power to the West Coast was sentenced to prison Tuesday for shooting at a substation, causing blackouts in two southern Utah counties.
A federal judge sentenced Stephen Plato McRae, 59, to eight years behind bars after he earlier pleaded guilty to one count of destruction of an energy facility in a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
McRae fired shots into the cooling fins at the Buckskin substation in Kane County, rupturing the radiator piping and causing the unit to overheat and fail in September 2016. The damage left Kane and Garfield counties without power for eight hours. Garkane Energy Cooperative spent $380,522 to repair the facility.
A confidential informant led investigators to McRae a month later. Kane County sheriff's deputies and FBI agents found the rifle and ammunition in containers at a location in Escalante.
McRae told the informant he was trying “to help save the earth from humans who are hyper exploiting” its resources and causing "abrupt climate change," according to court documents. He allegedly said he was committing the crimes to "destroy industrial capitalism" and to "do millions of dollars of damage to the fossil fuel industry."
McRae said he was planning a “granddaddy” event that “will hit national news hard," court documents say, and he said he’d done the research and that “I’m thinking of something big connected to it that’s even bigger. See, if somebody just — I’m thinking — five in a row. Shut down the whole West Coast. Five in a row, shut down the whole West Coast. I think I can do it.”
McRae also allegedly admitted to damaging substations in San Juan County in 2015 and in Nevada's Humboldt and White Pine counties in 2016. Federal and local prosecutors agreed not to file charges in those cases, but the incidents were taken into consideration as part of his sentence.
Defense attorneys say McRae experienced personal tragedies in his life, including losing his mother and father within six months of each other. A skilled carpenter and millworker, all of McRae's savings went into caring for his parents until they died, court documents say.
"Since that time and throughout this past decade he has wandered the wilds of the West, living a very spare existence, but filled with joy at being in the outdoors," according to court documents.
In a postcard to the judge from jail, McRae wrote that he wanted to go home to take care of "two old Mormons. … They need someone to chop their firewood and fix their old trailer home. We all love each other."
McRae suffers with bipolar disorder as well as other health issues, including cellulitis of the lower limbs, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hepatitis C and heart failure, court documents say.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ordered McRae to a low security prison based on his medical needs and to undergo mental health treatment while incarcerated. McRae also must serve 36 months of probation after his release and repay the costs for repairing the substation.