When federal agents swarmed her home in the woods of White County Tuesday, Charlotte Thomas walked to a neighbor’s house and asked for prayer, a neighbor said Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Thomas’ husband, 73-year-old Cleveland resident Frederick Thomas, had been arrested — along with three other men over the age of 60 — and accused of plotting a violent act of terrorism in the hills of North Georgia.
And as federal agents searched the Thomases home Tuesday afternoon, Charlotte Thomas walked over to Dave Palmer’s home where his wife worked in the garden.
“She came out here, and of course she was distraught and she asked for prayer,” Palmer said.
Palmer, who remembers welcoming the Thomases to the wooded, dirt road “neighborhood” with baked goods when they moved next door three or four years ago, said he had prayed with Frederick Thomas before.
He always thought Frederick Thomas seemed like a “normal” neighbor.
But according to a list of charges presented against him in federal court Wednesday, Thomas had for months planned attacks against federal buildings — allegedly buying a silencer and an explosive from an undercover informant earlier this year — and had also allegedly discussed creating a list of government employees, politicians, business leaders and members of the media he felt needed to be “taken out.”
Thomas was arrested at a Cornelia Walmart Tuesday afternoon. His neighbor seemed baffled Wednesday that such a frail-looking man could be capable of carrying out such a plan.
Earlier this year, Thomas asked Palmer to pray for him, Palmer said. Thomas had a lung condition that an operation later proved not to be cancer, and afterward, Palmer encouraged Thomas to get out and walk more, he said.
Palmer only saw Thomas follow his advice once, however.
“He could barely walk,” recalled Palmer. “He was on oxygen. He had a cane ... He’s about 5-foot-1, just a little frail guy. I’m thinking, ‘how could he do that?’ He could barely hold his cane.”
On Wednesday, a yellow Gadsden flag with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” printed across the bottom, hung from the Thomases house. His wife, Charlotte, did not respond to a request for comment.
Palmer said Charlotte Thomas didn’t seem to know about the plans her husband is accused of when she came over to his house for prayer Tuesday.
“If he did do that, that’s terrible,” Palmer said. “He needs to be locked up. That’s insane. It hurt our image as Americans, and also our neighborhood, which we considered a little bit of peace and kind of an escape from the city — a refuge from the city.”
A federal affidavit said one of Thomas’s co-conspirators, 67-year-old Dan Roberts, knew people in Habersham County who had a toxic substance that could kill people.
Roberts and 68-year-old Samuel Crump of Toccoa were recorded discussing castor beans and using them to make the biological toxin ricin to disperse on major highways in Atlanta and other cities, officials allege.
At Cornelia’s Farm and Garden, manager Adam Cantrell said few people ever ask for castor beans, which are used to make the biological toxin ricin that other members of the militia group allegedly planned to dump on Atlanta interstates.
“We still have a few old timers come in and ask for it,” Cantrell said.
The garden store on the edge of Cornelia’s downtown hasn’t carried the bean for a long time, only a commercial product for repelling moles and voles that uses 10 percent castor oil, Cantrell said.
The details of what had happened in Cornelia the day before — and what had led up to the FBI’s arrest of Thomas in the
Walmart parking lot — were murky among the local residents Wednesday, but nearly everybody knew at least of some of what went on in the Habersham County town the day before.
Someone thought they saw a flash grenade go off in the parking lot. Someone else knew a man who claimed federal agents had mistakenly jumped in his Ford truck in a mixup during the arrest.
Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said there were no flash grenades involved in Thomas’ arrest.
Sometime after his lunch break Tuesday, John Harris, who works as a greeter in the Cornelia Walmart, saw a crowd of cars in the corner of the store’s parking lot, he said.
When Harris’ shift ended, “there were still some of them hanging around,” he said. On Wednesday, Harris was surprised to learn the age of the men who were arrested.
“You get up to that age, you should be able to chill out,” he said.
Thomas’s arrest at the Cornelia Walmart was all the buzz among those who lunched at the Food Factory on Main Street Wednesday, owner Greg Crowe said.
Cornelia, like any town, has its eccentrics.
From time to time, Crowe said he hears about fringe groups in the area and people who stock up on canned goods to prepare for some kind of post-apocalyptic disaster. But never has he heard anything that sounded as alarming as what was revealed about the four men this week, he said.
“You’ll hear just a little in the background talk about militia groups, but nothing about attacking leaders and that kind of stuff,” Crowe said. “Most people just talk about, you know, wanting to have a gun or whatever in case all heck breaks out or something.”
Cantrell, too, seemed as caught off guard by the age of the men behind the militia plot as he was the fact that it was happening in his home county.
“It makes you wonder, though, that’s for sure,” said the 26-year-old Cantrell. “A bunch of geriatrics running around, plotting destruction. It blows my mind.”
Joe Goss, owner of a local garden store, called the events “cartoons for Cornelia.”
But he wasn’t as surprised as everyone else that there might be militants in the hills.
“We’re living in a very, very dangerous time,” Goss said. “No one is listening to the people anymore. Nobody ... Sounds to me like these guys — I don’t condone their methods, don’t get me wrong — somebody’s listening to them.”
Still, even Goss was surprised to recall a name from the list of the accused. He seemed to remember a sign business one of the accused men once owned.
“It just don’t seem like this would happen in your rural Cornelia, Georgia,” Goss said.
But then again, Goss remembers how in the early 1980s Cleveland resident Tilton Lamar Chester and Clarkesville native Carl Jerry London were found to be connected to the marijuana smuggling gang known as “Black Tuna.”
“It probably won’t be the last time (that something like this happens),” Goss said.