Neighbors of Benjamin Thomas Samuel McDowell said Friday that he had a history of trouble with the law and that he has a difficult relationship with his mother, whom he lived with intermittently.
McDowell, 29, of Conway, was arrested Wednesday in Myrtle Beach after he allegedly purchased a weapon from an undercover FBI employee. Authorities said in court documents that he was plotting an attack “in the spirit of Dylann Roof,” the church shooter who murdered nine black parishioners at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Anthony Johnson, who said he has lived in the neighborhood for about two years, said Friday that McDowell’s mother, Joanne Strickland, once asked Johnson to check in on her if anything seemed amiss.
“She said, ‘If you ever see me outside, could you check on me?’” Johnson said.
Strickland declined to speak at length with The Sun News at her house north of Conway on Friday morning. The Sun News also was unable to contact McDowell’s grandfather, Sam Clewis, by phone or at his property.
“I love my son very much and I don’t feel he’s guilty,” Strickland said over the phone. “None of the family has any comment at this time.”
However, in a Thursday interview with CBS affiliate WBTW, Strickland said her son told her “the Jewish people and the Pakistans [sic] … are against us.” She said he also expressed anger at the Black Lives Matter movement.
Other neighbors also said McDowell was known for problems with the law.
Sammi Charbonneau, who met McDowell in 2014 when she moved into the neighborhood, said he could have problems with anger and had battled depression and substance abuse.
“I knew he was into the whole white supremacy that only started about a year ago,” Charbonneau wrote. “I was very surprised to hear his plan.”
Charbonneau, who last spoke with McDowell Feb. 14, said they had mutual friends who were black and that she was surprised when McDowell began posting hateful messages on Facebook.
Officials have said he forged a connection to white supremacists while in prison.
A S.C. Law Enforcement Division background check on McDowell indicates he served 18 months in prison starting at the end of 2011 on a felony second-degree burglary charge. In 2013, he pleaded guilty and spent 30 days in jail for misdemeanor third-degree assault and battery. He’s also been arrested for various assault and burglary charges stretching back to 2006.
As a convicted felon, McDowell was prohibited from procuring firearms or ammunition and is currently being held in the Florence County Detention Center on a weapons charge.
An affidavit from an FBI agent said authorities suspect McDowell has ties to white supremacists and that he posted several messages appealing to white racial purity on Facebook. He also once posted a message mentioning a conservative synagogue in Myrtle Beach.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-District 7, said in a statement Friday he was grateful any potential plot was foiled.
“My thoughts are with my friend Rabbi Avi Perets and all parishioners at Temple Emanu-El Conservative Synagogue. I pray for the well-being of those targeted and that justice is served for this evil plot,” Rice said.
One neighbor who asked not to be named because she had grown up with McDowell’s family said McDowell had recently told two people that he planned to move to Alabama in the near future. Strickland also told WBTW that her son was planning on going there.
Charbonneau said McDowell slso told her on Monday that he was headed to Alabama.
“Monday all he said was he's leaving again and that he's a little scared cuz it's a big move,” she wrote. “Maybe that was him being scared to do what he had planned?”
This story has been updated.