by David Grann | The New Yorker | Feb 16, 2004
On a cold, damp December morning in 2002, after weeks of secret planning, the United States Marshals launched one of the most unusual dragnets in the organization’s two-hundred-and-fifteen-year history. As the fog lifted on a small stretch of land in the northwesternmost corner of California—a sparsely populated area known primarily for its towering redwoods—nearly a dozen agents, draped in black fatigues and bulletproof vests, and armed with assault rifles and walkie-talkies, gathered in a fleet of cars. The agents sped past a town with a single post office and a mom-and-pop store, and headed deep into the forest until they arrived at a colossal compound, a maze of buildings surrounded by swirling razor wire and an electrified fence that was lethal to the touch. A gate opened and, as guards looked down with rifles from beneath watchtowers, the convoy rolled inside. The agents jumped out.
After entering one of the buildings and walking down a long corridor lined with surveillance cameras, the officers reached their destination: a fortified cellblock in the heart of Pelican Bay, California’s most notorious prison. They could hear inmates moving in their ten-by-twelve, window-less cement cells. Pelican Bay housed more than three thousand inmates, men who were considered too violent for any other state prison and had, in the parlance of correctional officers, “earned their way in.” But the men on the cellblock, which was known as the Hole, were considered so dangerous that they had been segregated from this already segregated population.
Four prisoners were ordered to remove their gold jumpsuits and slide them through a tray slot. While some officers searched their belongings, others, using flashlights, peered through holes in the steel doors to examine the inmates’ ears, nostrils, and anal cavities. To make sure that the prisoners had no weapons “keistered” inside them, the guards instructed them to bend down three times; if they refused, the guards would know that they were afraid to puncture their intestines with a shank. Once the search was complete, the inmates were shackled and escorted to a nearby landing strip, where they were loaded onto an unmarked airplane.
All across the country, agents were fanning out to prisons. They seized a fifth inmate from a maximum-security prison in Concord, New Hampshire. They took another from a jail in Sacramento, California. Then they approached the Administrative Maximum Prison, in Florence, Colorado, a “supermax” encircled by snow-covered ravines and renowned as “the Alcatraz of the Rockies.” There, in the most secure federal penitentiary in the country—a place that housed Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993—agents apprehended four inmates who were allegedly responsible for more than a dozen prison murders.
Before long, the marshals had rounded up twenty-nine inmates—all of whom were among the most feared men in the American prison system. One had strangled an inmate with his bare hands; another had poisoned a fellow-prisoner. A man nicknamed the Beast was thought to have ordered an attack on an inmate who had shoved him during a basketball game; the inmate was subsequently stabbed seventy-one times and his eye was gouged out.
Then there was Barry Mills, who was known as the Baron. Soft-spoken and intense, with a gleaming bald head, he was described by one of his former prosecutors as a “cunning, calculating killer.” He liked to crochet in his cell and, according to authorities, compose lists of enemies to kill. In a previous court case, he testified that “we live . . . in a different society than you do. There is justified violence in our society. I’m here to tell you that. I’m here to tell all you that.” He was not, he conceded, “a peaceful man,” and “if you disrespect me or one of my friends, I will readily and to the very best of my ability engage you in a full combat mode. That’s what I’m about.” Once, at a maximum-security prison in Georgia, Mills was found guilty of luring an inmate into a bathroom stall and nearly decapitating him with a knife.
Along with the Baron and the other prisoners, five women on the outside were also seized, as well as three ex-cons and a former prison guard. Most of those apprehended—there were forty in total—were transported on a Boeing 727, with their legs and arms shackled to their seats, while guards patrolled the aisles, their rifles sealed in compartments out of arm’s reach. Days later, the prisoners ended up in a Los Angeles courtroom, where they were accused of being members of an elaborate criminal conspiracy directed by the Aryan Brotherhood, or the Brand. Authorities had once dismissed the Aryan Brotherhood as a fringe white-supremacist gang; now, however, they concluded that what prisoners had claimed for decades was true—namely, that the gang’s hundred or so members, all convicted felons, had gradually taken control of large parts of the nation’s maximum-security prisons, ruling over thousands of inmates and transforming themselves into a powerful criminal organization.
The Brand, authorities say, established drug-trafficking, prostitution, and extortion rackets in prisons across the country. Its leaders, often working out of barren cells in solitary confinement, allegedly ordered scores of stabbings and murders. They killed rival gang members; they killed blacks and homosexuals and child molesters; they killed snitches; they killed people who stole their drugs, or owed them a few hundred dollars; they killed prison guards; they killed for hire and for free; they killed, most of all, in order to impose a culture of terror that would solidify their power. And, because the Brotherhood is far more cloistered than other gangs, it was able to operate largely with impunity for decades—and remain all but invisible to the outside world. “It is a true secret society,” Mark Hamm, a prison sociologist, told me.
For the first time, on August 28, 2002, that world cracked open. After more than a decade of trying to infiltrate the Brand’s operations, a relatively unknown Assistant United States Attorney from California named Gregory Jessner indicted virtually the entire suspected leadership of the gang. He had investigated hundreds of crimes linked to the gang; some were cold cases that reached back nearly forty years. In the indictment, which ran to a hundred and ten pages, Jessner charged Brand leaders with carrying out stabbings, strangulations, poisonings, contract hits, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, robbery, and narcotics trafficking. The case, which was expected to go to trial in 2005, could lead to as many as twenty-three death-penalty convictions—more than any in American history.
One morning in 2003, I visited the United States Attorney’s office in downtown Los Angeles, where the prosecution was preparing to arraign the last of the forty defendants. As I waited in the lobby, a slender young man appeared in a gray suit. He had short brown hair, and he carried a folder under his arm as if he were a paralegal. Unlike the attorneys around him, he spoke in a soft, almost reticent voice. He introduced himself as Gregory Jessner.
“I’m forty-two,” he told me, as if he were often greeted with similar astonishment. “Believe it or not, I used to look much younger.” He reached into his pocket and revealed an old office I.D. He looked seventeen.
He led me back into his office, which had almost nothing on the walls and appeared to be decorated solely with boxes from the case, one stacked upon the other. On his desk were several black-and-white photographs, including one of an inmate who had been strangled by the gang.
“An Aryan brother went in his cell and tied a garrote around his neck,” Jessner said. He held out his hands, demonstrating, with tapered fingers, how an Aryan Brotherhood member had braided strips of a bedsheet into a noose. “This is a homicidal organization,” he said. “That’s what they do. They kill people.”
He was accustomed, he explained, to murder cases, but he had been shocked by the gang’s brutality. “I suspect they kill more than the Mafia,” he said. “They kill more than any single drug trafficker. There are a lot of gang-related deaths on the streets, but they are usually more disorganized and random.” He paused, as if calculating various numbers in his head. “I think they may be the most murderous criminal organization in the United States.”
There are hundreds of gangs in this country: the Crips, the Bloods, the Latin Dragons, the Dark Side Nation, the Lynch Mob. But the Aryan Brotherhood is one of the few gangs that were born in prison. In 1964, as the nation’s racial unrest spread into the penitentiaries, a clique of white inmates at San Quentin prison, in Marin County, California, began gathering in the yard. The men were mostly motorcycle bikers with long hair and handlebar mustaches; a few were neo-Nazis with tattoos of swastikas. Together, they decided to strike against the blacks, who were forming their own militant group, called the Black Guerrilla Family, under the influence of the celebrated prison leader George Jackson. Initially, the whites called themselves the Diamond Tooth Gang, and as they roamed the yard they were unmistakable: pieces of glass embedded in their teeth glinted in the sunlight.
Before long, they had merged with other whites at San Quentin to form a single band: the Aryan Brotherhood. While there had always been cliques in prison, known as “tips,” these men were now aligned by race and resorted to a kind of violence that had never been seen at San Quentin, a place that prisoners likened to “gladiator school.” All sides, including the Latino gangs La Nuestra Familia and the Mexican Mafia, attacked each other with homemade knives that were honed from light fixtures and radio parts, and hidden in mattresses, air vents, and drainpipes. “Everything was seen through the delusional lens of race—everything,” Edward Bunker, an inmate at the time, told me. (He went on to become a novelist, and appeared as Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs.”)
Most prison gangs tried to recruit “fish,” the new and most vulnerable inmates. But according to interviews with former gang members—as well as thousands of pages of once classified F.B.I. reports, internal prison records, and court documents—the Aryan Brotherhood chose a radically different approach, soliciting only the most capable and violent. They were given a pledge:
An Aryan brother is without a care,
He walks where the weak and heartless won’t dare,
And if by chance he should stumble and lose control,
His brothers will be there, to help reach his goal,
For a worthy brother, no need is too great,
He need not but ask, fulfillment’s his fate.
For an Aryan brother, death holds no fear,
Vengeance will be his, through his brothers still here.
By 1975, the gang had expanded into most of California’s state prisons and was engaged in what authorities describe as a full-fledged race war. Dozens had already been slain when, that same year, a fish named Michael Thompson entered the system. A twenty-three-year-old white former high-school football star, he had been sentenced for helping to murder two drug dealers and burying their bodies in a lime-filled pit in a back yard. Six feet four and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, he was strong enough to break ordinary shackles. He had brown hair, which was parted in the middle, and hypnotic blue eyes. Despite the violent nature of his crime, he had no other convictions and, with a chance for parole in less than a decade, he initially kept to himself, barely aware of the different forces moving around him. “I was a fish with gills out to fucking here,” he later said.
Unaligned with any of the emerging gangs, he was conspicuous prey for roaming Hispanic and black groups, and several of them soon assaulted him in the yard at a prison in Tracy, California; later, he was sent to Folsom, which, along with San Quentin, was exploding with gang wars. On his first day there, he says, no one spoke to him until a leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, a trim, angular man in shorts and a T-shirt, began to taunt him, telling him to come to the yard “ready” the next day. That night in his cell, Thompson recalled, he looked frantically for a weapon; he broke a piece of steel off his cell door and began to file its edges. It was at least ten inches long, and he sharpened both sides. Before the cell doors opened and the guards searched him, he said, he knew he needed to hide the weapon. He took off his clothes and tried to insert it in his rectum. “I couldn’t,” he recalled. “I was too ashamed.” He tried again and again, until finally he succeeded.
The next morning in the yard, he could see the guards, the tips of their rifles glistening in the sun. The leader of the Black Guerrilla Family circled toward him, flashing a steel blade, and Thompson lay down, trying to extricate his weapon. Eventually, he got it and began to lunge violently at his foe; another gang member came at him and Thompson stabbed him, too. By the time the guards interceded, Thompson was covered in blood, and one of the members of the Black Guerrilla Family lay on the ground, near death.
Not long after this incident, several white convicts approached him in the yard. “They wanted me to join the Brand,” Thompson said. Initially, he hesitated, in part because of the gang’s racism, but he knew that the group offered more than protection. “It was like being let into a sanctuary,” he said. “You were instantly the man—the shot caller.”
To be accepted, according to Thompson and other gang members, each recruit had to “make his bones,” which often meant killing another inmate. (One recruit told authorities in a sworn statement that the rite was intended to “create a lasting bond to the A.B. and also prove that he had what it takes.”) Thompson also recited a “blood in, blood out” oath, in which he vowed not only that he would spill another’s blood to get in but also that he would never leave the gang unless his own blood was fatally spilled. While many new members had a probationary period, which often lasted as long as a year, Thompson, because of his physical strength and his ability with a knife, was voted into the gang almost immediately. He was “branded” with a homemade tattoo gun (which inmates made out of a beard trimmer sold at the commissary, a guitar string, a pen, and a needle stolen from the infirmary). Sometimes members were tattooed with the letters “A.B.” or the numerals 666, symbolizing the beast, a manifestation of evil in the Revelation of St. John. On Thompson’s left hand, just above one of his knuckles, he received the most recognizable symbol: a green shamrock. “All I had to do was show that ’rock and I was in charge,” he said.
He was moved from one state prison to the next, often for disciplinary reasons, but these transfers only helped him garner more influence, and he gradually rose through the Brotherhood’s rarefied ranks. He met Barry Mills, a.k.a. the Baron, who had initially been incarcerated for stealing a car and became the gang’s vanguard member, seemingly concentrating all his energies not on returning to the outside world but on remaining in the inside world, where he was, in the words of Thompson, “the hog with the biggest balls.” And he met T. D. Bingham, a charismatic bank robber who was nearly as wide as he was tall and who could bench-press five hundred pounds. Nicknamed the Hulk and Super Honkey, he spoke in a folksymanner that concealed a burning intelligence, friends say. In photographs from the time, he has a black walrus mustache and a ski hat pulled down over his eyebrows. Part Jewish, he wore a Star of David tattooed on one arm and, without any apparent irony, a swastika on the other. Once, when he testified on behalf of another reputed Aryan Brotherhood inmate, he told the jury, “There’s a code in every segment of society . . . Well, we have a different kind of moral and ethical code.” He later added, “It’s a lot more primordial.” One of his friends, referring to his propensity for violence, told me, “Sometimes he got the urge, you know what I mean? He got the urge.”
Thompson soon became acquainted with the Brotherhood’s inner sanctum. There was Thomas Silverstein, a talented artist with long flowing hair who, a counsellor noted in his prison file, “seems to be easily influenced by these men and is eager to please them.” After shedding an enemy’s blood with a handcrafted knife, he would often retire to his cell and draw elaborate portraits. One ink sketch showed a man in a cell with a claw reaching down toward him. Thompson also met Dallas Scott, a drug addict who once told the reporter Pete Earley, in the 1992 book “The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison,” “In your society I may not be anybody, but in here I am;” and Clifford Smith, who lost an eye after a black-widow spider bit him at San Quentin and who, when asked to carry out his first hit, said, “Yeah, bro, I’ll do the bastard.”
Thompson, who had only a high-school education, was being tailored for leadership. He was given many books, a curriculum that formed a kind of world view. He read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He read Nietzsche, memorizing his aphorisms. (“One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”) And he read Louis L’Amour, whose pulp novels about romantic gunslingers who ride for “the brand” inspired the gang’s nickname. “It was like you went to school,” Thompson said. “You already hate the system, hate the establishment, because you’re in jail, you’re buried, and you start to think of yourself as this noble warrior—and that’s what we called each other, warriors. It was like I was a soldier going out to battle.”
Thompson said that, like other new members, he was trained to kill without blinking, without reservation. One A.B. instruction manual, which was seized by authorities, stated, “The smell of fresh human blood can be overpowering but killing is like having sex. The first time is not so rewarding, but it gets better and better with practice, especially when one remembers that it’s a holy cause.” During a confidential debriefing with prison officials, one Aryan brother described how members studied anatomy texts, so “that when they stab somebody it was a killshot.”
In 1981, according to prison records, Thompson approached one of the gang’s enemies “from behind and began stabbing him,” and “continued” striking his victim “as he lay on the floor.” Thompson once wrote in a letter, “Knife fighting, at its best, is like a dance. Under ideal conditions, the objective is to bleed your opponent—cutting hands, wrist, and arms and as the opponent weakens from blood loss, inflicting further damage to the face (eyes) and torso.”
Inmates were frequently killing each other not because of any actual slight but because of the color of their skin. In one incident, Silverstein and an A.B. associate, Clayton Fountain, who, according to a friend, was eager to “make his bones,” stabbed a leader of the rival gang D.C. Blacks sixty-seven times in the shower, then dragged his bloody corpse through the tiers while other white inmates chanted racial slurs. After Silverstein was charged with murdering another inmate, he boasted in court, “I have walked over dead bodies. I’ve had guts splattered all over my chest from race wars.”
To try to rein the Brand in, prison officials, in desperation, had begun to place its members throughout the correctional system. (No inmate would publicly admit being in the gang, and, when asked under oath, would typically say, “Sir, I will not answer a question like that.”) The dispersal measures, however, only spread the Brand’s reach to penitentiaries in Texas and Illinois and Kansas, and still farther east, to Pennsylvania and Georgia. A once classified 1982 F.B.I. report warned that leaders were “recruiting for the A.B., only now they had the entire country to pick from.” One letter from a gang member, which was obtained by Texas prison sociologists, said, “All members shipped from here last week have written back and it looks like the family is in the process of growing.” Another stated, “We are growing like a cancer.”
Upon entering a new prison, Brand members would often carry out a “demonstration” killing or stabbing, in order to terrorize the inmate population. The Baron reportedly ordered that one foe be “taken out in front of everyone, to let these motherfuckers know we mean business.” Indeed, rather than conceal its murders, the gang flaunted them even in front of the guards, as if to show it had no fear of repercussions, of being shot or sentenced to life without parole. “We wanted people to think we were a little crazy,” Thompson said. “It was a way, like Nietzsche said, of bending space and reality to our will.”
Before taking Silverstein to the bathroom, the guards frisked him, to make sure he hadn’t fashioned any weapons. (He often had pens and other sketching tools for his artwork.) They also shackled his wrists. Three guards surrounded him, one of whom was a hard-nosed, nineteen-year veteran with military-style gray hair named Merle Clutts. Clutts, who was to retire in a few months, was perhaps the only guard in the unit who didn’t fear Silverstein; he once reportedly told him, “Hey, I’m running this shit. You ain’t running it.”
As the guards escorted Silverstein through the prison, he paused outside the cell of another gang member—who, as planned, suddenly reached between the bars and, with a handcuff key, unlocked Silverstein’s shackles. Silverstein pulled a nearly foot-long knife from his conspirator’s waistband. “This is between me and Clutts,” Silverstein hollered as he rushed toward him.
One of the other guards screamed, “He’s got a shank!” But Clutts was already cornered, without a weapon. He raised his hands while Silverstein stabbed him in the stomach. “He was just sticking Officer Clutts with that knife,” another guard later recalled. “He was just sticking and sticking and sticking.” By the time Silverstein relinquished the knife—“The man disrespected me,” he told the guards. “I had to get him”—Clutts had been stabbed forty times. He died shortly afterward.
A few hours later, Clayton Fountain, Silverstein’s close friend, was being led through the prison when he paused by another inmate’s cell. In an instant, he, too, was free. “You motherfuckers want a piece of this?” he yelled, waving a blade. He stabbed three more guards. One died in the arms of his son, who also worked in the prison. Fountain reportedly said that he didn’t want Silverstein to have a higher body count.
It was the first time in the history of American federal prisons that two guards had been killed on the same day. “You got to understand,” Thompson said. “Here were guys in restraints, locked in the Hole in the most secure prison, and they were still able to get to the guards. It sent a simple message: We can get to you anywhere, anytime.”
When the Brotherhood was in its infancy, every member had an equal vote on critical matters; by the early eighties, this policy was creating chaos. In a previously undisclosed briefing, Clifford Smith told authorities, “We used to be one man one vote, included damn near everything. I mean, damn near everything. Somebody getting in, whacking somebody . . . You damn near had to have the whole state’s okay. . . . You had to send some kites”—notes—“and runners and lawyers and this and that. It always got tipped off by the time we got back to you and said, ‘Yeah, dump the guy.’ . . . You can’t have someone in the yard that you want to bump and let them be out there for two or three weeks.” Smith said the gang members were becoming “like twelve horses teamed to one wagon, with each of them going in a different direction.” An internal report at the time by the California Department of Corrections went so far as to predict that “the A.B. will probably not propose a serious threat to law enforcement agencies in the future unless it gains a clear and well enforced chain of command.”
Thompson started to push for just that. “I wanted to eliminate the irrationality and make it into a true organized-crime family,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in killing blacks. I was interested in only one thing: power.”
He and other leaders hatched a plan with gang members who were incarcerated at a prison in Chino, in Southern California. These men, who were awaiting trials for the assaults or murders of fellow-inmates, were encouraged to represent themselves as attorneys, thereby allowing them to subpoena their colleagues around the country as witnesses. Each time a Brand member sent out a “writ,” another member would have to be relocated to Chino. For several days, using what one member called “subpoena power unlimited” and exploiting the very legal system that was trying to stop them, most of the Brand was able to meet for hours in the yard, in what amounted to a private convention.
As Smith recalled, “We all get over in the corner one day and say, ‘Damn, man, check this out, we got all the power right here. Let’s take this one step further.’” The Brand’s California leaders decided to establish a chain of command modelled loosely on the structure of the Italian Mafia. A council of about a dozen members would manage gang operations throughout the state prison system. Each council member would be elected by majority vote. He would be responsible for enforcing all of the gang’s policies, which would now be codified; he also could authorize a hit at any moment, as long as it wasn’t on a fellow A.B. member. The council’s actions would be overseen by a three-man commission. Authorities say that Thompson and Smith served on the California council. In the federal prison system, where the gang set up a similar hierarchy in roughly a dozen maximum-security prisons, the Baron and T. D. Bingham allegedly became high commissioners.
The A.B.’s new structure strengthened its grip, but there remained one outstanding obstacle: snitches. Though other crime families had to worry about members “rolling over,” in prison everyone had an incentive to “flip,” and all an inmate had to do was whisper in a guard’s ear. In the early nineteen-eighties, a former gang member, Steven Barnes, had testified in a murder rap against one of the new commissioners and was housed in protective custody, where no one could get to him. In response, the Aryan Brotherhood settled upon a new policy: If it couldn’t get to you, it would get to your family. “What we wanted to do was hit . . . Barnes’s wife,” Smith explained. “If we couldn’t get to her, we’d move then to his brother . . . or sister and from there we’d work our way down the list. . . . That was policy that we’d established that we’d do from then on.”
To carry out its new policy, Brand leaders needed to find a hit man, someone who could, in the words of the gang, “step up.” And so they allegedly turned to Curtis Price, a forty-one-year-old made A.B. member who was about to be paroled from Chino prison, and who would, according to a former gang member, “kill as to directions received from the A.B. council.” Described by his parole officer as “one of the most dangerous state prisoners I’ve dealt with in my twenty-two years” of service, Price was six feet tall, with short brown hair and vacant blue eyes. In photographs, the bones around his pallid face protrude and give him a slightly ghostly air. Price, who had once expressed hope of going into law enforcement, had in more recent years stabbed another inmate and taken two guards hostage, telling one, “I’ll blow your partner’s head off.”
Court and prison records reveal that upon his release, on September 14, 1982, Price met a twenty-two-year-old mother of two children named Elizabeth Hickey and stole several weapons from her stepfather’s house, including a twelve-gauge shotgun and a Mauser automatic. Price then drove to the home of Steven Barnes’s father, Richard, in Temple City, California, and shot him three times in the head, execution style. Barnes’s neighbors found him lying on his bed, face down, his cowboy hat resting nearby.
Afterward, Price returned to Elizabeth Hickey’s home and beat her to death, crushing her skull in five places, in an apparent attempt to eliminate her as a potential witness. He then bought a ticket to see the movie “Gandhi.” The gang soon received a postcard in prison. It said, “Business has been taken care of.”
After weeks of searching, I called the prison where I had heard Thompson was incarcerated. The authorities insisted that there was no one there by that name. Moments later, I received a call from a law-enforcement official who knew I was trying to find Thompson. “They think you’re trying to kill him,” she said. “They’re moving him out of the prison right now.”
After explaining to officials why I wanted to speak with Thompson, I was able to get a letter to him, and, with his agreement, I headed to the maximum-security prison where he was being held under the name of “Occupant.” To get inside the prison, I had to submit my car to a search, and I was given a checkered shirt to replace my blue oxford, which happened to match the color of some inmate uniforms and was therefore forbidden. There were several children with their mothers filing in alongside me; they wore white dresses or neatly pleated pants, as if they were attending church.
We passed through several steel gates, each door clanking loudly behind us, before reaching a brightly lit room filled with wooden chairs and tables. While the other visitors were allowed to sit freely with inmates, I was led to the back of the room, where a three-foot-by-three-foot bulletproof window was cut into the wall. A chair was placed in front of it, and I sat down and peered through the scuffed plastic. I could see a small cement cell, with a telephone and a chair. The room was sealed on all sides except for a steel door at the opposite end. A moment later, the door clicked open and Thompson, a giant of a man, appeared in a white prison jumpsuit with his hands shackled behind his back. As a guard removed his chains, Thompson bent forward and I could see his face. It was covered with a hermit-like beard. His hair reached to his shoulders and was parted down the middle, in the style that was fashionable in the seventies, when he was first convicted of murder. As he came closer to the glass, I could see, amid the thickets of graying hair, his bright-blue eyes. He sat down and reached for the phone, and I picked up mine.
“How was your trip?” he asked.
He spoke in a soft, courteous voice. I asked him why he had dropped out of the Brand, and he said he made his decision after the debate over whether to kill Steven Barnes’s father and other family members. “I argued with them for days,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We’re warriors, aren’t we? We don’t kill children. We don’t kill mothers and fathers.’ But I lost. And they killed him, execution style, and then they killed Hickey, an innocent woman, just because she knew where Price had gotten the gun. And that’s when I walked away. That’s when I said, ‘This thing is out of control.’” He leaned toward the window, his breath steaming the glass. “I am still willing to fight someone in here, head up, if I have to. That’s the culture of where I live. But I was not for killing people on the outside, people in your world.”
When I asked him what he initially found compelling about the gang, he paused for a long moment. “That’s a very good question,” he said. There was the protection, he suggested, ticking off the reasons. There was the sense of belonging. But that wasn’t really it. For him, at least, he said, it was the rush of power. “I was naïve, because I saw us as these noble warriors,” he said. In the eighties, he added, he had tried to change the nature of the gang. “I thought that by organizing we could make the gang less bloody. I thought we could strip away the irrational killings. But I was foolish, because at some level you could never remove that. And the structure only allowed the gang to be more deadly.”
During our conversation, Thompson cited various philosophers, including Nietzsche, whose “true genius,” he later wrote me in a letter, “the gang often misinterprets.” It was hard to reconcile this cerebral figure with a man who said he had once helped to stab sixteen men in a single day. But, when I asked him about his training, he reached out with his hand and began, in almost clinical fashion, to show how to assassinate someone. “You can do it here on the right side of the heart, in the aorta, or here in the neck, or back here in the spine, which will paralyze someone,” he said, moving his hand back and forth, as if slicing something. “I’ve been in jail thirty years now, and I know I am probably never going to get out. I am a dangerous person. I don’t like violence, but I am good at it.”
He had tried, he said, to isolate himself from other prisoners. “I don’t go in the yard much,” he said. “It’s not safe.” He said the only people he could really interact with were the guards, for fear of being recognized. “In here, I am lower than child killers and child molesters. Because I defected from the A.B., I am the lowest there is.”
The gang had tried several times to get to him; after he was placed in the protective-custody unit, he said, the Brand sent in a “sleeper”—a secret collaborator—who had tried to stab him. “You need to understand one thing,” Thompson said. “The Aryan Brotherhood is not about white supremacy. It is about supremacy. And it will do anything to get it. Anything.”
A guard banged on the door. “I have to go now,” he said.
As he stood, he pressed his hand against the glass, and I could see something green on his left hand. I looked closer: it was the faint outline of a shamrock. Armed with that tattoo, Thompson had told me, a man could take over an entire United States penitentiary.
The man’s name was Michael McElhiney, but everyone called him Mac. A reputed A.B. member, he had just come from Marion, where he had been housed with Barry Mills, the notorious Baron. Mills, who later testified in court on McElhiney’s behalf, said, “I look at him like a son.”
McElhiney, a convicted methamphetamine dealer who had conspired to kill a witness, was so charismatic that, according to authorities, a juror once fell in love with him. However, in private letters, which were later confiscated by prison officials, Mac spoke openly of “the beast” inside him and referred to himself proudly as “an angry motherfucker.” An F.B.I. agent at Leavenworth described him as probably “a psychopath,” while a close friend put it this way: “He likes to have everybody know that he’s God.”
An Aryan Brotherhood presence had long existed at Leavenworth, which was known as “the hothouse,” because of its sweltering, catacomb-like cells. But McElhiney was determined to extend the gang’s reach.
Although the Brand maintained remnants of its racist ideology, it had increasingly sought, according to a declassified F.B.I. report, “to launch a cooperative effort of death and fear against staff and other inmates . . . in order to take over the system.” The Brand aimed, the F.B.I. warned, to control everything from drug trafficking to the sale of “punks”—inmates forced into prostitution—to extortion rackets to murder contracts behind bars. It sought, in short, to become a racketeering enterprise. The council member Clifford Smith had told authorities that the gang was no longer primarily “bent on destroying blacks and the Jews and the minorities of the world, white supremacy and all that shit. It’s a criminal organization, first and foremost.”
Using an array of white associates, who either coveted membership in the gang or needed protection, McElhiney set out to dominate Leavenworth’s underground economy. His men went from tier to tier, demanding a tax from the sale of “pruno”—prison wine that could be brewed out of almost any cafeteria fruit (apples, strawberries, even ketchup). At the time, a man named Keith Segien was running a friendly poker game in the prison’s B unit. One night on his way to his cell, Segien later testified in court, Mac was waiting for him. He told Segien to sit down.
Segien hesitated. “What’s this about?” he asked.
“If I wanted you killed,” Segien recalls him saying, “you’d have been dead by now.” Then Mac added, “Someone told me you don’t want me . . . to run the poker game, and I’m here to make money. I’m going to run the poker game.” He asked if Segien had a problem with that.
“I said no,” Segien testified. “That was the last day I ran the poker game.”
Mac soon had gambling rackets operating in nearly every unit, on nearly every tier. As with the sale of pruno, inmates say, the guards often turned a blind eye, perhaps to mollify a seething population. Some guards, it seemed, had come to consider the Aryan Brotherhood presence as inevitable, and even used its leaders as surrogate power brokers. In one instance, a guard at Leavenworth went to McElhiney to get the O.K. before he released another prisoner in the yard. One longtime A.B. member compared the illicit operations in maximum-security prisons to bootlegging during Prohibition and to the high-roller tables in Las Vegas.
Currency is not allowed in prison, and inmates typically paid their smaller debts to the Brotherhood by offering free contraband or items from the commissary: cigarettes, candy, stamps, books. At the high-roller tables at Leavenworth, where imprisoned drug lords could place bets in the thousands of dollars, participants were allowed to play for a month on credit. The man in charge of the table kept a tally of wins and losses. At the end of the month, inmates say, Mac’s men would collect the losses; usually, gamblers would pay up by having a relative or a friend send an untraceable money order to a designated A.B. person on the outside. If an indebted inmate didn’t have the money mailed on time, internal prison records show, he was typically “piped”—beaten with a metal rod. McElhiney later acknowledged that he was funnelling the proceeds to his mentor Mills and to other reputed leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, with whom he had “a pact” to take over the “gambling business.”
McElhiney, who presided over the yard wearing sunglasses, his nails often stained yellow from chewing tobacco, then decided to focus on drug smuggling. In the past, the Brand had sought out almost anyone who could bring in its merchandise. In one instance, several inmates involved in a scheme told me, the gang offered to protect Charles Manson, and even conspired in a failed bid to help him escape; in return, Manson’s cult of women on the outside helped to smuggle dope into prison for them.
According to authorities and court records, Mac now started to canvass the population for the most vulnerable inmates—those who were drug addicts or in debt to the gang or simply scared, and could therefore be forced to serve as “mules.” One such person was Walter Moles, a drug user who was terrified of the gang. His father, who was terminally ill with emphysema, was planning to travel to Leavenworth to celebrate his son’s birthday. According to Moles’s later testimony, Mac instructed him to have his drug contact on the outside send Moles’s father six balloons filled with heroin. Using coded language on the prison’s tape-recorded pay phones, Moles then persuaded his father to transport the package.
Weeks later, when his father arrived, he sat beside Moles in the visiting room, under the guards’ scrutiny. He carried the package in his underwear. Moles instructed his father to go into the bathroom, place two of the balloons in his mouth, then return and spit them into Moles’s cup of coffee. His father said he couldn’t do it. The heroin wasn’t in six balloons. “It’s in one big one,” he said.
“How big?” Moles asked.
“A Ping-Pong ball.”
Eventually, Moles’s father managed to drop the balloon into his son’s coffee cup. Moles tried to swallow it, but it got stuck in his throat.
His father started to panic. “Son, just give it back to me,” he begged. “I’ll send it back to where it came from.”
“No, Dad, I can’t,” he said. He explained that the heroin wasn’t for himself. “These guys I’m bringing it in for want their stuff.”
His father didn’t seem to understand: Who were these people?
Moles saw a guard’s attention wander, and said that he had to say goodbye.
“Is it the end of the visit?” his father asked.
“If I’m going to do it, this is my only chance,” Moles said. While his father distracted the guard, Moles untucked his shirt and forced the drugs into his rectum. After he got past the guards, he said, he gave “the stuff” to one of Mac’s henchmen.
The next morning, Moles waited behind the bleachers in the yard for his cut. Suddenly, he felt something hard against the back of his head, and he collapsed to the ground. “I tried to get up,” Moles later testified, “but I kept getting kicked.”
Mac’s men told Moles to stay down.
“What did I do wrong?” Moles asked. “What did I do wrong?”
Afterward, when an A.B. associate asked Mac why he had assaulted Moles and taken his share of the dope, Mac reportedly replied, “Fuck the little punk.”
Heroin was now flooding into Leavenworth. According to authorities, inmates received more than twelve hundred positive tests for heroin during 1995. One prisoner estimated that forty per cent of the population was shooting up. “Heroin deadens everything,” an inmate at Leavenworth said. “Speed, man, you’re bebopping around and you’re doing more time thanyou would normally because you ain’t sleeping at night. . . . But the heroin, yeah . . . you’re feeling no pain.”
Because of the scarcity of supply and the unusually high demand in prison, authorities say, a gram of heroin that was bought on the street for sixty-five dollars was selling inside Leavenworth for as much as a thousand dollars. A former council member told me that the gang was bringing in anywhere from half a million to a million dollars a year from a single prison. As one F.B.I. agent put it, “You just do the math.”
With his empire expanding by the day, Mac seemed more and more “out of control,” as one former ally said. Although A.B. leaders were forbidden, under gang rules, to use heroin themselves, associates say that Mac would hole up in his cell with “a rig”—a homemade syringe typically constructed out of a needle stolen from the infirmary and a hollowed-out ballpoint pen. There, in what inmates describe as a heroin-induced haze, he would allegedly sit with A.B. henchmen and mete out his own form of justice, including murder.
McElhiney eventually became convinced that a snitch was trolling for evidence against him. Then one day, associates say, Mac sent word to his men that he had found the rat: Bubba Leger, a trusted associate who did most of the A.B.’s tattoo work and who only a few months earlier had posed proudly next to Mac for a photograph. In the rec cage one day, according to witnesses, one of Mac’s associates nicknamed Ziggy, who was purportedly eager to make his bones, pulled out a knife and started stabbing Bubba. “Why you doing this?” Bubba pleaded. With blood flowing from his chest, Bubba stumbled over to the steel door of the cage and pounded on it, trying to get the guards’ attention. In full view of the guards, Ziggy stabbed Bubba at least five more times. Bubba died moments later.
It was then, witnesses say, that they saw one of Mac’s men take another weapon, a sharpened toothbrush, and plant it near Bubba to make it look as though he had used it first. Afterward, McElhiney was said to have enforced a long-standing Aryan Brotherhood policy, which required all witnesses to perjure themselves. “‘I’m going to give you a choice,’” an associate said that McElhiney told him. “‘You can either lie or die on this one.’” In a note, McElhiney, who shaved his head after the murder, instructed Ziggy what to do: “The defense you’re going to have is self-defense.” He went on, “Hang tough, Stud. As soon as you get a lawyer direct him to me without further ado. . . . Got it? Stress to him that it’s a must he come see me ’fore you trust him—Our code word will be Mary Mary Quite Contrary.”
Ziggy received a twenty-seven-year sentence and later appeared with a tattoo of a shamrock on his leg, but authorities were never able to prove that McElhiney had ordered the killing (though they did later convict him for smuggling drugs). During the investigation, one unexpected fact emerged: Bubba had not been a snitch after all.
After he had wheeled the boxes upstairs, occasionally bumping into walls and doors, he arranged them on a long wooden conference table, and caught his breath. Then he said, “These deal with just one murder in the indictment. It’s nothing.”
Jessner had started investigating the gang in 1992. A convicted murderer was found strangled in his cell at a federal prison in Lompoc, California, and Jessner was assigned the case. Law-enforcement officials often dismiss such crimes as N.H.I.s—“No humans involved”—because the victims are considered to be as unsympathetic as the perps. Trying to break through a web of perjury, Jessner located several witnesses who claimed that the A.B. had murdered a fellow gang member for, among other things, falling in love with a gay prisoner. Although the Brotherhood had a long history of trafficking in “punks,” and although some of its members were known to receive sexual favors in return for protection, the gang considered open homosexuality a sign of weakness, a violation of the A.B. code. “The member made the mistake of kissing on the stairs,” Jessner said.
Jessner was able to prove that an A.B. recruit had gone into his associate’s cell, tied a bedsheet around his neck, and strangled him while an accomplice held his legs. Yet Jessner realized that he had done little to impede the gang; as with previous isolated prosecutions, he may have only strengthened it. The recruit was later said to have hung a photograph of his target on his cell wall, like an honorary plaque, and held a celebration with pruno on the anniversary of the murder.
As Jessner dug deeper into this violent subculture, he learned that there were no definitive statistics on A.B. crimes, because so few of them were prosecuted—and because so many associates from other gangs, including the Dirty White Boys and the Mexican Mafia, did its bidding. More general statistics on inmate violence provided a glimpse of what one sociologist once described as “the upsurge of rapacious and murderous groups” inside American prisons. According to the most recent Justice Department census, fifty-one inmates were murdered in prisons in 2000. Moreover, there were more than thirty-four thousand reported assaults by inmates on other inmates, and nearly eighteen thousand on staff. Rape is common; one study of prisons in four states estimated that at least one in five inmates has been sexually assaulted.
Jessner eventually started to dig into hundreds of violent crimes linked to the Aryan Brotherhood. Working with an officer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms named Mike Halualani—a half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian agent who was as brash as Jessner was genteel—Jessner attempted to devise a strategy to break the gang’s stranglehold. But the more he investigated the more it seemed that the gang defied any conventional notion of a prosecution. Jessner told me that he kept asking himself, “How do you stop people who see a murder rap as a badge of honor? How do you stop people who have already been stopped by the law and sentenced to life imprisonment?”
By the nineteen-nineties, authorities, hoping to create at least some deterrent, and to protect other inmates, had relocated nearly all the Aryan Brotherhood’s top leaders, including the Baron, to what were then a new breed of prisons, called “supermaxes.” These prisoners were held in single cells, locked down nearly the entire day, without, as one gang member put it, “seeing fresh earth, plant life, or unfiltered sunlight;” they exercised alone in an indoor cage, were fed meals through a tray slot, and had little, if any, human contact.
In the case of Silverstein, who was already serving multiple life sentences when he killed the guard Clutts, in 1983, the Bureau of Prisons had established a separate unit for him at Leavenworth, where he was held in a Hannibal Lecter–style cage. Though Silverstein continued to sketch, he was for years not permitted to have a comb or a hairbrush, and when the reporter Pete Earley visited him, in the late eighties, he had long wild hair and a beard. “They want me to go crazy,” he told Earley. “They want to point their fingers at me and say, ‘See, see, we told you he is a lunatic.’ . . . I didn’t come in here a killer, but in here you learn hate. The insanity in here is cultivated by the guards. They feed the beast that lingers within all of us. . . . I find myself smiling at the thought of me killing Clutts each time they deny me a phone call, a visit, or keep the lights on. I find it harder and harder to repent and ask for forgiveness, because deep inside I can feel that hatred and anger growing.”
Jessner told me, “Within the gang’s lore, Silverstein has become its Christ figure.”
Even under these conditions, which some civil-rights groups considered a violation of human rights, the Aryan Brotherhood continued to flourish. Its members developed elaborate ways to communicate. They dropped notes through pipes that were connected to nearby cells; they tapped Morse code on prison bars; they forced orderlies to pass kites; they whispered through vents in “carnie,” a convoluted, rhyming code language. (“Bottle stoppers” meant “coppers.”) In addition, the leaders had developed a devoted coterie of women on the outside who had fallen in love with them through visits and correspondence and could serve as couriers, relaying messages back and forth between members. One woman who cooperated in the gang’s illegal businesses later claimed she had Stockholm syndrome.
With the help of prison authorities, Jessner began to intercept a series of covert messages. Portions of the letters appeared to be blank, as if someone had been interrupted. After analysts applied heat with an iron and placed the paper under ultraviolet light, letters would appear, revealing “a secret message,” as the F.B.I. wrote in an internal report. Cryptographers analyzed the “ink” of one such note, and discovered that the message was written with urine. The message itself was baffling; it had been scrambled into a code. “They have certain words that mean a certain thing,” one former member said. “If they tell you that ‘somebody’s going to build a house in the country,’ the prevalent word . . . is ‘country,’ because . . . that means ‘murder.’”
Jessner and his team spent hours breaking sentences apart and reconstructing them. He started to see patterns in the messages: “baby boy” meant yes, and “baby girl” meant no. One day, prison authorities intercepted a note sent by T. D. Bingham, the A.B. commissioner, to the Baron. It said, “Well I am a grandfather, at last my boy’s wife gave birth to a strapping eight pound seven ounce baby boy.” Jessner feared that the reference to the baby’s weight was code for 187, the California legal statute pertaining to murder; the fact that the baby was a boy suggested that a hit had been approved. Then analysts noticed that several of the letters had squiggly marks, almost like tails, on them. The words “eight pound,” for instance, had curlicues on the letters “e,” “g,” “n,” and “d.” It appeared to be a code within a code.
After scrutinizing the letters, authorities determined that the note was in fact written in a biliteral cipher, a method invented by Sir Francis Bacon, the seventeenth-century philosopher. It involved using two distinct alphabets, depending on how the letters were drawn. An unadorned “c” referred to alphabet A, whereas a curlicued “c” represented alphabet B. Investigators went through the note, categorizing each letter by alphabet until they had a cluster of letters that all seemed to be a play on the initials of the Aryan Brotherhood:
bbbaaaaabbabaaabababbabaaababaaabaaabbbababbaabbaaabbaabbabb-baabb . . .
It still made no sense. But after analysts broke the letters into clusters of five, Jessner says, they started to realize that each cluster represented an individual letter. Thus “ababb” was an “A,” “abbab” was a “B,” and so on.
They had finally cracked the code; now they went through the letter again. It said:
Confirm message from Chris to move on DC.
Officials knew that “DC” meant the D.C. Blacks, a prison gang against whom the Aryan Brotherhood had recently declared war. But, by the time authorities decoded the letter, two black inmates had been found dead in their cells in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: one was stabbed thirty-four times, the other thirty-five.
The Brotherhood began developing murder schemes that could succeed even in maximum-security environments. They started to befriend their foes, so they could one day “rock them to sleep.” At Pelican Bay, where friends could apply to be cellmates, they sought to room with the very men they wanted to kill. “Deception was key,” one member who strangled his cellmate acknowledged. Between 1996 and 1998, A.B. members at Pelican Bay murdered three inmates, and were suspected in at least three additional slayings.
In many cases, officials in the correctional system seemed powerless to stop the gang. At Folsom prison, after A.B. leaders were sequestered from the general population, the gang’s associates protested by indiscriminately stabbing rapists and child molesters until the leaders were released. A few prison officials actually facilitated the Brotherhood’s activities. At the supermax prison in Colorado, a guard was accused of becoming an Aryan Brotherhood disciple; at Pelican Bay, two guards were discovered encouraging the beatings of child molesters and sex offenders by gang members. A local prosecutor warned that officials at Pelican Bay were unable to stop a “reign of terror.”
By the mid-nineties, Jessner says, the gang had evolved to the point that it had to appoint members to lead different branches of its operations—such as the “department of security” and the “department of narcotics.” Though the Aryan Brotherhood’s profits never rivalled those of the Italian Mafia or outside drug lords, its reputation for violence did. The gang had some of the most highly trained and ruthless hit men in the country. And inside the prison system the Baron had so grown in stature that he overshadowed the imprisoned head of the Italian Mafia, JohnGotti. According to authorities, in July, 1996, after a black inmate attacked Gotti at Marion prison, bloodying his face, the Mafia leader, who seemed ill prepared for the explosion of prison violence, sought the Baron’s help in murdering his assailant. The Brotherhood seemed receptive to the idea—the Baron allegedly used sign language to communicate the price of the hit to an associate—but Gotti died before the hit could be executed.
It was around then that Jessner decided that the only way to take down the gang was the way authorities had taken down the Italian Mafia—by using the RICO STATUTES, which allowed the government to attack the entire hierarchy of a criminal organization rather than just one or two members. The goal, as Halualani put it, was to “cut off the head, not just the body.”
In an audacious move, Jessner decided to pursue the death penalty for nearly all the gang’s top leaders. “It’s the only arrow left in our quiver,” he told me. “I think even a lot of people who are against the death penalty in general would recognize that in this particular instance, where people are committing murder repeatedly from behind bars, there is little other option.”
While Jessner was slowly trying to build a case, methodically flipping witnesses, decoding messages, and gathering forensic evidence, he had to be careful of “sleepers”—gang members pretending to cooperate with authorities in order to infiltrate the investigation. During a previous F.B.I. probe, agents reported that they were concerned that one snitch may “have in fact been a ploy by the A.B. to infiltrate the WITSECprogram”—the witness-protection program—“and determine where all the government witnesses were housed.”
As the Brotherhood grew stronger, it developed ambitions that extended beyond prison walls. Though many leaders were serving life sentences without parole, some members were being paroled—an outcome that authorities had long feared. “Most of the A.B. will be paroled or discharged at some future date and, in view of members’ lifelong commitments, it would be naïve to think he would not remain in contact with his brothers,” a declassified F.B.I. report stated. “The rule of thumb is that once on the streets, one must take care of his brothers that are still inside. The penalty for failure to do so is death upon the member’s return to the prison system.” Given the gang’s ability to operate behind bars, the F.B.I. report warned of “what these gang members can do with little or no supervision.” Silverstein himself has said, “Someday most of us finally get out of this hell and even a rational dog after getting kicked around year after year after year attacks when his cage door is finally opened.”
Brenda Moore, a lonely thirty-eight-year-old single mother who had long corresponded with inmates at Pelican Bay—and, in the process, had become one of the gang’s female followers—picked Scully up at the prison gate in her truck. Scully wore powder-blue sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and a watch cap. He had two hundred dollars in his pocket. Scully had previously sent Moore a series of seductive letters. In one, written on pink paper, he said, “All extraneous subversion manifests itself when we connect.” In another, he wrote, “I will always be with you as you are one of me now. Our synergy is infinite.”
After leaving the prison, the couple drove to the beach, where Scully walked along the shore, collecting seashells. The following day, though, he found a sawed-off shotgun, and he and Moore set out for Santa Rosa, driving south along Highway 101. Six days after Scully’s release, they stopped near a saloon in the middle of the night. A police car pulled up behind their pickup truck. As a fifty-eight-year-old deputy sheriff approached with his flashlight, Scully leaped out with his shotgun. The deputy raised his hands over his head, but Scully shot him between the eyes.
The Aryan Brotherhood was now killing on the outside with as little hesitation as it had on the inside. Similarly, the gang was expanding its racketeering operation onto the streets. In letters written in 1999 to one recent parolee, the Baron said, “We especially need for some to step-up,” and, referring to the gang’s shamrock symbol, he urged, “START POLISHING THE ROCKout there!!!” The gang allegedly enlisted paroled A.B. members and associates to become drug dealers, gunrunners, stickup men, and hit men. Some Pelican Bay inmates were discovered mapping out establishments to rob.
That same year, a reputed Brand member on the streets walked into the Palm Springs home of a drug dealer who wasn’t sharing enough of his profits with the gang. Witnesses told police that the A.B. member pulled out a .38 and unloaded five bullets into the man’s chest and head, telling everyone in the room that this was for “the fellows”—the Aryan Brotherhood—up north at Pelican Bay, and warning that new brothers were being released every day.
A year later, in a letter disguised as privileged legal mail, the gang spoke of plans to “buy a warehouse with offices on some large acreage.” The letter’s author, a member who was about to be released, added, “I’ll outfit it with a well-stocked law library, computer research desk, copy machine, iron pile, pool table, big screen TV, car and bike garage with tools, handball courts, etc. This will be the Brand Ranch. . . . This will be home base for us out there.”
Around the same time, a longtime reputed A.B. member confided to authorities that he had been approached at the supermax in Colorado by the gang and asked for technical help in making bombs. The gang, he was informed, was planning terrorist attacks on federal facilities across the United States. “It’s become irrational,” he told authorities after declining to help. “They’re talking about car bombs, truck bombs, and mail bombs.”
Just when the Brotherhood seemed poised to take a particularly violent turn, Jessner unleashed the United States Marshals. Nearly four decades after the gang was born, it found itself under siege.
A single alleged A.B. murder, which was included in Jessner’s sprawling indictment, also fell under the jurisdiction of the United States Attorney in the Southern District of Illinois. The trial, which began in September, 2003, centered on David Sahakian, McElhiney’s most feared cohort, the man who had once reputedly had an inmate stabbed for bumping him during a basketball game. He was charged with ordering two alleged associates to murder a thirty-seven-year-old bank robber named Terry Walker during a 1999 race war at Marion. Sahakian, along with his two associates, faced the death penalty. The trial offered a glimpse of what would happen in Los Angeles, where Jessner planned to prosecute forty people, including McElhiney and the Baron.
Even though the Benton trial involved only one A.B. member and two associates, the United States Marshals walled off the entire building. For the first time in the court’s history, cement barricades had been placed around the exterior. To get inside, I had to pass through two metal detectors.
Nearly a dozen marshals, dressed in black suits and black shoes, led the defendants, whose wrists and ankles were shackled, into the courtroom. Sahakian wore gray slacks and a gray short-sleeved shirt. Everything about him was big: his hands; his stomach; his long, sloping forehead. Whereas in old photographs he had an unruly beard—it apparently had inspired his nickname, the Beast—now he had only a goatee, which made his face look even larger.
His wife was in the gallery, and he winked at her as he sat down. She told me that they had met twenty-five years ago, and that for twenty-three of those years he had been behind bars. Petite, with blond hair and a blue miniskirt that exposed well-toned legs, she gave off a strong scent of perfume. She sat right behind him, taking notes throughout the trial. At one point, she told me, “They keep saying he’s a boss of the Aryan Brotherhood and that he ordered everyone around. But I don’t believe it. He can’t even order me around.”
When a pathologist took the stand, the prosecution projected on a large screen a photograph of Walker’s body. It was stretched out on a metal table. There were bloodstains on his chest, his eyes were open, and his mouth appeared to be frozen midspeech. The pathologist described each stab wound. Then he pointed to a hole in the heart—it was the one that killed him, he said.
None of the defendants looked up at the screen, and, apart from the marshals and Sahakian’s wife, the gallery was empty. Nobody from the victim’s family was there. Jessner had told me that most of these victims had already been cast out by society, and, when they were killed, few people, if any, cared. “I feel a certain obligation to defend those who have no one to defend them,” he had said.
After a break in the trial, the defendant who had purportedly held the victim down during the attack refused to come out of a holding room. The judge ordered the marshals to forcibly carry him out. Sahakian leaped to his feet and said that that wasn’t necessary. “If I go back there,” he said in a commanding voice, “he’ll come out.” At last, a marshal went out to the holding room and escorted the defendant into the courtroom. He walked with pointed slowness and stared at the prosecutor. “What the fuck you looking at!” he yelled.
Six marshals quickly hovered around him. As he sat down, he slammed his chair into the groin of one of the agents. Eventually, order was restored, and, when an inmate who had helped stab several black inmates took the stand as a government witness, Sahakian rubbed his fingers along the arm of his chair. Each time the witness made allegations against Sahakian, he seemed to grip the chair more tightly. His knuckles turned white. Finally, he glanced toward me in the gallery and said, “Don’t believe a word he’s saying. He’s nothin’ better than a shit-house rat.”
“Don’t use that language, honey,” his wife said.
“Metaphorically speaking,” he said.
Several inmates who had told authorities that they were prepared to come forward had also said that they were frightened to do so. One said that since he had turned on the A.B. his family had been threatened. Another, who had provided evidence, was staying in his cell, clutching his rosary beads. He said, “I’ll say my prayers that I don’t get about seventy-five holes in me.”
Fearing that the gang might turn on its own, Jessner had placed a few A.B. members in other prisons. In a letter, the Baron had told another gang member, “It’s likely necessary for us to step-up and conduct a thorough evaluation of every brother’s personal character and level of commitment, as we currently possess some serious rot that is in fact potentially a cancer!” He added that it should be “a top priority to wipe them off the face of this earth!”
Jessner said he knew that the gang was trying to hold on to its operations, but he was optimistic about the upcoming trials. “I can’t say for sure if another gang will take the Brotherhood’s place, or if new leaders will replace the old ones,” he said. “But I know that if we succeed it will send a message that the Aryan Brotherhood can no longer kill with impunity.”
Jessner got up and started heading toward the courtroom, to attend a pretrial hearing. He was wearing a charcoal suit that seemed too loose for his small frame. I asked him if, as some feared, he had been “put in the hat”—marked for assassination.
He blanched. “I don’t know,” he said. He later added, “It’s a pretty big hat.”
The United States Attorney had arranged extra security for him, including a secure parking space nearby. One of his colleagues had declined to work on the case after his wife objected. “I worry,” Jessner admitted. “You can’t help but worry.”
He paused and looked at me. He wouldn’t feel right if he stopped, he said. “I don’t believe that because you rob a convenience store you should receive a death sentence. I don’t believe that our prisons should be divided into predators and prey.” As he headed into the courtroom, he added, “I don’t believe that that is what our system intended by justice.”
The case against the Aryan Brotherhood produced nearly thirty convictions. The gang’s two most feared and powerful leaders, Barry Mills and T. D. Bingham, were found guilty of murder, conspiracy, and racketeering. The jury, however, deadlocked on whether they should receive the death penalty, and they were sentenced to life without parole. David Sahakian, whose initial trial in Benton led to a hung jury on the count of ordering the murder of Terry Walker, was later retried and found guilty. He was sentenced to twenty years. After failing to obtain the death penalty against other leaders of the gang, the prosecution dropped charges against Michael McElhiney; he is not expected to be released from prison until 2035, when he will be seventy-eight years old.