March 15, 2006 -- Murder, conspiracy to commit murder, narcotics trafficking, extortion, gambling, robbery, intimidation and assault. According to federal prosecutors, these are the crimes the Aryan Brotherhood carried out behind bars for over 40 years.
The group's homicidal and corrupting tentacles, which first sprouted in 1964 in California's San Quentin prison, now reach across the country and throughout the federal prison system, alleges a newly unveiled 140-count federal indictment.
In one of the largest capital punishment cases ever, the document alleges 32 murders and almost as many attempted murders. As many as 16 defendants could face the death penalty; some of them are already serving multiple life sentences. The first of several trials involves four of the alleged leaders and could last until the end of the year.
Race War Not Profitable
The Aryan Brotherhood reportedly hatched from a collective of white inmates known as The Bluebird Gang. In the racially charged world behind bars, they watched as black and Hispanic inmates organized and gained influence in the California prison system, so they changed their name.
And these days, they've even changed their stripes -- the Aryan Brotherhood now counts some mixed-race men among their legion.
Prosecutors say the Brotherhood's endgame is power and intimidation, and even white inmates not invited to join feel threatened. Members are required to abide by rules established by the "councils" or "commissions."
"In the beginning, their crimes were solely motivated by race. As the criminal organization has evolved, they have tended towards crimes that have little or nothing to do with race," said Melissa Carr of the Anti-Defamation League of Orange County.
There have been times, however, that the group has reverted back to its original purpose, said Carr. "Violent criminal activity exploded around the Aryan Brotherhood in the late '90s in what their leader called a 'race war'," she said. "Their mindset was to take down all black prisoners or members of black prison gangs."
But there is little profit in a race war, and federal prosecutors allege the Brotherhood now operates more like an organized crime group. Prosecutors say the Brotherhood's priorities are making money, exacting revenge, terrorizing the uncooperative and maintaining thriving criminal enterprises inside and outside of prison.
"They have developed over time sophisticated operations with organized crime techniques that are on par with any of the best of the organized crime units that the government is trying to tackle outside the prison walls," said professor Jody Armour of the University of Southern California Law School.
Could Old Leaders Be Replaced by New Ones?
It has taken the federal government many years of painstaking investigation to bring about this prosecution. Experts tally the national membership of the gang at about 15,000 in prisons and communities across the country.
The Brotherhood's use of everything from invisible inks to co-opted prison employees to brawny intimidation has made it an elusive target for investigators.
"They're very sophisticated; they've evolved as would a mutant virus that reacts to efforts to stamp it out by mutating into new forms that are more resistant to either detection or prevention," said Armour. "Even with 23-hour confinement and the other kinds of limitations placed on them, they've shown quite remarkable ingenuity and inventiveness in promoting and perpetuating their criminal enterprise."
Will a successful prosecution in these cases make any meaningful difference in the violent and destabilizing effect the group has in the prisons?
Armour said that is the government's hope. "The idea behind the prosecution is that if these leaders are eliminated or more constrained, then the organization itself will atrophy without its head. As goes the head, goes the body, is their theory," he said. "On the other hand, if this is a more bottom-up kind of phenomenon, then the old leaders may simply be replaced by new ones."