Who’ll Stop the Reign? | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Who’ll Stop the Reign? 

The big trial is over, netting several convictions -- read last year's story on the U.S. versus the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang

Thursday, Feb 3 2005

Aryan Brotherhood members in an exhibit in the narcotics-trafficking trial of Michael "Big Mac" McElhiney, top right, who co-ran AB operations at the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois. He is currently at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A., awaiting trial for conspiracy to murder AB associate Charles "Bubba" Leger. 


Gregory Jessner shares roughly the same lifetime with the Aryan Brotherhood. He was 3 years old when they were founded in 1964 by Irish bikers in the exercise yard at San Quentin Maximum Security Prison, just 15 miles north of where he grew up. As a boy, he played with the children of Faye Stender, the radical defense attorney who was later paralyzed in an assassination attempt traced to the Black Guerrilla Family, another prison gang against whom, according to legend, the Aryan Brotherhood was formed to fight. Now, Jessner is preparing to face off against what is perhaps the most murderous and feared criminal gang in the country. Photos of Aryan Brotherhood members invariably reveal the same qualities: thick bull necks, massive forearms, tattoos of fierce Vikings, Nazi lightning bolts, and a distinctive shamrock enclosed in the claws of a swastika with “666” branded on its petals. Some have knit caps pulled low over their eyes; many sport peculiar, walruslike mustaches more befitting Civil War soldiers and Old West outlaws. They have whimsical, cartoon-derived nicknames: “The Hulk,” “Bart Simpson,” “Blinky,” “Speedy,” “Tweak.” Their eyes are invariably intense and defiant, glaring right through the camera and down the throats of anyone who looks at their picture for all time. Greg Jessner, on the other hand, is an athletically thin man in a wonkish dark suit, crisp dress shirt and unobtrusive tie; he walks briskly with a slight limp, the result of a teenage soccer injury that to this day requires physical therapy (“I would break under torture,” he jokes). The 43-year-old Assistant U.S. Attorney, who attended a middle school staffed entirely by jazz musicians and who was inspired to become a prosecutor after hearing a speech by Ralph Nader at Berkeley, wears no watch, reads The New Yorker and abstains from eating meat. His sparsely furnished office in the old U.S. Courthouse in downtown L.A. is hung with various awards he has won in his 15 years as a federal prosecutor, during which he successfully prosecuted the Compton Coxes (a family of drug dealers), two Jewish Defense League associates for plotting to bomb the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, and the notorious Eighteenth Street Gang that’s been terrorizing the Pico-Union area since the 1960s. On a black filing cabinet by his desk is a 1994 photo of Jessner shaking hands with Janet Reno, altered by a friend so that Jessner would not be so obviously dwarfed by the 6-foot-plus attorney general. On February 28th, Jessner will travel south to the Santa Ana Courthouse to begin the trial of his career and one of the most important trials you’ve never heard of. His 10-count, 110-page indictment alleges that over 23 years the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) ordered 32 murders both in and out of the federal prison system (with around a 50 percent success rate). Jessner is prosecuting the gang under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act, which another U.S. prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani used to take down the Gambino crime family in the 1980s. Using RICO is not a new tactic for targeting prison gangs — it’s already been used with success on the Mexican Mafia — but what makes Jessner’s approach unique is its sheer size and complexity. He is seeking the death penalty for 23 of the Aryan Brotherhood’s top leaders, the largest death-penalty indictment in the history of the American justice system.

Quiet, unassuming assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner, a vegetarian and New Yorker reader, is throwing down the largest death- penalty indictment in the history of the American justice system. Photo by Ted Soqui  

The case, due to its complexity and also because all the defendants cannot be held safely in one courtroom, will encompass four or five trials spread out across seven Southern California counties over the next couple years. The first seven defendants who will make their pleas this month in Orange County face non-capital RICO charges. One, Joseph Principe, is a former guard at a federal “Supermax” prison who allegedly arranged for the gang’s leaders to meet unobserved to discuss their affairs. Manuel “Larry” Jackson, a reputed member of the Mexican Mafia, allegedly beat and stabbed another inmate to within an inch of his life for merely making disparaging comments about the AB. Cleo Roy, who at the age of 16 killed a police officer, allegedly placed a noose around the neck of an inmate named Thomas Lamb while a fellow assassin hung him from the shelves in his cell to make it look like a suicide. Lamb’s offense: He had failed to carry out a murder for the AB while on parole and then had the misfortune of landing back in jail. The AB leaders were very patient. They allegedly issued the order for Lamb’s murder at the California Institution for Men at Chino in 1982. Lamb died in the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, on October 15, 1988. The Aryan Brotherhood, in jail parlance, “had all day.”

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