By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In their interviews with prisoners all over the country, Halualani and Jessner could almost smell the fear and awe the Aryan Brotherhood instilled in their fellow inmates, probably the biggest hurdle both investigators would have to face in getting people to flip for the government. “If they wanted to kill me, they could, and it would be all right [for them],” an AB associate-turned-witness testified at the Filkins trial. “All the years I was associated with them, I never heard a story, much less witnessed anybody putting their hands on an AB member.”
“Do you know why?” Jessner asked him.
“Because they are going to get wicked,” the man replied. “They will cut your bars, they will kill you right in the hallway, and everybody knows it.”
Jessner, the quiet aesthete, and Halualani, the half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian surfer, claim they never had a dispute about the tactics needed to dismantle the Brotherhood. (“Nobody believes us when we say that,” says Halualani.) Those tactics would evolve as they began to see a frightening pattern: that maybe a handful of 20 or so AB members virtually ran the much larger prison populations in the federal system.
Sometime in the early 1970s, AB leaders signed a truce with the Mexican Mafia (“La Eme”) and agreed to unite in war against La Nuestra Familia, La Eme’s sworn enemies. Around the same time, the AB discovered capitalism — or capitalist expansion — when their members began to be convicted of federal crimes and sent to federal penitentiaries. By the late 1990s, according to FBI sources and court papers, top AB leaders David Sahakian, Michael McElhiney, Barry Byron Mills and Tyler Davis Bingham allegedly had established ties in the federal system with jailed Mafia crime bosses Oreste Abbamonte, “Little Nicky” Scarfo and the “Teflon Don” himself, John Gotti, who turned twice to the AB to carry out murder contracts. “I really didn’t understand how gangs allied themselves in prison, how these alliances go outside of prison,” says Halualani. “Within the indictment, we allege [the AB] to have aligned themselves with El Rukins, a black gang from Chicago — who would’ve thought? When it comes down to it, you can throw out those other [racist] ideologies. It’s all business to them, and they make no bones about it. This is business.”
The AB borrowed the Mafia’s code of omerta(silence): Their “lie or die” oath demanded that potential witnesses perjure themselves by denying any knowledge of the existence of the Brotherhood, a tactic that kept them largely shielded from law enforcement for decades. (Interestingly, mentioning prison gangs by name is against Federal Bureau of Prisons policy.) By the time the full range of the Brotherhood threat came to the attention of the FBI in 1983, they were no longer a gang of bloodthirsty honkies still fighting the prison race wars of the ’60s. Their early-’80s summit at the California Institute for Men at Chino was to the Aryan Brotherhood what Kuala Lumpur would be to al Qaeda — their coming out party. The fact that the 14 or so hardest of the hardcore AB members were housed in Palm Hall, the three-tiered Security Housing Unit (SHU, also described as “a prison within a prison”), was no freak accident of jurisprudence. Most of them had been subpoenaed (or “writted”) to Palm Hall in January 1981 to testify as defense witnesses in the murder trials of other AB members who were representing themselves in court. Inmates did this quite frequently — in fact, they joked about how easy it was to subpoena other inmates, as you did not have to show purpose to the judge. It was on the yard at Chino that they first spoke seriously of recruiting explosives experts, chemists, jailhouse lawyers, con men, and “soldiers” who would run scams and commit assassinations outside of prison. After all, they had their pick of the toughest inmates, especially the short-timers, who would be paroled soon and could extend the Brotherhood’s reach on the streets while the lifers sat in their cells and meted out singular forms of justice.
When Halualani visited Supermax prisons like Pelican Bay, he found the AB had adapted to them with startling acuity. The $84 million Northern California gulag, built in 1989 to house “the worst of the worst” of violent offenders, has earned its 1,056-bed SHU (or “The Shoe”) a place alongside Kenya and Saddam’s Iraq in a 1996 U.N. human-rights report citing “inhuman” prison facilities around the world. Prisoners spend 23 hours a day locked in whitewashed 11-foot-by-7-and-a-half-foot concrete pods where they can’t see other prisoners or the guards watching their every move from a central observation booth. Nevertheless, during Halualani’s investigation, a local prosecutor characterized the presence of an estimated 50 AB members at Pelican Bay as a “reign of terror.” They enlisted paroled inmates to become drug dealers, gun smugglers and stickup men. They used the Law Library to pass homemade weapons — in one case, tearing out a part of the library’s steel ceiling and replacing it with an artfully rendered cardboard replica — and coded messages so complex and arcane that FBI cryptoanalysts were required to decipher them. They used a vast system of post-office boxes, untraceable money orders and “point persons” on the outside to smuggle their drugs (including methamphetamine, heroin and liquid steroids) and collect on gambling debts owed them.
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