The Prison King
Shayne Allyn Ziska didn’t want a jury trial. He thought the ways of his former world, as a $66,000-a-year guard at Chino's state prison, too complex for 12 men and women to understand. He preferred leaving it to a man in a black robe to decide whether all the bad things inmates and a couple of guards said about him were true.
For six days last month, his accusers took the stand in federal court, telling Judge Terry Hatter Jr. how the 44-year-old Ziska befriended members of a white-supremacist prison-based gang called the Nazi Low Riders (a.k.a. “the Ride”). They said he preached “white power” ideology and referred to black inmates as “rugs,” “porch monkeys” and “niggers.”
When Ziska was on duty at the California Institution for Men at Chino, the usual rules of prison life did not apply. He often allowed his favorite white inmates out of their cells to plot crimes and to retaliate against other inmates for violating the gangster’s code of conduct. To control his empire, “Z,” as his friends called him, housed his favorite white inmates together and occasionally smuggled heroin and methamphetamine inside letters for them. He would allow white inmates to make wine in their cells, and often looked the other way when a beating went down. He was the “go-to” guy for certain “buddies” in need of razors.
For four years, from 1996 to 2000, Ziska’s renegade regime ruled the prison walls, including the 200-inmate Madrone Hall, where he was one of three guards per shift. He insinuated himself into many parts of inmate life. He was a leader and teacher, instructing inmates in self-defense, with tips on how to take away a weapon from a guard. He was a philosopher, preaching about Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
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The 5-foot-10, wiry-yet-muscular Ziska, his blond hair cut short, denied all of it when he took the stand for an hour or so on the final day of his trial in downtown Los Angeles. “I am there to protect them,” said Ziska. “I don’t share anything in common with the NLR.”
After a lunch break, Judge Hatter issued his verdict: guilty on one count of violent crime in aid of racketeering, one count of deprivation of civil rights under the color of law, and one count of conspiracy. Hatter, in scathing remarks about the Corrections Department’s poor record in addressing its problems, thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for “shining the light on one of the darkest areas of the state.”
The verdict closed the door on a five-year investigation that began in 1999, when the Ontario Police Department looked into a spate of violent crime and an upsurge in meth labs attributed to the Ride. The police finally called in the FBI, and by the end of the probe, 29 members or associates of the gang had been indicted. Most of those named in the 2002 indictment had spent time in Chino’s prison, and two of the nine inmates who agreed to testify against Ziska had been indicted by the feds. Ziska, the only guard implicated, was placed on administrative leave in 2000, ending his hopes of being elected president of the Chino prison union. He was indicted in 2004.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the case is why so few guards came forward to say they noticed anything odd on the days Ziska worked. Guards who testified on Ziska’s behalf denied that there was any “code of silence” that forbade them from saying anything negative about one of the members of their powerful prison-guards union, for which Ziska was a shop steward. “The Shayne Ziska I am familiar with is professional, and he is not someone I think of as a white supremacist,” said Marty Aroian, president of the union’s Chino chapter. “He was a very effective and a dedicated shop steward. He kept the tenets of our organization very well.”
Ziska, a former construction worker, started his career as a correctional officer in 1984, at the age of 22, at the 6,300-inmate Chino prison. His first assignment was on the minimum-security yard, and he graduated to patrolling some of Chino’s most dangerous units, including administrative segregation, where the most violent inmates are kept. Ziska was also a member of the prison SWAT team for three years.
“He was rough around the edges,” said corrections officer Denise Mori Harrison, who worked with Ziska in 1999 and testified on his behalf. “He either liked you or he didn’t.”
Race often made it into his conversations. When Harrison, who is white, married an African-American man, Ziska told her that he was against mixed marriages because he felt sorry for the children. On another occasion, he asked his new Latino partner if he spoke English. “He was a real asshole,” the guard said. “I said, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I have been here for 12 years. He said, ‘Do you want to be my partner? Are you going to work?’ He worked my ass off.” He eventually changed his mind and grew to admire Ziska. “We were like brothers there.”
Ziska lived with his wife, Joan, and three sons in nearby Fontana. He was an avid surfer and a black belt in tae kwon do. He also taught martial arts to inner-city youth for more than 20 years.
But Ziska had a darker side. Ziska’s former brother-in-law, Vince Cobbold, a former felon who spent 18 months in jail for selling marijuana and methamphetamine, testified that Ziska was a meth user who once looked into joining the Ku Klux Klan.
“He wanted to know if I wanted an application,” he said. Ziska’s son Ryan described his father as a racist who would have disowned him “if I brought home a nigger.”
The 20-year-old college student recalled how his father would regularly engage his older brother in white-power talk and that he once bragged about beating up a black inmate. His favorite coffee mug had a picture of a swastika. During the trial, Ziska’s attorney, Ira Salzman, accused Ryan of taking his mother’s side after the family’s breakup in 2005.
Ziska extolled the virtues of white power, according to federal prosecutors. He shaved his head bald, sported a skull tattoo with lightning bolts blazing out of its mouth, symbolizing “SS,” and was intolerant of other races. He fit in well with the strict rules and regulations of the Nazi Low Riders white prison gang.
The Nazi Low Riders emerged as a white-supremacist prison gang in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Ride took over control of the California prison system’s main yards when the Aryan Brotherhood, the leading white prison gang, was systematically disciplined by the Corrections Department and placed in administrative segregation. The Ride agreed to continue the AB's illegal activities and, in 1999, the Ride became a validated prison gang, along with the Mexican Mafia (Eme) and the Black Guerrilla Family.
Membership in the white-race group is by invitation only. New members must commit a violent act and be sponsored by a “senior.” In addition, the gang follows strict rules of conduct. Members cannot work with law enforcement, associate with known sex offenders or engage in “race mixing.” Race mixing includes dating out of your race, and eating with or touching food prepared by another race. While in prison, Ride members must participate in mandatory exercise and physical-training programs and take part in “roll call” — where they identify themselves as members. Members must also donate 10 to 30 percent of all items received through the mail or purchased at the prison store to the shot caller, or senior member, who passes some of it along to members in secure housing units. A member can be stabbed or killed if he rapes or disrespects a fellow member, or claims to be a member before obtaining membership status.
The gang holds power through intimidation and violence. Stabbing is considered a badge of honor.
If a white inmate is in violation of gang rules, it is the white inmates who take care of it. Snitches and child molesters are called “trash.”
Ziska helped clean up the “trash,” or “lames.”
The indictment accused Ride members of ordering hits, committing violent acts, intimidating witnesses, extortion, drug trafficking and numerous weapons violations. The two who agreed to testify against Ziska, in return for lighter sentences for themselves, were Brian “Skully” Roberg and Robert “Bobbo” Wilson, both of whom became Ziska’s pals inside prison walls.
In 2001, Roberg pleaded guilty and received a plea agreement in return for testifying against Ziska. He also was given $2,000 by the FBI for his troubles.
“It was something that I was thinking about for some time,” he said. “I started talking to them [the FBI] initially because of my request. I wanted to change what was getting me busted in my lifestyle.”
It would be Ziska’s undoing. It would also open the floodgates for many more inmates to come forward.
Thirty-four-year-old Brian Roberg was sent to prison at the age of 18. He did time for possession of drugs for sale, armed robbery and possession of a firearm. While in prison, he became affiliated with the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood. In 1998, he was doing time at Chino. It was at Chino that Roberg, also known as “Mother Fucking Skully,” “MFS” and “Rock Solid,” became a full-fledged member of the Ride. It was a steppingstone to becoming a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
“I wanted to be recognized by the Aryan Brotherhood for work I put in,” testified Roberg. “The NLR are assets to the Aryan Brotherhood for getting work done and spreading the message. It was about Aryan Brotherhood politics. It was about being aggressive with attitude.”
Roberg eventually became the shot caller for the Ride at Chino prison, announcing mandatory workouts in the yard and conducting “church meetings” to discuss gang business. Over a span of two years, he admitted to calling hits on five inmates, including the stabbing of a white inmate who lied about having a Ride sponsor, and a gang member who overheard a conversation about an assault on an inmate and tipped off the intended target. As the shot caller, he held ultimate authority over the white inmates. No one could be stabbed or beaten without his permission.
It was at Chino’s Sycamore Hall that Roberg first befriended Ziska. The inmate and the correctional officer soon became friends. Roberg said he grew to respect Ziska and even called off a hit on a Skinhead named Junior at Ziska’s request.
“Ziska asked us not to stab Junior,” he said. “He said Junior was his boy. Ziska asked me a favor because of the rapport we had. It was the least I could do for him. He did me favors.”
On another occasion, Ziska again asked Roberg to refrain from stabbing an inmate, because he feared that a knife attack would bring heat down on his unit. “We just beat him down,” said Roberg. “No one would be disciplined. It would be different if there was a stabbing.”
Roberg took Ziska’s words to heart one more time, in 1999, after a Skinhead named Nathan “Chance” Johnson allegedly raped his cellmate. Johnson denied the rape, but, as white prison policy dictated, he had to pass along his “paperwork,” or incident report, to his unit’s shot caller for review. After taking a look at the report, Roberg decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to call a hit on Johnson for violating one of the Ride's cardinal rules — the one against rape.
Roberg also told how Ziska had come to his cell and influenced his decision. “He gave me the incident report,” he testified in court. “Ziska said I needed to look at it. I said I didn’t believe the paperwork. I saw that something had happened. I figured that the dude just beat him up. Ziska was making such an issue about the incident. He was giving all the indications that the dude needed to be hit. To have a rapist socializing with NLR — that’s bad stuff as far as politics go. It was clear in my mind I was missing something in letting Johnson into the program. Ziska’s access to information was far greater than mine. It was a clear indication that I should look further into it.”
On July 24, 2000, Ziska got his way. Johnson was stabbed in the eye on the yard by Ride member Joseph “Sulky” Diamond.
Roberg wasn’t the only inmate with special privileges who came forward to testify against Ziska. “Bobbo” Wilson, a “Wood,” or Ride associate, became Ziska’s tier-tender, or helper, at Sycamore Hall in the mid-’90s. (Wilson also worked out a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.) One of their first orders of business together was the assault of an ex-Marine who was housed in their unit.
“We came to find out that he was there ?for breaking his baby’s arms,” said Wilson. ?“We were given the paperwork from Ziska. Whites aren’t supposed to hurt kids. This individual needed to be got because what he did was wrong.”
As a favor to Ziska, Wilson agreed to throw the inmate a beating, and Ziska obliged by opening the ex-Marine’s cell. On another occasion, Ziska opened a cell for Wilson when he found out that an inmate was in for raping a mentally challenged girl. “You don’t rape, period,” he said. “We are running the prison for whites, and we want to know who is coming in.”
Another inmate who received special favors was a violent Skinhead named James “Spinner” Abbott, who was in and out of custody for 15 years. Abbott, a so-called independent, was a good match for Ziska. The two would talk about German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. “The white race is genetically superior,” he said from the witness stand. “Smarter. We invented almost everything. Ziska told me that he started out as a traditional Skin, but it seemed to me that he got more infatuated with the [Nazi Low Riders]. He liked the structure of them. He seemed to gravitate towards that.”
Ziska regularly taught Abbott martial arts, how to thwart a knife or pepper-spray attack, and gave him Plexiglas so he could make a weapon. “I was in that wicked way,” he said. “Ziska wanted us to be strapped in in case of a riot.”
Abbott also planned the beatings of an inmate who was “wagging his weenie” at two corrections officers, as well as a child molester, at the behest of Ziska. “When my homeboy was socking him up, Ziska walked down toward the guard shack, and when the old man screamed, he looked away like it was coming from another direction. It was funny. He didn’t go check to see if he was okay,” said Abbott, about the second beating.
But not everyone was buying the inmates’ stories.
“They are all cons,” said defense attorney Salzman. “They have major sentences. The government is arguing that the motive is racial. He might be a hard person, but he is not a racist. Someone would have picked this up. Other guards wouldn’t have tolerated this. Why would he do it? Why would he sacrifice his career for this purpose?”
Chino corrections officer Richard Allan Palacios Sr. worked the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift with Ziska in the late 1990s. The two officers got on reasonably well. Palacios didn’t ask too many questions when he saw 15 to 30 white inmates out of their cells at one time, and Ziska provided no answers. Instead, Palacios would grab another officer, and the two would corral the inmates back into their cells. It was a regular ritual. It was usually followed by Ziska’s letting them back out. “We would confront inmates, and they said they got permission from Ziska,” he said. “They would be screaming out his name.”
Palacios eventually began to worry about his safety and brought his concerns to Ziska. “He told me I was being too hard on the white inmates,” he said. “He said to me, Do you know what it would be like to have battery acid on my vehicle? He told me to back off because they did favors for him when he wasn’t there.”
Palacios’ fears reached a high point after he saw Ziska show Ride member Michael “Snake” Bridge Polaroids of a fully clothed Palacios with a “baton in my rear end” as part of a prison hazing ritual.
“It undermined my authority and safety,” he said. Chino corrections officer Robert Walter Spejcher, who was assigned to the shift just after Ziska’s, complained that there were days when he started work and found cell doors unlocked — a violation of prison policy — and white inmates wandering the tiers.
“It presented a security risk,” he said. “They could jump out and attack us. Guards were scared they would get jumped.”
Spejcher said that he would find Nazi paraphernalia and an unusually large amount of weapons in white inmates’ cells.
“There were more acts of violence on the third watch due to inner-dorm visiting after Ziska’s watch,” he said. “I don’t need a job that is unsafe to work because of the number of incidents going on.”
Palacios eventually brought his concerns to his superiors, who told him to document Ziska’s bad behavior. Soon afterward, Palacios filed a written complaint to investigative services. After a six-month internal-affairs investigation, prison authorities found no evidence of wrongdoing and closed the file. For coming forward, Palacios said, he was shunned by his co-workers and given the silent treatment. He eventually transferred to another unit at Chino.
“I didn’t agree with the findings,” he said. “In my report was a list of dates and times and officers present. I had to go with what the department said.”
“The reason why it wasn’t sustained was because other officers wouldn’t back up his claim,” said federal prosecutor Adam Kamenstein.
It wouldn't have been the first time that an officer was shunned for violating what U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, in a Northern California case, described as a “code of silence” among officers. In 2004, Henderson ordered an investigation by special master John Hagar into the state’s labor contract, asking whether it gave the prison-guards union too much control over prison management and whether the contract hindered the state’s ability to conduct fair and accurate investigations of guard misconduct. What they found was a culture fostering a code of silence that was rampant in the department.
A prime example occurred in 2002, when two former Pelican Bay guards were sent to prison for soliciting inmates to attack child molesters, sex offenders and other inmates they disliked, and for attacking inmates themselves at the maximum-security facility in Crescent City. The trial of Sergeant Michael Powers and Officer Jose Garcia raised concerns that some guards attempted to protect their convicted colleagues, sparking the federal investigation that prompted Henderson to consider appointing a receiver to run the department.
“Rather than CDC [California Department of Corrections] staff correcting the prisoners, some correctional officers end up acquiring a prisoner’s mentality: They form gangs, align with gangs and spread the code of silence,” Hagar wrote. “The code of silence is taught to new recruits because of longstanding CDC culture, turning good officers bad.”
At Ziska’s trial, federal prosecutors accused numerous Chino corrections officers of adhering to that very same code of silence. Besides Palacios and Spejcher, all of the correctional officers who testified said that they hadn’t witnessed any wrongdoing on the part of Ziska, and most denied that a code of silence existed among correctional officers. “I don’t believe the code of silence exists,” said corrections officer Nathaneal Huley, who worked with Ziska in 1999. “If he was passing weapons, it would be a problem for me. Why would I want to keep that hushed? One of those weapons could end up in me.”
Prosecutors say Ziska’s only motivation was to help the white-power cause. Defense attorney Joel Levine says the case was largely a fabrication of inmates trying to help themselves. “There is no evidence that he received money or remuneration for these actions. It is a no-brainer to inform on a corrections officer and get benefits for themselves.”
Late in the day on February 14, after an emotional afternoon of testimony by Ziska’s son Ryan, Judge Hatter convicted Ziska of all but two counts. He criticized the Department of Corrections for failing to supervise Ziska and ordered Ziska to return to court on May 8, when he could be sentenced to as many as 50 years in federal prison.
“I am clearly of the mind that the California Department of Corrections ought to be indicted as well, if they could be,” Hatter said. “It’s amazing, frankly, that the offenses which are charged here are not more rampant throughout the entire system, and I am sure that there are offenses that are as grave as some of these and worse and hopefully will be brought to the attention of the public before long and will be addressed properly.”
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