By JOHN M. BRODER
SANTA ANA, Calif., March 14 — Federal prosecutors opened a sweeping murder and racketeering case on Tuesday aimed at dismantling what they called one of the nation's most vicious prison gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood.
Michael W. Emmick, the assistant United States attorney, outlined in his opening statement a gruesome series of murders and assaults designed, he said, by four white supremacist gang members to terrorize and control the inmate population at some of the most secure state and federal prisons in the country.
One defendant, Mr. Emmick said, nearly decapitated one of his victims, who was singled out as having cheated another brotherhood member in a drug deal. He said the gang also ordered a hit on an inmate who attacked the mob boss John J. Gotti in an Illinois federal prison, in an effort to curry favor with the Gotti organization.
"The members of the Aryan Brotherhood are particularly violent, disciplined, fearless, and committed to controlling and dominating the prison population through intimidation and murder," Mr. Emmick said. "It is a full-blown criminal organization both inside and outside the prison system."
He described the gang's code as "blood in, blood out," meaning a prospective member had to kill to earn his stripes, and the only way to leave the gang was through death. Defense lawyers said that the government's case was built on lies from other convicts and apostate Aryan Brotherhood members who had become informers in exchange for lighter sentences, protection and other favors.
"They're all snitches and rats," said H. Dean Steward, the court-appointed lawyer for Barry B. Mills, a founder of the brotherhood. "Every single one of them is getting something for their testimony."
Mr. Steward acknowledged that the four defendants were members of the brotherhood, but said it was a protective society formed by white inmates in prisons where they were a minority beset by well-organized Mexican and African-American gangs.
"It's hard to survive in the federal penitentiary system if you're not part of a group," Mr. Steward said. "The primary purpose of this group was self-protection."
The trial in the federal courthouse here is the first in a series growing out of a 2002 indictment of 40 members of the gang, which was formed in the mid-1960's by white inmates in the racially divided California prison system.
Prosecutors said the brotherhood had since adopted the tactics of organized crime families as it expanded to several other states and to a half-dozen federal penitentiaries, particularly the most secure "supermax" prisons at Florence, Colo., and Marion, Ill.
On trial now are four senior members of the brotherhood, including two of its early leaders, Mr. Mills, 57, known as "The Baron," and Tyler D. Bingham, 58, who goes by "T.D." or "The Hulk." Also on trial are Edgar W. Hevle, 54, known as "The Snail," and Christopher O. Gibson, 46.
The four are accused of ordering or participating in 15 murders or attempted murders over the past 25 years. They are being charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization laws, which have been used to prosecute Mafia families and other criminal groups. Federal prosecutors call the Aryan Brotherhood case, the result of four years of investigation by numerous agencies, the biggest federal death penalty case ever brought.
The defendants sat in two tiered rows with their legs shackled to the floor, watched over by a squadron of federal marshals. All wore the long walrus-style mustaches that are a trademark of their association. Their tattoos, which prosecutors said included swastikas, Nazi SS lightning bolts, shamrocks and the "666" mark associated with Satan, were not visible under their neat, open-collared shirts.
All are already serving long prison terms for violent crimes. Mr. Mills and Mr. Bingham face the death penalty on the current charges.
Nineteen of those indicted pleaded guilty, and several of them will testify at this trial. Separate trials are scheduled this year for other groups of defendants. One of the 40 original defendants committed suicide in jail.
Mr. Emmick, the prosecutor who delivered the government's opening statement, said the Aryan Brotherhood was a sophisticated criminal group with its own secret language and signs, an elaborate communications network and a strictly enforced code of conduct with death as the ultimate sanction.
He said members communicated within prisons and across the country through couriers, family members, notes concealed in broom handles and peanut shells, and disappearing ink made from grapefruit juice or urine.
Their weapon of choice, Mr. Emmick said, was the handmade "shank," fashioned from a toothbrush handle or scrap metal scavenged from the prison yard. Strangulation by garrote was a second choice for dispatching their enemies, he said.
Mr. Steward, the defense lawyer, dismissed the government's case as a fantasy fed by informants. He said that at their height, the Aryan Brotherhood numbered no more than 100 "made" members and a few hundred more associates, and that it would be impossible for such a small group to control the federal penal population of 190,000.
He said the purported "blood in, blood out" oath was "a figment of the imagination of the federal government." Mr. Steward also dismissed the government's account of the brotherhood agreeing to carry out a hit for Mr. Gotti. He said that one of the government's star witnesses, a former Aryan Brotherhood member named Kevin Roach, "made up the whole thing."