Aryan Brotherhood Leaders ConvictedBy Christopher Goffard
Times Staff Writer
2:21 PM PDT, July 28, 2006
After two weeks of jury deliberations, two kingpins of the Aryan Brotherhood were convicted of racketeering and murder today, capping a five-month trial aimed at decapitating one of America's most fearsome, far-flung prison gangs.
The gang's two aging leaders, Barry "The Baron" Mills and Tyler "The Hulk" Bingham — found guilty of ordering bloody attacks against black inmates from maximum security cellblocks — are now eligible for the death penalty.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana involved 17 murders or attempted murders starting in 1979, when Mills nearly decapitated another inmate in an Atlanta prison for cheating a gang member on a drug deal, and concluded with the 1997 stabbing deaths of two black inmates at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Penn.
FOR THE RECORD
In an earlier version of this article, the phrase " ... the Brotherhood murdered an inmate for giving a member's knife to the Mexican Mafia..." was not attributed to the prosecutors.
The gang — said to number just 100 men but so dreaded it controlled drug and gambling rackets nationwide — used terror as a tool to enforce obedience among prison populations. In one case, prosecutors say the Brotherhood murdered an inmate for giving a member's knife to the Mexican Mafia, a rival prison gang. In other cases, it killed inmates suspected of wearing the "rat jacket," or cooperating with authorities.
As the top bosses, Mills and Bingham were accused of orchestrating much of the violence from behind the scenes, including the murders of gang brethren who ran afoul of the Brotherhood's strict internal code by abusing drugs and flaunting homosexual relationships.
The single bloodiest day involved in the case was Aug. 28, 1997, when gang members armed themselves with shivs and launched a blitz against black inmates at the Lewisburg prison. Six inmates were stabbed, two fatally.
The defendants, wearing spectacles and graying walrus mustaches, sat with their lawyers in a tiered box akin to the war crimes dock at Nuremburg, their legs shackled to the floor while a team of federal marshals sat shoulder-to-shoulder behind them.
The trial was the first of several targeting the Brotherhood's leadership, stemming from a 2002 indictment against 40 defendants accused of ruling or serving the gang. Taken together, the prosecutions formed the largest federal capital case since the federal death penalty protocol was revised in the mid-1990s.
"I think this is an unprecedented prosecution," said Gregory Jessner, the former assistant U.S. attorney who spearheaded the case and is now in private practice. "There's never been this systematic 'let's take off the whole leadership' attempt."
During the trial, jurors sat just a few feet from a witness box where dozens of heavily tattooed, ash-pale inmates — former Brotherhood members or associates — described the gang's culture, internal codes and practices.
One of the government's star witnesses, Al Benton, a high-ranking Brotherhood defector, testified that he stabbed a victim through the throat after receiving a smuggled order from Bingham, who was incarcerated 1,700 miles away at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo. Benton testified that the order was written in invisible ink, which came into view when held over a flame.
Describing the rationale behind the Brotherhood's existence, Benton said, it was "like the Army the best of the best get together."
"It's like a sharing of the heart," he added. "You've got my back, I've got your back."
Benton, who in exchange for his testimony received just a 9-year sentence, said he loved Mills like a brother. Taking the stand was like "testifying against my heart," he said, and had prompted the Brotherhood to put a contract on his life.
The Brotherhood originated at San Quentin state prison in the 1960s, where white inmates bound together to protect themselves in a racially charged climate. But prosecutors say the gang has transformed itself into a sophisticated, far-reaching criminal syndicate.
Defense attorneys portrayed the Brotherhood as a "dysfunctional prison gang" that could not even carry out what the government called a lucrative contract murder ordered by John Gotti against an inmate who had attacked him.
The defense said the killings in question were the result of racial tensions and a "convict code" of survival rather than of a racketeering enterprise.
In prison, said defense attorney Mark Fleming, life was harsh and cheap. "Bodies were piling up every year in these places," Fleming told jurors.
While the defense attacked the credibility of government witnesses, saying they had stitched together fabricated stories in exchange for cash and legal breaks, the government produced a stack of documents seized from the gang to buttress its case.
These included decoded letters, membership rosters and a "mission statement" that urged the gang to become "the very best possible criminal organization."
Along with Mills and Bingham, lesser Brotherhood leaders Edgar "The Snail" Hevle and Christopher Gibson were convicted of conspiring to murder black inmates. Hevle was accused of agreeing to participate in the race war that culminated in the Lewisburg murders and of abetting the strangulation murder of Arva Lee Ray at the Lompoc prison in 1989.
Gibson was accused of smuggling a message between Mills and Bingham that launched the race killings, and of the attempted murder of Jeffrey Barnett at Lompoc in March 1990.
By the government's account, Brotherhood leaders ran the gang's far-reaching network by adapting ingeniously to the tight surveillance conditions in maximum-security lockups. To transmit messages, the gang employed an elaborate system of codes and cryptograms — including a 400-year-old binary alphabet system devised by Sir Francis Bacon — as well as more prosaic jailhouse ruses, such as slipping notes in mop handles and under recreation yard rocks.
Jurors learned about the gang's reading list, which included Nietzsche, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." They learned how to make knives from the shaved-off sliver of a light fixture. And with a cast of eccentric criminal witnesses, they witnessed strange, tangential exchanges, as when defense attorney Michael White cross-examined Chris Risk, who said he robbed banks to protest the treatment of American Indians.
"I felt something like Don Quixote," Risk said.
"Did Don Quixote rob banks?" White asked.
"Did he rob anybody?"
"His intentions were of the finest, is that correct?"
In decades of practicing law, defense attorney Donald Calabria said, he had never come across a comparable collection of shady government witnesses. He told jurors: "You will never see a cast of characters like this again."