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THE NATION

Invisible Ink Got Gang's Deadly Note Past Guards

Aryan Brotherhood trial also uncovers the use of ancient ciphers and other ruses.

June 27, 2006|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

Defense attorneys do not deny that T.D. Bingham sent a message to Benton, who says he flushed it down the toilet. But they maintain that it merely warned about potential assault from the DC Blacks gang, rather than ordering an attack on it.

Benton said Bingham's message was unmistakable: "It meant kill every black you can find. That's exactly what it meant."

The day after the letter arrived, Benton said, he and his underlings armed themselves with shanks and killed two black inmates.

While the current trial in Santa Ana involves dozens of killings or attempted killings over two decades, the Lewisburg violence is among the most notorious and best documented. It is also the basis for murder conspiracy counts against Mills and Bingham that make them eligible for the death penalty if convicted.

To Bureau of Prisons agents, the bloodshed at Lewisburg came as a particular shock, considering how closely they had been watching the Brotherhood leaders. In fact, just two days before the killings, Supermax agents believed they had outsmarted the gang, intercepting and decoding a handwritten missive apparently intended for Mills from Bingham.

"Bubba," the plain text read, "Well I am a grandfather. At last my boys [sic] wife gave birth to a strapping eight pound seven ounce baby boy."

Scanning the letter, agents noticed the numbers invoked the California penal code for murder, 187, and "baby boy" belonged to the gang's known lexicon for a slaying.

"We figured we had stopped the trigger for the violence," said Adams. But after the stabbings, "We knew that we had missed it. We knew that we had missed how the message went out."

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The Brotherhood guarded its secrets jealously. It forbade members to discuss gang business with outsiders, defectors say, promising death to those who even acknowledged membership.

With a mere 100 or so full-fledged members scattered in state and federal lockups nationwide, much of the gang's power derived from its structure, with clear lines of command running from a three-man supreme commission to a handful of counselors, then to soldiers. Beyond them were legions of "associates" who could be threatened or enticed into service.

Al Benton, who allegedly was one of the gang's commissioners along with Bingham and Mills in the 1990s, recently testified that the tiered system was meant to prevent "knuckleheads and idiots from doing things on their own" -- a way to channel the gang's violence and to resolve in-house feuds.

A gang that aspired to the efficiency of an army had to communicate like one. While code-speak among inmates is as old as the first jail cells, prosecutors allege the Brotherhood displayed a shocking ingenuity and elaborateness. When prison officials took pains to isolate the Brotherhood's leaders from each other, it delayed gang business but did not quash it for long.

Among prisoners, they were an uncommonly studious pack. They read Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." And they found new ways to talk.

If the Brotherhood had a code master, a one-man Enigma machine, it was the scraggly-bearded, slow-talking killer who wore the title of the gang's Intelligence and security director.

McGinley joined the gang in 1996 and preferred working behind the scenes, rather than as a leader like Bingham and Mills, who were his fellow inmates at the Supermax. His interest in cryptograms began in boyhood, when he fished secret-decoder badges out of cereal boxes. In the Florence, Colo., lockup -- built in part because other prisons had failed to contain Brotherhood violence -- conditions posed a supreme challenge.

"Everybody's under a microscope," he testified in the Santa Ana trial. "Messages wouldn't get from point A to point B if people could see the contents of them. So we used cryptography."

Reading in his cell, McGinley said, he came across a 400-year-old method of secret writing devised by Sir Francis Bacon. Called a "bi-literal cipher," it employed two separate alphabets. The A alphabet featured regular letters, while the B alphabet featured letters with tiny tails, loops and crosses. Combined in the dummy text of a letter, they translated into five-letter sequences, which in turn corresponded to individual letters.

"It seemed like it was good, because no one would remember it," said McGinley, who introduced it to Mills. "We went over it and over it and over it." Using the cipher, McGinley said, he encoded a roster of Brotherhood members within what appeared to be a reading list of obscure religious scholarship.

As racial tensions intensified in August 1997, McGinley testified, his coding skills played a key role in disseminating what he said was Bingham's order to "sharpen the knives up."

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