A convicted murderer who said he was an early leader in the Aryan Brotherhood told jurors Wednesday that the gang tightened its grip on prisons with lessons on power from classic literature and a commission that ruled when and how inmates would be "whacked."
Clifford Smith, one of dozens of inmates turned government informers, was the first witness in what's expected to be a months-long federal trial in Santa Ana in a case prosecutors hope will decapitate the notorious gang.
Wearing prison scrubs and an eye patch that he slipped on and off during questioning, Smith described how the Aryan Brotherhood empowered a three-man commission to oversee drug running and killings in prisons nationwide and developed a reading list for prospective members, including writings of Plato, Nietzsche and Machiavelli.
Asked by a prosecutor what the themes of the books were, he boiled the intended message down to "being the alpha male, the archetype."
Smith also conceded that he had been involved in prison slayings, anywhere from eight to 21, he said, acknowledging that he was foggy on the tally.
"If you're good with 21, I'm good with 21," he told a defense attorney.
Smith said he entered prison in 1977 on an armed robbery conviction and joined the Aryan Brotherhood a year later. He participated in the stabbing of an inmate to impress the gang's leadership.
"Some people are squeamish about that kind of stuff," he said. "I wanted to let them know I wasn't squeamish."
He stabbed another man, he said, during a World Series game between the Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Steve Garvey hit a home run, he said, and as inmates leapt to their feet to cheer, he drove the blade in.
The beef was over a stolen watch. "It got me a seat at the table," he said.
In the summer of 1982, Smith said, he stabbed Stephen "Loser" Clark 37 times, making sure to do it publicly to send a message. He said Clark was a drug addict, which violated Aryan Brotherhood rules, and had called Smith a "punk" in front of Smith's daughter.
"When needed be, we took a head," said Smith, who was sentenced to 36 years to life for Clark's murder. "It got everyone else thinking about saying no to us."
Once someone was in the gang, he said, the rules forbade leaving except by death. "There is no retirement," he said. "There is no 'Well, it's been fun, but I'm gonna do something else.' "
In the gang's early days, he said, important questions such as "who came in, who got whacked" were decided on a one-member, one-vote basis, which proved inefficient. In the early 1980s, "the big dogs" of the gang assembled at the state prison in Chino to debate forming a hierarchical structure, settling on a three-man "commission" that oversaw a nine-man "council," with rank-and-file members answering to them.
Smith said he dropped out of the gang because he refused an order to murder a man whose daughters sent Smith pictures and called him "uncle."
Smith, who is incarcerated in protective custody at the state prison in Corcoran, said he had received about $1,000 from the government for his cooperation but didn't expect his testimony to help before the parole board next year.
Smith admitted Wednesday that he had lied regularly on the witness stand in previous trials, a point defense attorneys hammered home during cross-examination.
The government plans to call dozens of informers in its racketeering case against accused gang leaders Barry "The Baron" Mills, T.D. "The Hulk" Bingham, Edgar "The Snail" Hevle and Christopher O. Gibson. They are accused of participating in acts of murder and attempted murder.
Their trial is the first of three targeting the Aryan Brotherhood's leadership, which together form one of the largest capital cases in U.S. history.