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Texas slayings draw attention to white supremacist gang

Some suspect the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is involved in the killings of two prosecutors. But experts say such attacks would be out of character for the prison gang.

April 04, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • An honor guard tends to a flag at a memorial service for Kaufman County Dist. Atty. Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia. Some suspect the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas may be involved in their deaths and the killing of another Texas prosecutor.
An honor guard tends to a flag at a memorial service for Kaufman County Dist.… (LM Otero, Associated Press )

KAUFMAN, Texas — They burned the gang's tattoo off the arm of one man who failed to follow orders. Another new member was kidnapped, shot and killed for disloyalty; gang leaders wanted his finger severed as a trophy.

These are just two of the incidents traced to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang whose motto is "God forgives, brothers don't."

Some fear that the gang may be involved in the recent slayings in north Texas of Kaufman County Dist. Atty. Mike McLelland, his wife, Cynthia, and fellow prosecutor Mark Hasse. Hasse was fatally shot outside the Kaufman County Courthouse the same January day federal authorities publicly thanked county legal officials for their help prosecuting members of the Brotherhood.

After the federal indictment against 34 alleged Brotherhood leaders and other members in November, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a confidential bulletin that the gang was plotting retaliation.

The bulletin said, in part, "High-ranking members are involved in issuing orders to inflict 'mass casualties or death' to law enforcement officials who were involved in cases where Aryan Brotherhood of Texas [members] are facing life sentences or the death penalty."

One of the federal prosecutors assigned to handle the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas indictment has withdrawn from the case, citing "security reasons."

"What we're seeing is that gangs that were for many years confined to prisons are increasingly spilling onto streets around the country," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is arguably the most violent white supremacist prison gang in the U.S. right now."

Some who are familiar with the gang's history are skeptical that the Brotherhood targeted the prosecutors, noting that such high-profile victims would bring unwanted attention and that the attacks didn't seem consistent with the gang's self-styled sense of honor.

"I found the murder of the wife to be slightly out of character," said Houston-based lawyer Richard O. Ely II. "These are macho guys. These people are into manly things, being tough — that's why their punishments are beat-downs. They don't do drive-by shootings."

And though it sounds counterintuitive for a gang known for violence, some Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members have taken umbrage at being linked to the killings.

"There is some grumbling among the ABT from sources I have. They feel like they're being blamed for this, that they're being set up," said Terry Pelz, a Houston-based criminal justice consultant who worked for more than 20 years in the Texas prison system.

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was founded in the mid-1980s by white inmates seeking to band together to fight black gangs.

Founders contacted the original Aryan Brotherhood gang, which had started years before at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California, and asked permission to found an offshoot. The gang's leaders balked.

The Texas gang formed anyway, and corrections officials dubbed them the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or ABT, Pelz said. He said members referred to their California brethren as "surfers."

Prison officials tried to destroy the gang, shuffling members within the system, but that proved difficult, Pelz said. "When you move them around, they tend to grow because they establish roots somewhere and get new recruits," he said.

The gang adopted military titles, with soldiers, captains, lieutenants and a leadership "wheel" of five regional generals. Members are trained to communicate in code, or use wives and girlfriends as go-betweens. Generals issue orders such as "SOS" (smash on sight) and a "green light" for killing rivals and rule-breakers, according to court records.

Members have gone by nicknames — "Chopper," "Bam Bam" and "Ruthless" are some mentioned in court records — and many subscribed to the white supremacist philosophy of "14/88."

The "88" is code for "Heil Hitler," since "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet. The "14" represents the 14 words that sum up their beliefs: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."

They call their monthly meetings "church," have their own "bible," called the "Book of Life," and their own constitution, which includes a rule that any member assisting law enforcement be killed. Their business has been a mix of guns, prostitution and drugs, especially methamphetamines — big business in East Texas, Pelz said.

Pelz estimates that the gang has at least 1,500 members and associates, but said it was difficult to pin down, in part because "there's more members outside than there are locked up."

There had been schisms within the group over the years, but recently the gang had become more organized, Pelz said. "The ABT was cleaning their own house, getting rid of members who aren't carrying their load," he said.

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