SANTA ANA, Calif.—A former prison gang member toldjurorsheread Machiavelli and killed enemies behind bars to impress gang leaders as testimony began Wednesday in the federal government's racketeering case against four reputed leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Clifford Smith, a convicted murderer and Aryan Brotherhood member from 1978 to 1984, was the first witness in the case alleging a gang conspiracy to kill inmates who cheated on drug deals or snitched to prison authorities.
Wearing an eye patch and prison jumpsuit, Smith told the jury how his initiation included helping kill one gang enemy and stabbing another. The gang killed as a way to keep the power needed to conduct criminal activities involving drugs, extortion, fraud and identity theft, he said.
"Not everybody is willing to kill somebody," Smith said. "Some people are kind of squeamish about that stuff. I wanted to let them know I wasn't."
Authorities arrested 40 alleged Aryan Brotherhood members in 2002 after a six-year investigation.
The four now on trial have been described as gang leaders: Barry "The Baron" Mills, 57; Tyler Davis "The Hulk" Bingham, 58; Edgar "The Snail" Hevle, 54; and ChristopherOverton Gibson, 46. Mills and Bingham could face the death penalty; Hevle and Gibson could get life in prison.
The indictment alleges members of the White supremacist gang orchestrated a web of conspiracies, including starting a prison war against a Black gang that resulted in at least two killings.
Prosecutors opened their case with a simple slide: "The Aryan Brotherhood: Blood in, Blood out."
The phrase — borrowed from the gang itself — means that inmates must kill to join the gang and can only leave when they die, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Emmick said in his opening statement.
Emmick said the gang even went after its own members to maintain discipline and inspire fear.
Defense attorney H. Dean Steward rejected Emmick's claims that the crimes were ordered by the gang's leadership. He said most crimes were committed by individuals who had personal conflicts.
"The murders and assaults happened," Steward told jurors. "There's no dispute. The question is 'Why?' "
Steward, who represents Mills, said nearly all of the government's case was based on 42 prison informants who had been coached and offered incentives including immunity, reduced sentences and cash payments.
Nineteen of the arrested gang members struck plea bargains and one has died. If convicted, 16 of the remaining defendants could face the death penalty in one of the largest capital punishment cases ever filed in U.S. history.
During his testimony, Smith said gang members had ways to communicate, even from thousands of miles away. Each had a "runner," usually a female friend, who would visit them in prison and transport tiny messages, drugs and even small knives.
Smith also explained some of the code used in letters sent by members. "Lady from Bristol" meant pistol; "bottle stopper" stood for a guard or police officer; and "rough and smooth" was heroin.
When Smith was initiated to the gang, he was told to read a number of books, includingworksby Aristotle, Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche and Niccolo Machiavelli.
"That's the theme of most of these books: the individual, going outside the herd, being the alpha male," he said.
Emmick detailed the plot during his opening statement Tuesday.
"This case is fundamentally about power and control of the nation's prisons," Emmick told jurors. "The indictment alleges the Aryan Brotherhood, including its members and associates, constitute a racketeering enterprise."
Gang members were charged in a sweeping indictment that alleges 32 murders and attempted murders over 30 years. Nineteen defendants have reached plea deals and one has died. Sixteen of the 20 remaining defendants could face the death penalty.
The four men on trial are accused of ordering or orchestrating most of the crimes contained in the indictment.
Mills is serving two life terms for murder after nearly decapitating an inmate in 1979. In the current trial, he faces a possible death sentence for allegedly orchestrating the 1997 killings of the two Black inmates in Pennsylvania. He is accused of having a hand in all but one of the crimes listed in the indictment, Emmick said.
Bingham could face the death penalty for the same alleged crimes. If acquitted, Bingham will be released in 2010 after completing his sentence on robbery and drug charges.
Hevle is eligible for release in five years and Gibson in 13 years. If convicted of the new charges, both could face life in prison.
All four men have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Defense attorneys said most of the case will be built on testimony from jailhouse informants.
Attorney Dean Steward, representing Mills, said last week that the "reality is, federal penitentiaries are violent and dangerous places and all of these guys — White guys — are a small minority and they're just trying to survive."
Emmick said the gang was formed in 1964 by White inmates at San Quentin state prison in California. Its reputation for fearlessness and violence has been unparalleled by other prison gangs and allowed its members to orchestrate contract killings, run drugs and conduct bookmaking operations from within maximum security prisons, he said.
"The members will sometimes kill in full view of guards or others," the prosecutor said.
Gang members communicate by hiding tiny messages, called kites, in mop handles, under rocks in exercise yards and in peanut halves glued back together. Emmick said they speak to each other through air vents or by emptying water from toilet bowls so pipes can carry sound.
— The Associated Press