Four alleged leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood went on trial yesterday in the first part of the largest ever capital case in US history, in which 16 men face the death penalty. The co-ordinated trials are the culmination of a six-year government drive to dismantle the group.
More than a dozen members of the brotherhood have already pleaded guilty and accepted federal prison sentences of up to ten years. "This case is fundamentally about power and control of the nation's prisons," the assistant US attorney Michael Emmick told the jury in his opening statement. "The indictment alleges the Aryan Brotherhood, including its members and associates, constitute a racketeering enterprise."
He told jurors that on 28 August, 1997 two inmates at a prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania received a letter from another gang member. "The letter had a code on it, a PS that indicated a message had been written on the paper in invisible ink," Mr Emmick said.
The hidden message said: "War with DC from TD". The prosecutor said DC stood for DC Blacks, a black prison gang, and TD were the first two initials of one of the defendants, Tyler "The Hulk" Bingham's name.
"The message meant the Aryan Brotherhood was to embark on a nationwide war with DC Blacks," Mr Emmick said. "Twelve hours later, two black inmates were dead and two were injured in the same prison."
"There's no doubt that these are big players," said Rick Ross, who has researched US gangs and cults for 25 years. "This could be a significant first step in closing them down. These groups are led by dominant, charismatic personalities and when you pull the plug on them, it has a collapsing effect on all segments."
As well as Bingham, those on trial in California are the group's founder, a bank robber, Barry Byron Mills, known as The Baron, and two other leading henchmen, Edgar "The Snail" Hevle and Christopher Gibson.
The brotherhood, also known as The Brand, was set up in San Quentin prison in 1967 to protect white inmates against violence from Mexican and Hispanic gangs.
Prosecutors will say that Mills, a balding, bespectacled 57-year-old who is serving two life terms for nearly decapitating a rival in a 1979 prison attack, orchestrated the brotherhood's campaign from his cell. The 142-page indictment covers 32 murders or attempted killings over three decades and various racketeering charges, including drug-dealing and gambling. Lawyers do not deny that the defendants are members of the gang, but say it is more of a self-preservation organisation. "They are a group of middle-aged men trying to do their time peacefully," said Mark Fleming, one of two attorneys representing Mills. "We absolutely deny all the allegations."
According to the FBI, which conducted a seven-year investigation into the brotherhood in the 1980s, members must swear a blood oath of loyalty and promise to abide by the group's mantra, which includes the line: "My life is forfeit should I fail my brothers." They can often be identified by tattoos containing a shamrock, to reflect the gang's Irish roots, the words "white pride" and often 666, the Bible's mark of the beast.
"There are a number of gangs inside prisons of all races, set up to give certain segments of the population a sense of solidarity or safety," Mr Ross said. "The most ferocious and notorious of any of the prison groups is the Aryan Brotherhood."
A six-year investigation by the US Justice Department and three years of grand jury hearings in Los Angeles resulted in the arrest of 40 brotherhood members in 2002. The break came in 1997, when the former assistant US attorney, Gregory Jessner, persuaded a handful of gang members to become informants.
They told him how Mills and his lieutenants were behind a plan to provoke a racial war at a federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, by circulating a hit-list of black prisoners earmarked for assassination. The list sparked a riot that left three prisoners dead and six seriously injured.
Investigators also learned the gang communicated in code and notes in invisible ink. On one occasion, members heated a letter over a cell radiator to reveal their instructions to kill an inmate from a rival gang.
The turncoats, or "dropouts", as they described themselves, were housed in isolation in an ultra-high security wing at the country's most heavily-guarded jail, in Florence, Colorado, for their own protection. Security measures are equally tight in the Santa Ana courtroom where the ten-week trial against Mills and his cohorts began yesterday. Everyone must pass through two metal detectors and undergo a body-search, while ten armed US marshals will be on duty.
US District Judge David Carter has warned the defendants that he will not tolerate any of them giving witnesses "the evil stare". Mr Fleming, meanwhile, says the evidence cannot be trusted because many of the informants had accepted "sweeteners", such as more family visits and TVs in their cells and internet access in exchange for testimony.
He added: "Barry Mills knows he is going to die in jail, but he doesn't want the government to speed that along with an execution."