Walk into Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Building, pass through two heavily guarded security checkpoints (no camera phones, please), prove your identity, empty your pockets and then surrender your belongings for search. That's the special regimen required nowadays to enter Judge David O. Carter's plush ninth-floor courtroom. Inside, you'll find mahogany furniture, a domed ceiling, recessed lighting, royal blue carpet stitched every few feet with the seal of the United States, more than a dozen federal agents, reporters and the nation's most dangerous criminals chained to the floor.
The federal government has brought the prison-based Aryan Brotherhood (AB) to town for a real-life crime drama that's arguably better than The Sopranos. There's gang members with nicknames like "Blinky," "Elroy," "Monster," "Tank," "Turtle," "Big Mac," "Bart Simpson," "Tweak," "Shorty," "Cricket" and "Lucifer." Stories involve keistering, blood oaths, urine messages, male prostitutes, race wars, secret deals with the Mexican Mafia, drug schemes, friendly guards, extortion plots hatched at, say, the Orange County Jail or the supermax prisons at Marion, Illinois, or Florence, Colorado, and, of course, stabbings, hangings, shootings, strangulations and decapitations. According to an FBI agent, AB members account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the prison population in the United States but are responsible for as much as 25 percent of prison murders.
During March 14 opening statements, spectators were treated to a colorful story about Mafioso John Gotti. Before he died of natural causes, the Gambino crime family boss was housed in an Illinois penitentiary. One day, he walked out of his cell in disgust, turned to black inmates who were playing music and said, "This ain't no fucking zoo. Take that shit somewhere else." The "Teflon Don" got his ass kicked and, the government claims, enlisted the Brotherhood in a murderous revenge plot for, depending on who's talking, $50,000 or $500,000.
The Gotti tale is one of dozens of examples of AB's vicious domination of the federal prison system, according to prosecutor Michael Emmick. He says the gang, which began in San Quentin State Prison in the 1960s in response to the Black Panthers, is a small but ruthlessly efficient killing machine and extortion-gambling-drug operation that can reach at will into the free population. For monikers, they use the swastika, 666 (the biblical sign of the beast) and the shamrock—because original members were exclusively Irish Americans.
"The Aryan Brotherhood is characterized by fearlessness and violence," Emmick told jurors. "They kill in full view of prison guards. They will kill at the first sign of disrespect."
It's great advertising for the AB, and the government handed it out for free in just the first several hours. Though the trial is expected to take at least six months, we already know the season's cliffhanger: Can Emmick get a jury in the birthplace of the John Birch Society to condemn Brotherhood leaders Barry "The Baron" Mills and Tyler "The Hulk" Bingham?
Though Mills, 57, and Bingham, 58, face the death penalty if convicted, they don't appear worried. They look like grandfathers—grandfathers who sport shaved scalps, thick glasses, outrageously thick gray mustaches, and, for court, neatly trimmed beards and button-down Polo shirts. Courtesy of your federal tax dollars, two defense lawyers flank each defendant. They engage their representatives by sometimes whispering in their ears, telling a joke, often smiling and laughing. You can guess they don't discuss race matters with their one black defense lawyer. For refreshments, they enjoy orange juice, bottled water and mints. The laptop computers they've been provided are a source of endless wonder. There's both male and female eye candy in public seating. (Like society at large, the Brotherhood permits homosexual liaisons if they are discreet.) And Judge Carter's courtroom beats a cold, windowless maximum security cell or their temporary inmate housing at Terminal Island off the coast of Long Beach.
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Clifford Smith looks like he belongs with Mills, Bingham and their two underlings, Christopher O. Gibson, 46, and 54-year-old Edgar Wesley "The Snail" Hevle, who are also on trial. He is husky. His head is shaved. He's got a gray beard, an abundance of tattoos and a black eye patch. He speaks in a kind of Cockney rhyming slang he says is common in lockups. (For example, "Have you seen the lady from Bristol?" means pistol, he says.) In fact, he was a ranking member of the Brotherhood from 1978 until 1984, when he accepted the government's offer of protective custody and perks at Corcoran State Prison in exchange for snitching. The government might have been inclined to assist the murderer/robber/forger because his testimony sounds like something from Harvard's business school (he calls the Brotherhood "The Brand") and its philosophy department (he cites Machiavelli, Plato, Sun Tzu, Norse folklore and Nietzsche).
"There's two types of people in prison," he testified as the government's key first witness. "Predators and prey. I'm a predator."
He recounted his story about waiting to stab Stephen "Loser" Clark, a fellow inmate, 37 times until prison guards arrived and could witness the fatal bludgeoning. Clark's offense? He had once called Smith a name.
"We killed when we needed to kill," said Smith, who is serving a 36-year-to-life sentence. "It got everybody else thinking about saying 'no' to us . . . We wanted everyone to know that Jesus Christ and his disciples were not going to be able to stop us."
At one point he asked a defense lawyer, "You ever read Machiavelli?" and then said, "If you can't have someone's love, have their fear. That's what we did . . . It's the principles of conquer; the principles of control."
He says life was often a drug party— heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine and marijuana—inside prison for AB members in the 1970s. "We controlled, dominated, influenced, [did] whatever we needed to do to have a nice, easy time in prison," said Smith, who became disillusioned with changes Mills made to the gang.
"Post-1980, there was expansion into white-collar crime, ID theft, extortion, massage parlors and whores," the Bakersfield native said, chained to the floor. "There were brothers outside on the street."
Based on claims by prosecutor Emmick and Smith, the AB—though much smaller than the Dirty White Boys, Nazi Low Riders, Mexican Mafia and Black Guerrilla Family—is the elite prison-based criminal organization in America. The Brotherhood recruited people who were fiercely loyal and street-smart; more than anything they were "psychopaths," according to Smith, not excluding himself from that category.
Smith also testified that Mills allegedly controlled AB violence and moneymaking schemes through couriers (such as female prison visitors and lawyers) and more than 300 gang associates nationwide.
Mills and Bingham quietly stared at him throughout this part of his testimony. If Smith was intimidated, he didn't show it. Instead, he boasted about his security.
"Thirty officers escorted me in here!" he said. "They can't touch me. Since I dropped out, anything connected to me—except for small kids—is fair game."
Defense lawyer Michael White called Smith "a rat" to his face and argued with him over the number of people he'd killed.
"I'm not squeamish about killing," Smith said without hesitation.
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But White continued his attack, laying out how Smith had allegedly—consider this carefully—lied about lying about lying for the government in previous AB cases.
You don't have any morality, do you? asked White.
"I have a strong sense of morality," Smith fired back. "It just might not be yours."