How the Aryan Brotherhood Kills: From the Gang Signs to the Sanctioned Hits

The white supremacist gang has a chillingly efficient structure. Christine Pelisek on how its jailhouse generals rule—and why the recent string of Texas killings may not be their doing. Plus, Michael Daly reports from Forney, Texas, on the McLelland killing.

Has the Aryan Brotherhood launched a war against Texas?

That’s the question law enforcement authorities are wrestling with in Kaufman County, some 20 miles southeast of Dallas, after the brazen weekend slaying of a district attorney and his wife. The killings come just two months after another prosecutor was shot execution style by unknown assailants as he walked from his car to the county courthouse.

The Texas branch of the white supremacist group has been eyed in connection because more than 30 members and at least four of its most senior leaders were busted in a federal takedown late last year. On November 30, an investigation run by local law enforcement, the FBI, and the ATF indicted key members for carrying out murders, attempted murders, conspiracies, arsons, assaults, robberies, and drug trafficking as part of an enterprise that goes back to at least 1993. (One of the group’s top leaders is believed to have snitched, cooperating with authorities in the investigation.)

The theory is that the feds triggered a revenge plot. Indeed, a month after the indictments were handed down, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent a memo to state prosecutors warning them of such an alleged plot. Mike McLelland, the prosecutor killed alongside his wife, Cynthia, this weekend, had been under around-the-clock protection until shortly before the slaying.

But some experts familiar with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas caution that some aspects of the killings don’t bear the trademarks of the group. If the gang does end up being connected to the crimes, they say, the shootings would represent a troubling and sudden escalation of violence.

“This is against the normal policy,” says former Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant Richard Valdemar, who has testified more than eight times in federal trials against the Aryan Brotherhood in California. He was also the technical adviser on the History Channel’s Gangland. “They know if they attack the police they will bring heat down, so they usually avoid it.”

Valdemar says such a vendetta isn’t characteristic of the group in his experience. “We cracked down on Aryan Brotherhood several times and they didn’t particularly target law enforcement. They expect to be targeted by law enforcement. It’s part of doing business. Otherwise I would be dead.”

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which is to blame for more than 100 murders and at least 10 kidnappings, was formed in the early 1980s within the Texas prison system. The gang modeled itself after the Aryan Brotherhood, a California-based prison gang, which started in the San Quentin prison system during the 1960s. Originally formed to protect its white inmates, members eventually branched out to include selling drugs, mostly meth.

Now the group boasts around 2,500 members and is considered to be a paramilitary organization. Members greet each other using hand signals that represent the letters “A” and “B,” and often wear tattoos with Nazi symbols such as the Nazi flag and SS lightning bolts. They’re ruled by five generals who control different regions of Texas from their segregated prison perches, calling the shots and ordering hits. Like biker gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is governed by rules and a code of conduct, which is laid out in a “constitution.”

Members take orders from the generals and are not authorized to take any action against someone or conduct business without prior approval.

“I have to tell you, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing the Aryan Brotherhood would do,” said Richard O. Ely, a Houston defense attorney who has represented Aryan Brotherhood members, of the recent killings. “They have their own code. They might have dragged the guy out and shot him, but they wouldn’t have shot his wife. Something is not right about that. It strikes me as out of character. But you have to consider who you are talking about.”

“These people are somewhat sophisticated, specifically those in leadership positions,” Ely added. They run multimillion-dollar criminal organizations. They have smart, cunning people running them. They would realize the world of hurt that would come down on them. Whoever did it wasn’t thinking about the long-term effects of this. Law enforcement is never going to rest after this.”

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One law enforcement source, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing nature of the investigation, told The Daily Beast that the killings could have resulted from the beef of one particular member of the group rather than an order from the top down. The source said the weekend shooting “doesn’t have the appearance of a prison gang hit … None of them has shown that type of ability in the past or have targeted public officials in the past.”

There are rules to the gang’s behavior, says Ely, however chilling they may be. He says members are not allowed to recruit children as drug couriers or employ women who are not affiliated with the gang. “They just don’t think it is appropriate for women to be involved in it,” he said. “It’s a bizarre, rudimentary chivalry attitude there. They may be murderers and drug dealers, but they do have some rudimentary scruples.”

According to Bruce Toney, inspector-general of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Aryan Brotherhood has struggled with leadership over the years. But in the last decade, he says, the bosses have “made a big point to make an example of several of their new members to not cooperate with the police and retain their membership. The leadership has reached out to the outside to bring their members in check with sanctioned hits of new members.”

Last year, Toney said, two new members were murdered “to make a point to current members.” “One was don’t talk to the police and the other was you have to be loyal when you get out of prison.”

Toney said one of the members had five of his fingers cut off with bolt cutters. The other member was burned in the anus and genitals with a soldering iron before he was killed. “There was nothing quick about their deaths,” he said.

With such a group, most everyone agrees, no violence can ever be ruled out. “There are always crazy people or people who act independently from the leadership,” says Valdemar. “There is always some group of meth heads that decide they are going to prove how bad they are.”