Why I Fear the Aryan Brotherhood—and You Should, Too

I did time in prison alongside members of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Patti McConville/Getty

Law enforcement officers may have a real problem on their hands. They’re being tight-lipped about it, but it’s something they should have been aware of for decades. They had to see it coming.

Four people have been killed since the beginning of the year in a series of shootings that appear to be connected to the homegrown jihadists of the Aryan Brotherhood. Mike McLelland, the district attorney of Texas’s Kaufman County, and his wife, Cynthia Woodward, became the latest victims this past weekend. Before that, McLelland’s former colleague Mark Hasse was shot in January. Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements was gunned down in mid-March.

The Brotherhood, also known as The Brand, AB, and One-Two, was formed during the 1960s by a group of white convicts serving time at San Quentin. They allegedly were fed up with white prisoners being victimized by the two predominant gangs, the Black Gorilla Family (BGF) and the Mexican Mafia and decided to form a gang of their own for self-protection. While initially closely associated with Nazism ideologically, many adherents belong to the group for the identity and purpose it provides. The ironclad rule for entrée into the Brotherhood is simple: kill a black or a Hispanic prisoner. The other rule, which is just as ironclad, gave rise to their motto: “Blood In/Blood Out.”

Quitting isn’t an option. There’s only death.

I got up close and personal with members of the Brotherhood more than 20 years ago in Nevada. Due to the relatively sparse population in northern Nevada, the feds didn’t have their own lockup in which to house pretrial detainees, or at least they didn’t back then. So they rented a “range”— a row—of 14 cells in Nevada’s maximum-security prison in Carson City to house defendants going back and forth to Federal Court in nearby Reno.

Other prisoners, like me, were being held at various city and county jails in the area, but everyone who knew they were not going anywhere soon wanted to get moved to Carson City, where there was a day room with a working color TV, a fairly well-equipped weight pile, and, by prison standards, excellent food. As I would also discover when I got there, the low-paid state prison guards assigned to the special unit were fairly easy to bribe: the occasional fifth of Jack Daniel’s or a dime bag of weed (which the guard got $100 for) found its way onto the range.

So after three months in a single cell (I’d get out once a week for a shower), when my lawyer said she could get me moved to Carson City I was very eager—until I got there. There were 13 white guys, and seven of them, I could tell by the tattoos, were members of the Brotherhood. But by then I was a seasoned convict (having served four previous sentences, this wasn’t my first rodeo), so I’d been around prison gangs before and knew the ropes. I kept my head down, my eyes averted, and ate my meals alone at the far end of the table…at least for the first few weeks.

Then two things happened in fairly rapid succession. First, a small article about my case made it into a local paper in which the feds accused me and my crew of absconding with millions of dollars with our nefarious credit-card activities in the casinos in and around Nevada. The amount made me out to be a serious professional, worthy of respect even in the Brotherhood’s eyes, albeit only grudgingly given. The second thing that happened was the leader of the group, a huge guy with reddish hair and beard appropriately named “Big Red,” had a legal problem I helped him to solve.

The one thing I learned relatively quickly was that while the members of this tight-knit group might have been long on brawn and violence, they were short on brains. Big Red had served in the military. He wanted some documents from the military to present at his upcoming murder trial. I guess he wanted to prove how patriotic he had been while serving his country. But none of them could fill out the stack of forms, so I volunteered to help. When the documents I requested came back about a month later, I was considered a legal whiz on the order of F. Lee Bailey.

I was, to a degree, “in.” They considered me a harmless black mascot, I considered them fools to be played. As the saying goes, I was “stuck like Chuck.”

Eventually I was doing all kinds of writing, both legal and otherwise. I would pen poems for their wives, children’s and girlfriend’s birthdays, and these semi-illiterates were simply amazed. Ah, the power of the pen. My first paid writing gig paid me a grand total of three packs of cigarettes.

All of a sudden Big Red noticed how I looked like his football hero, Earl Campbell. It’s amazing to me how gridiron prowess can overcome even the deep-seated antipathy of a dyed-in-the-wool bigot. Of course, other than having black skin, I looked nothing at all like Campbell. But I could hold my own on the iron pile, by then being able to bench press close to 250 pounds.

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And, having an ear for dialects, I’d also—quite slyly and over a period of months—developed a bit of a Texas twang. Speaking the “language” can be critical to acceptance, and I discovered how time and familiarity can overcome even the seemingly insurmountable of racial barriers.

When the guard smuggled in chewing tobacco, I packed my cheeks with the foul leaf and learned to hit our coffee-can spittoon with the best of ’em.

These were very tough men facing long sentences for serious crimes, but after a while they didn’t guard their tongues around me … they felt no need to. I’d gained their trust, and by then they knew I wasn’t facing serious charges, so I wouldn’t have the need to betray them by trading information, since my lawyer was already negotiating a relatively short sentence for me. I was privy to their conversations and after a few slips they even quit using the “N” word, but only after Big Red leveled his menacing glare at the offender.

These were men steeped in strong oral traditions and past heroic acts. They were still mentally fighting the Civil War (like so many other whites) and traced their roots back to men like Confederate guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill, whose Quantrill’s Raiders sacked the pro-abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, at the beginning of the Civil War. One guy, Luke, claimed to be a direct descendant of one of the men who rode with Quantrill. He alleged that his great-grandfather was Cole Younger, the outlaw who robbed banks with Jesse James’s gang after the end of the Civil War. At age 38, Luke considered himself to be a proud third or fourth generation (he couldn’t count backwards too well) bank robber. His father, and grandfather before him, had robbed banks for a living as well.

It was from Luke that I first heard of Mountain Home, Idaho, when he said, “If I coulda just made it back to Mountain Home, I’da been OK.” The trouble he was referring to was his last bank robbery for which he was now awaiting sentencing, where he and his crew had kidnapped a bank-branch manager and strapped 10 sticks of dynamite around her chest and wired it to a remote detonator. He was not some little desperate punk-assed note passer; the crew he worked with would, after months of planning, take over the whole bank and, in his words, “take all of the goddamn money.” They felt it was unprofessional to leave one dollar bill behind.

He was the only one of the four captured and flat out told the FBI that he “didn’t know shit.” When they threatened him with a longer sentence, according to him his response was “rush it and you won’t owe it.” I believed him, since these were among the most standup dudes I’d ever encountered.

I gradually learned (from men who had no need to embellish their deeds as some armchair neo-Nazi pseudo-tough guys are prone to do) of Mountain Home and other pockets of armed resistance situated in rural areas of three or four western states where federal authorities are reluctant to enter to enforce the law.

“They know we’re up in there,” I remember Luke saying, “but it ain’t worth riskin’ getting their asses blown off to come in and try to take us out. They want to go home too, and they know we ain’t fucking around. We ain’t trying to overthrow the government or nothing. We’re just fighting to protect our wives, kids and our way of life, and them coward motherfuckers know it. All we’re asking is to be left alone.” He conveniently forgot about all the banks he’d robbed to be able to afford all of the expensive, high-end toys he once possessed.

Unlike David Koresh and his sheeplike followers (and other sects based on religious fanaticism), these are battle-hardened and death-tested men (many of them, like Big Red, with extensive military experience) who are not set on dying for some kind of religious cause; their thing is that, when the situation calls for it, they’re killers. They’re not into dying—except to protect the honor of the Brotherhood.

And they’re also sincere in their belief that many members of law enforcement are kindred spirits, right-wingers who understand their hatreds, loss of hegemony, and rabid determination to protect whatever power the white man has left in America. And those who don’t buy into their hateful rhetoric they perceive as being weak-kneed sob sisters who will willingly mongrelize and sell out their proud white heritage. Truly, everyone who is not with them is against them.

Their network, even back then was already so strong that when I arrived at the federal prison in Kentucky where I was to serve out my sentence, within a week of arriving a tattooed AB member came up to me in the yard and said, “We heard about what you did for Big Red out there in Nevada … if you need anything, if anybody fucks with you, just let me know.”

I never spoke to this dude again for the next 18 months, until the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in downtown Oklahoma City about a week before I was slated to exit prison for the last time. Standing in front of the TV in the day room he turned to me and said, “This ain’t shit, just wait until we get started. They done took me from my family for over 30 years because of some of punk-assed drug-conspiracy bullshit, and eventually they’re going to have to pay … We’re going to make them pay.”

If these recent killings represent the Brotherhood’s twisted form of retribution, the fact that it has taken so long to begin is all the more chilling. To me this would demonstrate a hard-nosed determination that all citizens should find frightening. We shouldn’t be whistling past the graveyard on these killings.

These are men with a huge ax to grind. While few of them would argue they deserve no time behind bars for their crimes, virtually all of them feel the amount of time handed out under federal sentencing guidelines is far, far too punitive … way out of proportion; that punishments don’t fit the crimes, and some legal scholars actually agree.

America’s harsh judicial system, coupled with a growing national affinity for utilizing complete isolation at super-max prisons as a corrections tactic of first choice, in many cases turns men into monsters. And, truth be told, there is no such thing as truly locking away the gang leaders so they can no longer call the shots on the prison yard … or even on the streets.

Someone has to feed these case-hardened convicts three times a day, and who might you think carries this duty out? If you’re thinking it’s the guards, you’re wrong. They’re not about to be turned into waiters for men they often view as the scum of the earth no matter what. Instead, that duty falls to other prisoners known as “trustees.” And these trustees smuggle all of the messages the guards are not bribed (or threatened) into carrying back and forth. Hey, everyone’s got families, you know.

The true terrorist wins because of his or her willingness to die for what they believe in—history has taught us that over and over again. Many of the first men locked up when our nation embarked on a policy of for-profit mass incarceration near the end of the last century are now returning into society. And, as predicted by numerous professionals, they are sicker and more dangerous than when they went behind bars.

While the U.S. population grew 2.8 times since 1920, the U.S. prison population grew more than 20 times, and most dramatically since 1980. The fear among law enforcement is (or at least should be) is that now we have dozens upon dozens—if not hundreds (who knows, maybe even thousands)—of murderous chickens finally coming home to roost.