On 4 May, 2008, the body of Mark Davis Byrd Snr was found dumped in a field near the town of Pleasanton, in rural south Texas.
The 28-year-old had been beaten, tortured, stabbed and shot twice in the head with a shotgun. A prospective recruit to a white supremacist prison gang called the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT), Byrd had allegedly stolen drugs that he was supposed to deliver on the gang’s behalf. His killers, nicknamed “Q-Ball” and “Bucky”, had been sent to murder him by a third man, known as “Thumper”. The victim’s body was also mutilated in typical ABT style, with two fingers cut off as trophies.
If this is how the brotherhood treats its own, it is disturbing to imagine the punishment that awaits outsiders who cross the group. This may explain why a federal prosecutor in Texas, assistant US attorney Jay Hileman, withdrew last week from a case against the ABT, reportedly citing “security reasons”.
Mr Hileman stood down after Mike McLelland, the 63-year-old district attorney for Kaufman County, to the east of Dallas, and his wife, Cynthia, were found murdered in their home last month. The deaths came two months after Mr McLelland’s assistant district attorney, Mark Hasse, was gunned down in a courthouse car park.
All three were involved last November in bringing a major federal case against 34 alleged members of the ABT for murder, racketeering, drug dealing and assorted acts of extreme violence. In December, the Texas Department of Public Safety released a confidential bulletin warning that ABT leaders had issued “orders to inflict ‘mass casualties or death’ to law enforcement officials who were involved in cases where Aryan Brotherhood of Texas [members] are facing life sentences or the death penalty”.
The police have yet to arrest anyone in connection with the murders of Mr Hasse, 57, and the McLellands; it remains unclear whether the two crimes are even linked. But whether or not the ABT was responsible, the case has thrown a spotlight on to a racist criminal syndicate that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes as the “most violent extremist group in the US”.
The original Aryan Brotherhood was founded at San Quentin prison near San Francisco in 1964, in response to the desegregation of California’s jails and the formation of rival black gangs. But while the brotherhood’s beginnings were racially motivated, over the decades the group grew into a thriving organised crime operation.
The FBI estimates that its members make up less than 1 per cent of the US jail population but may be responsible for 20 per cent of murders behind bars; it operates both inside and outside prisons, has up to 20,000 members, and is thought to be active in at least 16 US states. T J Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead turned anti-racism campaigner, told The Independent: “Inside the walls of the prison system, the Aryan Brotherhood are the top dogs. Even the Italian mafia and the Hell’s Angels pay homage to them.”
The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which boasts about 2,700 members, is technically a separate gang. Formed in Texas jails following their desegregation in 1979, it adopted the structure and symbolism of its California-based predecessor, but was denied its request to become an official branch of the national organisation.
Like the original Brotherhood, however, the ABT soon shifted its primary focus from racial bigotry to more lucrative pursuits. According to Professor Brian Levin, director of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, racism is “part of the ABT’s folklore and ideology”. He said: “It’s a bond to hold the group together, but the real bonds are criminal. They will kill white guys and, if they have to deal with Mexican or even black criminal syndicates, they’ll do it. For them it’s all about money.”
The ABT, which is blamed for more than 100 murders since its creation, has a constitutional code of conduct enforced by a committee known as “the wheel”, composed of “generals”, each of whom commands one of five regional factions. The gang sets a high bar for membership: according to the November indictment, aspiring members are forced to sign a “blind-faith commitment” to follow orders. Those who disobey, like Byrd, and those who try to leave the brotherhood, are likely to suffer brutal consequences. The ADL estimates that 41 per cent of ABT killings since 2000 were internal. One of the gang’s signature tattoos reads: “God forgives. Brothers don’t.”
It seems remarkable, therefore, that the indictments, which implicate four of the ABT’s top generals, are based on the potential testimony of the fifth. In 2011, Terry “Lil Wood” Sillers, 49, was filmed by a news helicopter as he tried to escape from police in Fort Worth on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A year later, he pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and began to inform on his former colleagues. He is expected to testify against them, and several of the 34 accused could face the death penalty.
Among the charges detailed in court documents were two murders designed to dissuade current ABT members from disloyalty. Gang enforcers took a soldering iron to one victim’s genitals and anus before killing him; the other had five of his fingers removed with bolt-cutters.
Another disobedient ABT recruit was lucky: he merely had his gang tattoo burned off his arm with a blowtorch. “Gratuitous violence is their brand,” said Levin. “They’ll put people in acid baths. They’ll burn them to send a message. They mete out gruesome punishment for insubordination.”
Yet killing justice officials in Texas would be uncharacteristic of the ABT, believes Terry Pelz, a criminal justice consultant and former Texas prison warden. “It would be a big leap for them to draw attention to themselves like this, considering the heat that’s on them right now,” he said. “Texas prison gangs don’t typically go around killing officials.”
The McLellands’ deaths, however, came only a fortnight after a Colorado prisons director, Tom Clements, was shot dead at home on 19 March. A suspect for that murder, a former convict called Evan Ebel, died in a shootout with police in Texas two days later. Ebel was believed to be a member of another racist prison gang, the 211 Crew. A second suspect, James Lohr, was arrested this week; he, too, is thought to belong to the Colorado-based white supremacist group.
The McLelland murders, said Mr Leyden, “are not the ABT’s style, but that’s not to say they haven’t raised the bar. Some of them are facing the death penalty, so it’s possible someone said, ‘You’re coming after us; we’ll come after you’.”
Skin deep: Tattoo meanings
A set of bagpipes, probably Irish Uilleann pipes, is visible on this gang member’s left shoulder. The Aryan Brotherhood was first established by a group of convicts of Irish descent at California’s San Quentin prison in the 1960s.
The Brotherhood also likes to hark back to its supposed northern European roots, with imagery such as Norse or Celtic runes, or Celtic crossed swords.
The Aryan Brotherhood and other white supremacist prison gangs are often marked out by their Nazi-themed tattoos, such as swastikas and SS insignia.
Tattoos showing barbed wire are often used to denote that the wearer has spent time behind bars, although they were later popularised outside the US prison system by a celebrity fan of tattos, the Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson.