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Sonoma County's homegrown white supremacist gang, the Barbarian Brotherhood, was flying mostly under the radar until it made headlines with a knife attack on two black men outside a Santa Rosa McDonald's.

But it's not because members weren't busy.

Since 2008, nine gang members have been convicted of crimes ranging from drug trafficking to illegal gun possession to counterfeiting. And the gang quietly has grown in number, to about 200, spreading to neighboring counties and gaining a foothold inside state prison walls, law enforcement officers said.

Nonwhites haven't been targeted until recently, but police fear that could change as ranks swell and younger members try to prove their allegiance to the core belief of racial superiority.

Santa Rosa police Sgt. John Cregan, who has been tracking the gang for about five years, said Barbarians are a presence in public places such as the Sonoma County Fair and have taken to North Coast highways with large motorcycle rallies.

"They are definitely more in-your-face than they used to be," said Cregan, who's testified in Sonoma County Superior Court as a prosecution gang expert. "They are growing and they are proud."

The swastika-wearing Barbarians came into the spotlight with the Aug. 26 attack, which prosecutors have labeled a hate crime.

Police said Salvatore Bordessa, 33, of Windsor and Aaron Welch, 27, of Clearlake, confronted two black men in the McDonald's parking lot, yelling racial slurs and stabbing one of them.

Bordessa, treasurer of the gang's Sonoma County chapter, and Welch, vice president of the Lake County chapter, were arrested after the victims picked them out of photos of other known white supremacists.

Welch has since admitted his role and was sentenced this week to 15 years in prison. Bordessa and a woman suspected of being an accomplice are awaiting trial.

Even before the attack, Barbarian Brotherhood members were involved in a number of violent acts resulting in gang convictions.

Among the most dramatic happened a year ago when the Sonoma County chapter vice president, Michael E. Warren, 38, rammed his SUV into the car of a former associate on Stony Point Road.

No one was hurt, but Warren and another man authorities described as a Barbarian Brotherhood member, Joseph C. Beall, 37, of Santa Rosa, were convicted of drug and weapons charges. Both were later indicted on federal charges and sentenced to prison.

Other incidents include the 2011 beating of a man at the Belvedere bar in downtown Santa Rosa by a Barbarian Brotherhood prospect and the printing of thousands of dollars in counterfeit bills by members in 2010 and 2011, Cregan said.

He said membership now totals about 75 in Sonoma County, the same number in Lake County and 50 elsewhere and in jails and prisons statewide.

"In the last four or five years we've seen tremendous growth," Cregan said.

Barbarian Brotherhood members deny that they are a racist, criminal street gang and claim police are inflating their numbers.

A Lake County member who asked to remain anonymous because he feared police retaliation said there are only 20"patched" members in the two counties.

He said some hold separatist views after getting out of racially segregated prisons but most are family oriented, employed and volunteer in their communities.

Mainstream members have distanced themselves from the men in the McDonald's attack, he said. "We shouldn't be judged from actions of a few individuals," he said. "Until this happened, nobody knew who we were. We're getting a black eye from this."

The gang started in Petaluma in the late 1980s. Brothers Robert and Billy Stewart and their teenage friend, Ray Salter, devised the name out of a mutual fascination with Viking culture, Cregan said.

They also harbored white supremacist views, glorified Adolf Hitler and branded themselves with white pride tattoos, swastikas and other Nazi symbols, he said.

What started out as a loose collection of like-minded friends grew over the years and expanded to Lake County when the Stewarts moved there, he said.

It became organized in just the past 10 years and has spread to jails and prisons as members got sent away, Cregan said.

Salter, who has a long record, was interviewed in the yard at San Quentin prison in a 2011 BBC series. He is currently on parole and living in Lake County, Cregan said.

In more recent times, the gang developed a command structure with club officers, monthly meetings and dues, which are collected in part to pay defense attorneys, Cregan said.

Members often sell drugs and steal to contribute their share, he said.

"Every year, you're seeing more and more sophistication and organization," Cregan said.

They've adopted visible symbols, such as the black leather vests, known as "cuts," and the acronym BBH, which they scribble in ink on their bodies, Cregan said.

They've been classified by prison officials as a "disruptive group" and more recently have taken an interest in motorcycles. Cregan said they associate with the Hells Angels, who have about 15 Sonoma County members.

They differ from their larger and more notorious white supremacist counterparts such as the Aryan Brotherhood or Ku Klux Klan in that they don't actively pursue minorities.

But Cregan said their radical views are obvious. If they sense disrespect from an outsider of any race they can turn violent, he said.

And the McDonald's attack by ranking gang members could serve to embolden other members, he said.

"There is a simple equation in gang culture: violence equals respect," Cregan said. "These guys are no exception."

You can reach Staff Writer

Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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