Feds strike at California Aryan Brotherhood prison gang

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SACRAMENTO — Federal law enforcement officials in Sacramento say they have struck a blow at the leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, outlining an alleged conspiracy among inmates in California state prisons to order murders, oversee narcotics sales and arrange for the smuggling of numerous cell phones to prisoners.

The allegations, contained in court documents unsealed Thursday in federal court in Sacramento, seek charges under the federal racketeering statute against 16 defendants, including two inmates considered to be among the ruling “commissioners” of the white supremacist gang.

“What we report today is a very significant setback for the Aryan Brotherhood,” U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said at a news conference at his downtown Sacramento office Thursday, where he described a series of crimes inside prisons that stretched from Lassen County to Imperial County.

Details in the court documents spell out a yearslong investigation that tied the prison gang to at least five inmate slayings and orders to kill more, saying investigators “uncovered and disrupted multiple murder plots targeting AB member, AB associates and other individuals who — according to Aryan Brotherhood members — had violated the gang’s expectations or code of conduct.”

DEA investigators using court-ordered wiretaps monitored more than 1,800 phone calls during the course of the probe, and used information from some of the calls to move targeted inmates to safety and, in at least one case, warn a target who was not in prison that he was in danger, the documents say.

“These defendants have participated in conspiracies to commit racketeering, murder and drug trafficking,” a 137-page affidavit from DEA Special Agent Brian Nehring says, adding that investigators turned up evidence the gang was distributing heroin and methamphetamine from Sacramento to South Dakota and Missouri.

The gang also conspired with associates outside prison walls to import drugs, cell phones and other contraband into California prisons hidden in boxes of Little Debbie snacks, Folgers coffee jars and Quaker Oats containers, court documents say.

One defendant, a 37-year-old ex-con named Justin Petty, worked for a company called Golden State Overnight and was overheard on wiretaps planning smuggling operations with inmates, court documents say.

“Petty described how he was going to place cell phones, batteries, chargers, mini hack saw blades, drill bits, ear pieces and other items inside Little Debbie snacks, including Honey Cakes,” the DEA agent wrote in his affidavit. “Petty also described other contraband items, which I believe were drugs.

“Petty said the box would be sealed as if it were straight from the vendor.”

Prison officials intercepted the packages after being tipped by investigators, and court documents say the inmates were later heard on wiretaps speculating about what had happened to the packages.

The investigation also included a number of undercover purchases of heroin and the seizure of other drugs and weapons.

But the most serious allegations involve a series of prison-yard slayings that included the 2015 stabbing death at California State Prison, Folsom, of Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, a prominent former member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang who was serving six life sentences.

Pinell, 71, had been threatened for decades and was killed only weeks after being moved into the general population at “New Folsom,” where two Aryan Brotherhood associates allegedly stabbed him 20 times in hopes of becoming full-fledged members of the gang, court documents say.

The Pinell slaying sparked a riot at the prison, and the documents unsealed Thursday say it was part of a racketeering conspiracy orchestrated by Aryan Brotherhood leaders.

The documents describe in great deal the violence employed by the gang, which was formed in 1964 and “has a policy of ‘blood in, blood out,’” meaning that “potential members must commit a murder to gain full membership, and can only leave when they die.”

The gang emphasizes that prison stabbings “should be executed in a bloody and cruel manner so that it leaves a lasting impression on other inmates,” the documents say.

“This AB belief stems from the reality that white inmates are a minority in every California prison,” the documents say. “Therefore, AB-ordered prison attacks, which tend to stand out as particularly gruesome, deter rival inmates from confronting the enterprise’s members and associates.”

Six of the defendants named in the new federal case already are serving life terms in state prisons, and authorities would not discuss where any of the incarcerated inmates have been placed because of “security reasons.”

Scott noted that some of the allegations could lead defendants to face the federal death penalty, although he would not specify which ones.

“That is a decision that will be made a long way down the road,” Scott said.

The court documents name two of the gang leaders in Thursday’s filing as Ronald “Renegade” Yandell and Daniel Troxell, who both have murder convictions and have filed lawsuits against state prison officials over their treatment.

Troxell was a plaintiff in a 2009 lawsuit with another Aryan Brotherhood member, Todd Ashker, who sued the state over solitary confinement conditions in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison.

That lawsuit led to a widely publicized inmate hunger strike in 2014 that gained national attention and sparked hunger strikes at prisons outside California in support of the inmates.

“The prisoners’ purported hunger strike was mostly an illusion,” the DEA affidavit concludes, saying inmates squirreled away beans and tortillas before the strike began and would “surreptitiously eat a burrito each day.”

But, more than a year, later then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration settled the lawsuit with a series of policy changes to curb the use of solitary confinement.

The DEA affidavit blames that settlement in part for allowing inmates moved out of the Pelican Bay SHU to other prisons greater ability to communicate with other prisoners and says that since then the Aryan Brotherhood “has experienced a significant resurgence within California’s prisons.”

Ralph Diaz, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, appeared at the news conference and rejected the notion that the settlement contributed to the problem. He also said he did not view the vast scope of the allegations as an indictment of how corrections leadership manages the prisons.

“Prison gangs have been, unfortunately, part and organized in our prison system since the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Diaz said. “This goes back even before these indictments.

“California’s prison system has been battling prison gangs. Prison gangs have evolved in the way that they practice and the way that they organize . so in the same way we have to evolve.”

Yandell, the first defendant named in the documents and an inmate now serving his sentence at “New Folsom,” has been a critic of corrections policies for years.

In a column he wrote in April for the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, he claimed prison officials tried to forcibly return him to Pelican Bay in February without authorization and that the move was stopped by orders from someone at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

He wrote that the hunger strike led to changes that have brought “prison racial violence to a historic low.”

Thursday’s court filing lists probable cause naming Yandell in counts ranging from racketeering conspiracy to distribution of heroin and methamphetamine to five counts of conspiracy to commit murder.

Many of the defendants already are serving lengthy prison terms, but federal officials believe getting them into the federal prison system may help weaken the Aryan Brotherhood, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the nation’s oldest and largest white supremacist prison gang.

The legal advocacy group also says the syndicate, formed in 1964 at San Quentin State Prison, is the deadliest prison gang in the nation and has nearly 20,000 members, inside prison and on the outside.

Thursday’s action is the latest of many attempts at curbing such activity.

In February, the Justice Department announced the indictment of 18 members of the “Universal Aryan Brotherhood” in Oklahoma on similar allegations, and other efforts go back decades, including a 2002 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act indictment in Los Angeles naming 40 suspected members and associates of the gang.

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