Leo Felton’s Prison Plot, Aryan Unit One, Hits the Streets

A white-supremacist prison plot hits the streets-with an unusual 'Aryan' at the helm

On a midwinter day in 2001, Leo Felton joined the flow of sad-eyed tourists winding through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. As they squinted at images and listened to stories from the Nazi death camps, Felton's fellow visitors must have noticed him. Especially in such a setting, it would have been hard to miss an NBA-sized young man with wide shoulders, a piercing stare and the words "skin" and "head" tattooed on either side of his skull.

As they walked away, shaking their heads over the toll taken by human hatred, Felton's fellow tourists could not have imagined the very different kind of cogitation in which he was lost: Wonder what it would take to blow this sucker up?

After 11 years of hard time, Felton had been released just days before, in late January, from Northern State Prison in New Jersey. The prison stint had transformed him from a drug-addled, wildly unstable teenager to a committed racist with laser-like determination — a virtual poster boy for the extensive prison-recruitment efforts of white-supremacist hate groups.

And now, with the help of a small, underground gang organized behind bars at Northern State, he was preparing to embark on a series of crimes designed to unleash RAHOWA, or "racial holy war," on minorities and Jews.

Shattering the Holocaust Museum would be just one step. Felton and his gang, called Aryan Unit One, also talked about bombing Boston's New England Holocaust Memorial and Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, named for the late regional head of the Anti-Defamation League.

And Aryan Unit One wasn't just going to be an anti-Semitic demolition crew; possible assassination targets included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Dreamworks film executives like Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, and Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees.

"[T]he primary goal right now," Felton wrote a co-conspirator in his high-blown style, "is to foment revolution and inaugurate a natural order on the continent." This "natural order" would be the same as Hitler's. And, as Felton wrote in another letter, "The means by which we will attain this is quite simply war."

But there was something Felton's co-conspirators didn't know — something that visitors to the Holocaust Museum on that winter day in probably wouldn't have guessed, either. That oversized Skinhead, casing the memorial in the name of Aryan supremacy, was not himself an Aryan.

In just a couple of months, after his cruel ambitions were thwarted by a lucky arrest, it would be right there on his Boston Police Department booking sheet: Name: Leo Felton. Age: 30. Race: Black.

An Aryan Grows in Maryland
Aryan Unit One was hardly the first white-supremacist plot to hatch behind prison walls. It surely won't be the last. But it may well have been the only such effort to be spearheaded by a person of color.

The twisted tale of Aryan Unit One's commander-in-chief began in 1970, when Felton was born to a pair of civil-rights activists. His father, Calvin Felton, was a light-skinned black architect. His mother, Corinne Vincelette, was a white ex-nun with a Jewish grandparent.

Though his parents split when he was 2, Felton regularly visited his father and played hoops with his five half-brothers, all of whom identify as black. Vincelette raised him with a lesbian partner on a shady cul-de-sac in suburban Gaithersburg, Md., while she worked on prison reform for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.

In this middle-class household steeped in tolerance, Felton grew into a gangly young man whose good looks reminded his mother of civil-rights leader Julian Bond. Tests showed that he had an approaching genius level, along with a prodigious vocabulary and a talent for drawing. But the tests showed something else, too: Felton was profoundly disturbed.

It was hardly a surprising diagnosis for a kid who, according to neighbors and school records, lobbed Molotov cocktails at neighbors' garages, tried to cut the electrical wires of a house across the street, attempted to stab a classmate in the eye, and got himself booted out of nearly every school he attended.

Felton was institutionalized for the first time at age 12, after chasing a neighborhood boy down the street with a knife. He spent his teenage years shuttling from psychiatric hospitals to schools and back.

After dropping out of the Mark Twain School for the emotionally disturbed at 17, Felton took to hanging out with local Skinheads. He shot smack, went to hardcore concerts and built a criminal record marked by impulsiveness. He stole bikes, cars, and even a piggy bank from the home of a fellow Skinhead's parents. At least once, he tried to kill himself.

After skipping out on a suspended sentence, Felton lit out on a cross-country spree, using different false names (including John Hinckley's) whenever he was nabbed for petty thefts. The spree came to a halt back east in 1990, when Felton got into an altercation with an officer who asked him to stop shouting obscenities.

When he was fingerprinted, police discovered that he had built up a pile of arrest warrants, including one for the savage beating of a Cuban-American taxi driver named Edward Torres. In what he described as a road-rage incident, Felton had taken a tire iron to Torres' head and left him for dead along a busy highway between New Jersey and New York City.

That incident bore the hallmarks of a racial attack. But, like everything else with Felton, the truth is more complicated. Felton was driving home from a concert that night with a black friend, Kenneth Gayle, who was then a senior at Rutgers University. Gayle backed up Felton's road-rage story, insisting that his friend "was not a racist."

Felton's parents, siblings and childhood friends agreed: Leo Felton was fiercely angry, but his animosity was not focused on minorities.

Whatever his views on race may have been at age 19, however, they hardened behind bars. And however violently confused Felton had been, he would emerge at age 30 — like so many before him — with a clear and savage purpose.