Leaders of Racist Prison Gang Aryan Brotherhood Face Federal Indictment

A massive federal indictment names the senior leadership of America's most frightening prison gang. But will it work?

Michael 'Big Mac' McElhiney (second row, far right) was co-leader of the Aryan Brotherhood at the Marion, Ill., penitentiary when this 1995 photo was taken.

In Ohio, Another Case
Just before dawn this June 23, a strike force of more than 125 federal and local law enforcement officers, including six swat teams, mustered at a mobile command center in Painesville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. After a briefing, the force divided into no-knock search teams that surrounded and then raided six houses spread across four counties in northeastern Ohio. According to indictments released later, the houses contained stashes of illegal weapons and drugs belonging to the Order of the Blood, a criminal network financed and managed by the Aryan Brotherhood and the Pagans, an outlaw motorcycle gang.

The pre-dawn raids resulted in the seizure of 60 weapons, including 13 fully automatic machine guns, plus large amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and the prescription painkiller Oxycodone. Thirty-four members and associates of the Aryan Brotherhood were arrested, and warrants were issued for 10 still at large. The sweep came after a 20-month undercover investigation that shifted into high gear earlier in June, when police in Willowick, Ohio, arrested two members of the Aryan Brotherhood for possessing illegal machine guns and found in their vehicle a file containing detailed personal information about two police officers in nearby Eastlake whose lives had been threatened two years ago by members of the Pagans.

"This case has all the elements of organized crime and has tentacles spread over a wide area," said Lake County Sheriff Daniel Dunlap. "These were not informal gang bangers flashing gang signs. These were hardened criminals operating in our midst."

Polishing the Rock
There are roughly 550 members of the Aryan Brotherhood in prison in Ohio, said Tony Delgado, the Ohio prison gang expert, and another 500 members on the streets who, like AB members everywhere, are bound by the gang's blood-and-honor code to follow the orders of their incarcerated leaders. According to a recently declassified FBI report on the Aryan Brotherhood, "The rule of thumb is that once on the streets, one must take care of his brothers that are still inside. The penalty for not doing so is death." This practice is known within the gang as "polishing the rock."

The rock is getting polished all over the country, even in Fairbanks, Alaska, a city of 30,000 deep in the interior of the Last Frontier. Sgt. William Hathaway, a security officer at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, said that an Aryan Brotherhood associate, or "Peckerwood," from the gang's Arkansas faction arrived in Fairbanks last year and began actively recruiting other Peckerwoods among the city's methamphetamine users and dealers to help set up an AB-financed drug ring. (Inside and outside prison, Peckerwoods are Aryan Brotherhood wannabes who do the gang's bidding in exchange for some degree of prestige, profit, and protection; occasionally a Peckerwood will become a full-fledged member, usually after carrying out a "hit" on an AB enemy.)

"He professes the Peckerwoods to be a 'white power gang,' and he is fairly successful in his efforts," said Sgt. Hathaway. "I have noticed several t-shirts lately with a woodpecker riding a motorcycle and the wording, 'Peckerwoods, this wood don't burn,' in our community this summer where none were noticed before."

Sgt. Hathaway said the Arkansas Peckerwood was imprisoned in Fairbanks after being convicted on a drug charge and is currently awaiting trial for plotting an escape in which he and 11 accomplices planned to murder correctional officers and Fairbanks patrolmen.

"He is continuing his recruiting within our facility," said Sgt. Hathway. "He corresponds with the local leader of the Aryan Brotherhood and counts several of the incarcerated Hell's Angels as his friends. He seems to be getting a large following within our prison."

Lightning Storm
There is no way to precisely estimate the number of Aryan Brotherhood members and associates in the United States. But there is little question about how far and wide the AB's lightning bolts strike. When the U.S. attorney's office in Santa Ana released the multiple death-penalty indictment, 30 of the 40 accused were already in prison, but the remaining 10 were arrested in simultaneous raids in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington.

And in January, in a dragnet similar to the Ohio bust, more than 70 federal, state and local officers swarmed three suspected AB haunts, including a motorcycle shop in Ruidoso Downs, N.M., a small town in the Rocky Mountains where newly released members of the Texas Aryan Brotherhood were allegedly setting up a burglary and methamphetamine-dealing ring. The month before in the nearby town of Cloudcroft, N.M., a local deputy was killed (see End of Watch) in a shootout with AB member Earl Flippen, whose arms were adorned with tattoos of Iron Eagles, dragons, skulls, and the motto 'White Pride." Flippen was wounded in the initial exchange of gunfire, then finished off with a single shot to the heart by the slain deputy's partner, a 33-year law enforcement veteran who subsequently pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Flippen had been out of prison less than six months.

By early September federal prosecutors had obtained guilty pleas from all 19 of the AB racketeering defendants who are not eligible for the death penalty. The remaining 21 defendants are scheduled to stand trial later this year. The final and lasting effect of the federal government's decapitation strike against the Aryan Brotherhood is unknown for now. But even if it deals a lethal blow to the gang's leadership, with thousands of rank-and-file members due for release from prison in the next decade, the death throes of the Aryan Brotherhood might be long and nasty.

"Someday most of us are finally going to get out of this hell," the AB hit man who murdered the leader of the D.C. Blacks in 1981 recently declared from solitary confinement. "And even a rational dog after getting kicked around year after year after year attacks when his cage door is finally opened."