Racist gangs have flourished inside America's prisons over the last few decades — and more and more, their hatred is boiling over into free society.
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.
The Training Facility
Two weeks after he walked out of Northern State, Felton got a letter from prison-mate Wesley Dellinger. Known to his cohorts as "Wolf," Dellinger headed the prison's brutal white-power gang, the East Coast Aryan Brotherhood.
"Prison can be used as a training facility," Wolf wrote, "and should be."
He was not talking about rehabilitation programs; he was talking about indoctrinating racists who would, once on the outside, put their ideology into action. As Wolf knew, Felton was living proof of how efficacious such training can be.
For the first several years of his sentence, Felton's mind wandered much the way it had in his teenage years. He began to read racist tracts, getting into trouble several times for possessing neo-Nazi materials from the Aryan Nations, a hate group based in Idaho. In 1993, he celebrated a prison wedding with Lisa Meetre, a nurse and former Skinhead who knew him in Maryland and corresponded with him after his convictions.
Two years later, he converted to Greek Orthodoxy, keeping Lent by praying and eating peanut-butter sandwiches instead of ordinary prison fare. He even began training for the priesthood.
But Felton's devotion to Jesus proved fleeting. By the time he was transferred to maximum security at Northern State in 1999, he had a serious reputation as a hard-core racist. Prison officials knew he had become a leading apostle of the White Order of Thule, a small "elite" group of racist pagans that Felton once described as a "graduate-level school of Aryan" ideology.
They knew he was part of the East Coast Aryan Brotherhood. They knew he had stabbed a black inmate when he tried to reach over Felton for a slice of cake in the cafeteria. They also knew that Felton had the kind of charisma that could win converts to his cause.
Still, they gave him an ideal cellmate: Michael Reid, another member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Felton soon hooked up with Wolf, who was the Brotherhood's "shot-caller" at Northern State, allegedly deciding which minority prisoners the brothers should try to kill.
Felton introduced Wolf to the intellectual bent of the White Order, which requires its members to learn Norse mythology and study highfalutin works by the likes of Jung and Nietzche. In return, Wolf helped Felton find a focus for the hatred that had always seethed inside him.
Communicating through prison "runners" and letters sent through friends on the outside, they cooked up what Wolf called "a revolutionary battle plan."
'The Spirit of Bob'
The plot was modeled on the Order, also known as the Silent Brotherhood or Bruders Schweigen. A gang of some two dozen white-supremacist outlaws, the Order robbed armored cars to the tune of $4 million, counterfeited money on Aryan Nations presses, and murdered Jewish radio host Alan Berg in Denver in 1984.
The guru of the Order, Bob Mathews, became a martyr to the movement when he died during a fiery shootout with the FBI that same year.
According to Thomas "Hammer" Struss, a New Jersey native lured by Wolf into the Aryan Brotherhood, the new effort would be "following in the path of the original Order, but learning from their mistakes and taking it to a whole new level."
As they left prison, Aryan brothers would organize a series of small, discrete, "well-placed cells," operating underground with false identities. Aryan Unit One would lead the way, with Felton taking Bob Matthews' role as the heart and brains of the assassination-and-demolition crew.
"Hail to you, Hail to Odin, the Spirit of Bob lives on," Wolf enthused in a letter to Felton.
Felton, who often invoked Matthews in the racist comic books he drew, was convinced that ex-convicts would make the best racist revolutionaries. Late in 2000, as his release date approached, Felton wrote to a co-conspirator: "There are many behind these walls that carry within them an intensity, a barbarity" that is "woefully lacking" among whites on the outside.
The co-conspirator he was writing on this occasion had never been locked up. Erica Chase, a 20-year-old who resembled a sorority member more than an Aryan warrior, was almost as unlikely a member of Aryan Unit One as Felton himself.
Described by her best friend's father as "a bubbly young lady," Chase grew up on toney Cape Cod, but fell in with racist Skinheads during her teenage years. After drifting from place to place, job to job, Chase had landed in Michigan City, Ind., where she worked at a used car lot, partied with the vicious Outlaw Hammerskins gang, and dreamed of finding a partner in her own violent ambitions.
In 2000, she started sending letters to Felton as part of a prison outreach effort by the World Church of the Creator, an anti-Semitic hate group based in Illinois.
In court, two of Chase's friends would testify that she had long talked about doing more than tattooing "WHITE POWER" on her toes. During a stint in Philadelphia, she told Skinhead pal James Nienczura that she wanted to blow up the local African American Museum, but "there was no one to do it with her." Sometimes, when the subject of "m---" or "n------" came up, Nienczura testified that "she'd talk about shooting them."
If Chase was looking for a partner in hate crime, she found the ideal pen pal in Felton, who bragged in one letter about women being attracted to his "criminal mystique." As their correspondence flourished, Chase began to mail Felton the racist materials he requested.
"Executed like a true subversive," Felton wrote back approvingly after one such mailing. Whether she knew it or not, Chase was proving her mettle as a future member of Aryan Unit One.
During his last year at Northern State, Felton plotted with Wolf, pursued his long-distance romance with Chase, and stopped responding to letters from the black side of his family. He couldn't wait to lead the Aryans into battle.
In a letter to Chase dated "Yule 26th" 2000, Felton looked forward his impending release. "If I don't hear back from you before Jan. 28th," he wrote, "I might be on the street! Scary thought (for the untermenschen, not me)."
Itching for RAHOWA
Setting Leo Felton free was a little like releasing a chemical of dangerous but unknown properties into the air. In the words of U.S. Attorney Ted Merritt, he "wasted little time showing how serious he was" about inciting chaos.
Felton moved into the tidy Ipswich, Mass., home of his wife, Lisa, who had faithfully waited almost 10 years for him to join her. He immediately set to work on Aryan Unit One. He cased bombing targets. He ordered books and consulted Web sites that contained recipes for homemade explosives and explained how to go underground with a false identity.
An obsessive list-maker, he jotted down — and began to buy — the materials he would need to mimic the bomb Timothy McVeigh used to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City. At the bottom of some of his lists was an abbreviation that became a mantra: "OKC."
Calls flew back and forth between Felton and Chase — more than 200 in all, between February and April.
While Felton made plans to get an apartment in Boston for Aryan Unit One headquarters, Chase began helping him "clean" the counterfeit money he'd started printing off his wife's computer as a source of income for the cell. Felton sent Express Mail packages of faux currency to Chase, who would take the bills to stores, buy small items and receive real ("clean") money in return.
Felton's prison comrades egged him on. "In Odin's name, may you guide us to victory," wrote Wolf.
Michael Reid, after hearing of Felton's plans for the Boston Holocaust Memorial, seconded Wolf's emotion but injected a note of caution: "I'm very excited about this news," Reid wrote. "I know I don't need to say it, but heed it anyway: Many dry runs."
But the "brains" of Aryan Unit One was too impatient for dry runs, as the brawn — Thomas "Hammer" Struss — soon found out.
Shortly after Felton's Aryan brother got out of prison in mid-February, he called Felton, as Wolf had instructed him to do. Struss had never met Felton — they were housed on different yards at Northern State — so he saw this as a "getting-to-know-you" sort of call. But, as he later testified, it "pretty much escalated into telling me that I needed to get up there" to Ipswich.
"That's it," Felton said. "We need to start this off."
The Revolution Goes Awry
Struss was no pushover. He had entered prison as a teenager with no white supremacist leanings, but came out six years later as a compact-but-menacing Skinhead with "88" (racist code for "Heil Hitler") tattooed on his neck.
His nickname referred to the hammer of Thor, the Norse gods' mightiest weapon. But Hammer was, above all, a loyal soldier in the cause. He followed Felton's orders and caught a bus to Ipswich.
In a matter of hours, Felton was talking him into a bank robbery. "It'd be good to bind our blood as a loyalty test," Struss remembered him saying. Hammer was nonplussed. "We'd just met each other six hours ago and we were planning a job."
The next morning, Struss found himself in downtown Boston, waiting anxiously on the sidewalk while Felton cased a series of banks. "Then he came out and said, 'This is the one.'"
The one was a tiny branch of Citizens Bank, conspicuous on a bustling corner of the Boylston Street shopping district. Felton and Struss hastily cooked up a plan: After Struss held up the bank, he would flee on foot and meet Felton at a nearby Dumpster where Struss could shed the clothes that would be caught on the bank's surveillance cameras.
From there, they'd catch a cab. But wait: What about a hold-up note? Felton ducked into a nearby and purchased "a box of pens, a little notepad, and a yellow bubble-wrap envelope."
After some debate, the conspirators settled on the wording of a note: "No alarm. I've got a gun. Large bills."
As Felton skulked out of sight across Boylston Street, Struss went into the Citizens Bank and slid the note to a teller.
"She hit the alarm," he later testified, provoking laughter in the courtroom. "Then she started getting money out. I told her, 'Since you hit the alarm, can you hurry up?'"
The comedy of errors continued as Struss dashed out of the bank with the envelope, chewing up the note as he ran to the rendezvous point. The getaway plan, such as it was, fell apart when he and Felton met back up.
"We zigzagged down some side streets looking for a cab," Struss testified, but none would stop. After what seemed like hours, Felton successfully hailed a taxi and ordered the driver to speed toward Ipswich. They stopped at a pizza place to count their haul, which came to $1,128. And then they argued some more.
"I expressed to him that I wanted to get back to Jersey," Struss recalled, "to make sure there was nothing on us" before they attempted another hit.
Felton had no use for Struss' prudence. But finally he relented, sending his new blood brother away with the bulk of their haul, about $700. Struss was in too great a hurry to catch a bus, and by the time he got back to Jersey, his pockets were empty. The cab rides had cost him his whole share of the loot. The revolution was off to a sputtering start.
Bonnie and Clyde
If Hammer was having second thoughts about the man he called "Sir Leo," Erica Chase was not. In February, she had gotten her first glimpse of Felton when he sent her a photo taken by his wife. Naked from the waist up, with three black X's tattooed across his chest, Felton is shown wearing an old-fashioned outlaw's bandana and aiming a gun at the camera.
"Hey there dollbaby," Felton wrote in an accompanying note. "Don't run away — just do as I say and I promise I won't hurt you. 88, Leo."
By early April, Felton had found an apartment he and Chase could share in Boston, and she had convinced a friend to drive her east from Indiana. Along the way, she told James Nienczura about her grand plans with Felton.
"They were going to burn off their fingerprints with hot oil," Nienczura later testified, "and assume the identities of missing children."
With the new IDs, Chase told him, they planned to "go around and be terrorists." She didn't want to be any more specific than that. "You'll read about it in the newspapers," she assured Nienczura.
The morning of April 10, Felton and Chase moved into a red brick walk-up on Salem Street, just blocks away from the historic Old North Church. In this gentrified neighborhood, where waterfront condos go for upwards of million, the aspiring Bonnie and Clyde of Aryan supremacy festooned their walls with Nazi flags and posters of Hitler and got busy.
While Felton took apart a coffee pot, following instructions for wiring a fertilizer bomb, Chase fanned out around Boston and the North Shore, cleaning counterfeit twenties and fifties in fast-food outlets and office-supply stores. Investigators later found $480 worth of their faux currency in little Danvers, Mass. — all of it passed in just eight days.
Felton continued to demand that Struss return to Boston, even though Hammer had been arrested in New Jersey in the cell's second attempt at swiping a bigger bundle of cash. Struss and a fourth member of Aryan Unit One, recently paroled Chris DeMunguia (a.k.a. "Conan"), had planned an armored-car heist. Struss stole a getaway car from a K-Mart parking lot, then sped off to meet Conan.
But, his sense of direction shaky after six years in prison, he took a wrong turn and veered straight into a police roadblock. After Struss's father ponied up his sizable bail, Struss got a phone call from Felton, who was hardly in a sympathetic mood.
"You should be with me," he bellowed, "or I should be mourning you, because you should've had a shootout."
Felton's plans to take the cell underground were proceeding apace. From a Web site devoted to missing children, he had chosen to take on the identity of Walter Thomas Ackerson, a blond-haired, blue-eyed 17-year-old who disappeared in Oregon in 1990. On April 18, Felton went to the Lahey Center for Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Lexington, Mass., where he began the process of burning off his unmissable "skin head" tattoo.
The next afternoon, his head swathed in a white bandage, Felton waited outside a Dunkin Donuts in a blue-collar Boston neighborhood while Chase went inside to buy an iced coffee and clean another twenty. But this time, the cashier wasn't biting.
"This is fake," she told Chase, perking up the ears of the man behind her in line — a squat, blond, off-duty cop named Chris Connolly.
When Connolly followed Chase into the parking lot and began questioning the couple, they took off running, scaling a rusty fence behind the doughnut shop and fleeing down train tracks. It took Connolly a couple of minutes to catch up. When he did, Felton knew he had only one chance left to go out in a Bob Matthews-style blaze of glory.
"Go ahead," he said, "shoot me."
Connolly declined the offer.
Felton and Chase had been caught on the anniversary of OKC. Investigators later found a calendar in the Salem Street apartment with the next day circled: April 20, Hitler's birthday.
However Aryan Unit One had planned to commemorate these occasions, the plans were now off. But in one respect, at least, Felton had managed to follow in the footsteps of the bomber.
"It's just like Timothy McVeigh," Boston police officer Robert Anthony, who helped book the couple, told the Boston Herald newspaper. "He was caught by a cop at a traffic stop."
This time, though, nobody had to die first.
For Leo Felton, the worst was yet to come.
It wouldn't be when he had to holler "88" from his holding cell to get Chase, who was being questioned down the hall, to clam up. It wouldn't be when he stood trial in federal court this summer, his defense in the hands of a Jewish attorney, watching Thomas Struss and a parade of Chase's friends testify against the couple. It wouldn't be when the all-white jury convicted him of multiple charges of counterfeiting, bank-robbery and conspiracy.
No, the nadir would come two months after Aryan Unit One crashed and burned. On June 21, the Boston Herald revealed Felton's racial background to a reading audience that had already become riveted by the strange tale of the "hub bomb plot."
Two days later, Felton broke apart a disposable prison-issue razor and tried to kill himself by slashing a jugular vein in his throat. Although he couldn't finish the job, others would certainly try: Once the newspaper reports made their way to prison, officials say Felton was immediately "put on knockoff" by his former racist pals.
A few days later, recovering from the suicide attempt, Felton penned a long letter in small, neat script to the Herald writer who had made his biracial roots public.
"By a disastrous and completely unforeseeable turn of events," he lamented, "I have been splashed all over newspapers and televisions in a major city, with my biology and my politics (or the government's contorted version thereof) at the forefront of the whole thing. I have been publicly vilified and had my one 'skeleton,' namely my racial origin, put on display in the worst imaginable way, alienating me from the only community I've known since I was and undermining the few meaningful relationships I had with other people. This latter element [the 'skeleton'] is in fact the reason I opened my jugular veins last Saturday night."
Expressing the hope that his letter would be published "in its entirety without changes or redactions" — it was not — Felton went on to preach against the "evil" of his parents' miscegenation.
"I am what I am," he concluded. "Contaminated, falsely condemned, and alienated from my comrades. But a lover of Nature nonetheless, and a lover of the West, and ever an unrepentant enemy of the multicultural myth."
The letter was signed, "damned and defiant, Leo Vincelette Felton."
Defiant or not, it's a safe bet Felton isn't about to be admitted to the pantheon of white supremacist heroes, where his hero Bob Mathews is immortalized. He has become a different kind of symbol.
For as bumbling a revolutionary strike force as it turned out to be, Aryan Unit One typifies the racist violence that breeds in American prisons and — more and more often — emerges to threaten the rest of the society.