The young inmates in the Nazi Low Riders, a group well-known for violence and drug trafficking, made an alliance with the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood — and took on both their extremist ideology and their notoriety.
In the late 1970s, a youthful and remarkably violent neo-Nazi gang, the Nazi Low Riders, or NLR, began to emerge behind the prison walls of the California Youth Authority.
Founded by John Stinson, a white supremacist inmate, the group made an exception that appeared to run counter to their staunch white power beliefs — they allowed a relatively small number of Latinos to join.
Latinos not only boosted the size of the group, they also did much of the dirty work, trafficking drugs like highly addictive methamphetamines inside and outside of prison.
In recent years, the NLR has spread from the California Youth Authority into the adult prison populations of California and several other states.
Today, experts estimate that it has 1,000 active members, most of them behind bars in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Illinois and Florida. Members are primarily recruited in juvenile and adult prison facilities while in their teens and early twenties.
Despite the NLR's avowed racism, Latino last names and Latino wives and girlfriends are OK, but, experts say, members are supposed to be at least half Caucasian. All must show loyalty to the white race and subscribe to an ideology of hatred, especially against blacks and "race traitors."
NLR members have been behind some of the most disturbing hate crimes in California. Last April, NLR members were charged with the kidnapping and murder of a bisexual man in Salinas.
In 1999, two Lancaster NLR members attacked an African-American Wal-Mart employee with a hammer, nearly killing him. Years earlier, in the same town, another member used a baseball bat to savagely beat a black teenager on the street.
And in 1995, teenage NLR members, also in Lancaster, beat a homeless man to death behind a McDonald's.
In 1999, police in Ontario, Calif., a city that had been particularly hard hit by NLR crimes, realized that they could not fight the gang alone and created the multi-agency Nazi Low Rider Task Force. The team gathered intelligence, pinpointed strongholds, and tracked down NLR fugitives with the help of the FBI, ATF, state Department of Corrections and other local police departments.
Ultimately, the task force generated more than 200 arrests on state charges and 13 arrests on federal charges, sending many remaining gang members underground. The charges ranged from drug trafficking to witness tampering and murder.
And in 2003, after four years of investigation, indictments were finally handed down against several NLR leaders for alleged violations of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law designed to attack the Mafia and organized crime generally.
"We effectively took the legs out from under this organization," says McBride. "Did we wipe them out completely? No — that's not realistic."
Working for the Aryans
Experts are quick to point out that most NLR crimes that occur outside prison walls are related to the drug trade and that members operate more like a criminal enterprise than an ideologically motivated hate group.
"Ninety-nine percent of crimes are done for the benefit of the gang," says Corporal David McBride of the Ontario police department. "Very seldom will we see a race-based crime by the NLR. Members do their crimes at night, using dope to keep going."
According to Walter Bouman, a hate crime and domestic terrorism expert (see also Education & Extremism), NLR members often can be identified by their tattoos, ranging from the letters NLR in Old English script to symbols like the swastika and "SS" lightning bolts. Many have the letters "NLR" tattooed in their eyebrow or on their neck.
But there are no strict rules regarding tattoos. Devil horns, demons and Nordic runes are just as likely as more obviously Nazi-related tattoos.
NLR members, experts say, are remarkable for their propensity for violence — a propensity that has resulted numerous crimes, especially in California's small desert communities.
That, and their talents as drug dealers both on the street and in the prisons and juvenile facilities, brought them attention from older, more serious criminals — leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), the largest, most serious and most violent white supremacist prison gang in the nation.
Officials with the California Department of Corrections were actively seeking to break up AB, isolating the majority of its incarcerated members in segregation. This lockdown, made possible by AB's official designation as a prison gang, made it difficult for AB members to transact their business, which often involved major drug deals.
Experts say that NLR founder Stinson sought an alliance with the AB around this time. The result was that the NLR, which had not yet been declared a prison gang, began carrying out the AB's drug business as junior partners.
In this relationship, the older, more frightening leaders of the AB called the shots — even as they were theoretically isolated from other inmates. AB leaders, for instance, instructed their NLR errand-boys not to get into drug debt to members of other races. Most drug profits were funneled back to the AB.
A side benefit was that the members of AB, who are supposed to refrain from drug use as part of their white supremacist ideology, were able to avoid direct contact with the drug world.
What Goes Around
Still, the differences between the NLR and the AB, with its stricter white supremacist beliefs, caused some tensions within the NLR. Prison officials have noticed two factions in the Nazi Low Riders: one that supports its older, partially Latino membership, and another that only wants pure white members, like the AB.
Michael "Snake" Bridge, a 36-year-old serving a sentence for attempted murder, witness intimidation and narcotics charges, has pushed for the NLR to abandon its alliance with the AB. But another NLR leader, Joseph "Blue" Lowry, 30, has adopted an AB-style line, calling for cleaning drugs and "race traitors" from the group.
Rick Eaton, an expert on hate groups with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, says that the NLR is now facing the same kind of heat that the AB has for some time. The NLR has been declared a prison gang, and officials are taking advantage of that designation to put its imprisoned members in segregation.
As a result, the NLR, already staggering from the 2003 convictions of several of its leaders, is doing much as the AB did in the late nineties — making alliances with a smaller group that can help it maintain its role in the drug trade.
Public Enemy Number One, founded by inmate Donald "Popeye" Mazza, now 33, has about 200 members, shares NLR and AB's racism, and specializes in drug dealing and identity theft, experts say. Commonly known as PENI, the group has picked up where the NLR has been forced to leave off, carrying out gang jobs at the behest of AB and the NLR.
At times, experts say, all three groups — AB, NLR and PENI — have worked together or in various combinations in the drug trade.
Like the NLR, PENI involves some serious players. Mazza, for example, was convicted in 2003 for the attempted murder of a drug informant. Prosecutors say that Mazza stabbed the victim while Dominic "Droopy" Rizzo, 35, held him down. AB member Albert "Baby Al" Sherwin, 45, is believed to have overseen the attack.
Officials say another PENI member, inmate Devlin "Gozzo" Stringfellow, 34, is also a NLR member, and takes orders from Bridge. "Unfortunately, even in lockdown they can still conduct business and get messages out," McBride says of the segregated AB and NLR prison leaders. "Communication still continues."
PENI may be headed down the same path as the NLR, which allied itself with the older, more serious AB as a way of protecting itself and trying to ensure the group's future growth. "Stinson did this as an experiment and it failed," Bouman says of the alliance engineered by NLR's founder.
"He probably thought that the connection with the Aryan Brotherhood would take the heat off of them. It didn't work."