Former ‘Commissioner’ John Greschner Discusses Life and Death in the Aryan Brotherhood
John Greschner, who is serving a life sentence for murder, spent 24 years in the Aryan Brotherhood, many of them as one of three "commissioners" overseeing the deadly gang's activities in federal prisons. Now, Greschner is going public about the racist group's murders, its banking and collection system, and a whole lot more.
“For the Aryan Brotherhood, murder is a way to make a social statement,” said John Greschner, a former top leader of the gang.
“If blacks attack whites, we send a message. We go pick one of their shot callers. We catch them walking across the [prison] yard under guard escort in handcuffs. It don’t matter. We’re going to butcher him in handcuffs in front of God and everybody at high noon in the middle of the yard. And it’s not just going to be a few clean stab marks. It’s going to be a vicious, brutal killing. Because that’s how brothers [AB members] take care of business, and a brother’s work is never done.”
Greschner joined the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) in 1977 about 13 years after white prisoners formed the gang in the recently desegregated San Quentin State Prison in California. When he joined, Greschner said, there were 50 to 60 members and associates of the AB. Now, according to federal law enforcement agencies, there are roughly 20,000.
The gang that Greschner said was “started up as a white self-defense group in a single pen,” has evolved into a multinational criminal syndicate with hugely profitable drug trafficking and gambling operations and protection rackets within prisons across the country. On the streets, the AB is involved in practically any profitable criminal enterprise, including murder-for-hire, armed robbery, gun running, methamphetamine manufacturing, counterfeiting and identity theft.
“It’s an empire,” Greschner said in a recent interview with the Intelligence Report. “That’s what I helped it become.”
As one of three members of the AB “commission” overseeing all gang activity based in the federal prison system — activity that often reaches far beyond prison walls — Greschner was directly responsible for increasing the size and sophistication of the Aryan Brotherhood during two key decades of rapid expansion for what is now the largest and deadliest prison-based gang in the country.
Along with vetting prospective members and voting on leadership decisions, including targeted killings, Greschner by his own account personally instituted a banking and collections system for the gang and developed complex written codes for communicating between prisons and with members and associates in the free world. He was also the gang’s resident expert in improvised weapons, including poisons and explosives he cooked up in prison cells.
Now 60 years old, Greschner is serving a double life sentence for murder and conspiracy to commit murder resulting from the 1984 killing of a fellow inmate at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Greschner said the man was killed because he refused to pay a large gambling debt owed the AB.
“We made sure to get the word out: If you burn the AB, you go in the hat, meaning there’s a contract on your life,” said Greschner. The phrase “in the hat” refers to the early years of the gang, he said, when AB members in a certain prison would draw pieces of paper out of a hat to determine which of them would carry out a contract murder.
“Once you’re in the hat, you ain’t getting out of the hat. Ever. Thirty years later, if a brother sees you somewhere, you’re going down. In the streets, in jail, it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna get you.”
‘The Brightest Light Shining’
Currently held in federal protective custody at a prison in the western U.S., Greschner earlier this year sat with hands and feet shackled for a three-hour interview. (As a condition of the interview, the Report agreed to withhold the name of the prison to protect Greschner.) With neatly trimmed grey hair, a beard to match, and blue eyes that rarely blink, Greschner slouched casually in his chair, a hooked toothpick strung with dental floss clenched between his teeth.
One thing he wanted to make clear right away: He’s not a racist. Before he joined the AB, he did stick-ups with black partners, Native American partners, no problem. His cellmate these days is black. They get along fine, even though Greschner has a swastika tattoo, which he insisted is the Sanskrit version, not the Nazi kind.
“To me, it’s a Buddhist thing,” he said. “I’m a yogi.”
Despite the swastika tattoos widely popular with its members, the vast majority of whom are neither Buddhists nor claim to be, the Aryan Brotherhood as it exists today is not a hate group in the traditional sense.
Although widely idealized by racist skinheads and other hard-core white supremacists, the AB in reality is far more about gaining power and reaping profit than promoting white racial unity or furthering any kind of white power revolutionary cause. If there’s big-time money to be made in dealing with Mexican drug cartels, AB shot callers won’t let skin color get in the way.
However, many AB members do practice a racist variant of the neo-pagan religion Asatru, the faith of Viking raiders of old. Also, rank-and-file members of the gang commonly espouse “race war” rhetoric as justification for violence. According to Greschner, the AB began cynically using what he called “the race thing” as a recruiting tool in the 1980s to foster a sense of common identity and harden loyalty to the gang, particularly among new members, who might otherwise turn snitch.
“I was telling Barry [Mills] at one time, I said, ‘Look, man, we gotta have some deeper catalyst that pulls people in and holds them together. Because when you’re harvesting criminals [as members], criminals are fine, but criminals are in the game a lot of times only to get what they can for themselves, so if you put a lot of pressure and heat on, you can get them to roll over,’” said Greschner. “‘But if you give them something deeper they can feel connected to, maybe some northern European religion or whatever, and some racial thing and all that, well, they’ll start to feel like they’re down with a greater cause that they’re fighting for, and then they won’t roll.’ That’s what I told Barry.”
According to Greschner, AB leaders also recognize the value of exploiting the gang’s legendary image within the American skinhead movement to easily absorb skinhead crews throughout the country whenever a high-ranking member of a particular skinhead crew enters the prison system.
“This is what happens,” he said. “The loudest ringing bell, as far as any white group out there goes, is the Aryan Brotherhood. They’ve all heard of us. They all want to be us. We’re the brightest light shining. And, you know, we’ve got people everywhere out there [outside prison], keeping us up to date on all the little white crews in the United States — all the little skinhead crews, the European Kindred, the LRs [Nazi Low Riders], the PENI [Public Enemy Number One], whatever.
“So what we do is, any time a member of one of these white crews comes in here [the federal prison system], if they’re one of their main guys, or just someone we see has the potential and the talent to step up and be with us, we pull him [recruit him to join the AB]. And through pulling him, we run his entire group out there, and usually that group has other affiliations, so we run them now. That’s mergers and acquisitions. Takeovers, but not even hostile takeovers, because all the skinheads, all these white gangster crews, they all want to be down with us anyhow.”
Joining the ‘Brand’
For Greschner, joining the AB was a natural progression in a life of crime that began when he was still just a boy growing up in Minnesota. “Pops was on the road all the time, driving 18-wheelers, Mom wasn’t there a lot, so next thing you know, I had a little street gang going back in the ’50s,” he said. “We had our leather jackets all with zippers and our engineering boots and greaser hairdos and our little gravity knives.”
Greschner was first incarcerated at the age of 16 for “robberies and shootings and conspiracy stuff.” When he joined the AB in 1977, he was a 25-year-old career criminal with a string of violent felony convictions, then serving federal time for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Greschner at the time was also charged with the attempted murder of a police officer he shot during a gun battle the previous year, following his escape from a state prison in Minnesota.
At a federal prisoner transfer facility in Terre Haute, Ind., that convicts call “The Hut,” Greschner met AB co-founder Barry Mills, who, like Greschner, was awaiting transfer to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Heavily muscled with long blond hair, Mills had a bad eye from a knife fight with Mexican inmates in San Quentin and an Aryan Brotherhood tattoo on one arm that he burned off years later.
Mills knew of Greschner’s escape and shootout with police officers, and of his reputation as a “good con,” one that kept his mouth shut and backed up other good cons. “Barry came to me and said, ‘You’re like us. You’re cut from the same cloth. You take care of your business. You’ve got good morals, good ethics, you’re a good, stand-up dude, and you’d be an asset to our organization.’”
Greschner wasn’t interested in joining a prison gang. But Mills described his vision for transforming the AB into a powerful crime syndicate. “He was talking about organizing the streets from inside the prisons. I was down.”
It was a pivotal time in the history of the Aryan Brotherhood. Prior to 1977, the gang operated solely within the California state prison system. But as Mills and other AB higher ups had entered the federal prison system in recent years they had come to see the federal system as fertile ground.
“What happened was these guys would get out of the state pen in California, and then get a federal crack [conviction] for hitting banks, or running drugs or firearms, and they’d get put in the feds in different joints all over America,” said Greschner. “So Barry started shooting wires back to the brothers in California, saying, ‘Look, man, we got a whole country out here. We’d like to form our own thing.’ And the word came back, ‘You have our blessing.’”
From that point forward the Aryan Brotherhood divided into separate organizations: the California AB and the federal system AB. “They’re like two related but different criminal families,” Greschner explained. “They each have their commission … but they’re allies. Obviously, if we get the word from California that, ‘Hey, this guy’s coming into the feds, and he’s no good, he’s in the hat,’ we’re going to make sure he gets clipped. And vice-versa.”
Greschner helped Mills and other founders of the federal AB recruit hundreds of new members in the late 1970s, searching out “psychos” who would buy into the Asatru concept of being Viking warriors destined for paradise. “You want the maniacs, those beserkers, man, that, in their minds, they’re going to Valhalla. If they fall on the battlefield, they’re going to paradise,” he said.
In short order, the AB began taking over existing drug and gambling operations run by white inmates throughout the federal prison system, Greschner said. The leaders of these rings were offered a stark choice: join the federal AB and start taking orders — and kicking back money to the commissioners — or die.
“Our old saying was, ‘One brother.’ Meaning that one brother can walk into any joint [federal prison] and take it over. Any joint. Because the leaders of the other crews in there know that one brother has the entire Brand [AB] behind him. So if they kill that one brother, sooner or later he’ll reach from the grave through us to get his revenge.”
Into the Streets
As federal AB members were paroled or served their full sentences and were released, the gang began setting up crime groups on the streets. According to Greschner, he and Mills instituted a flat tax policy and de facto banking system in which 20% of the profits of any AB criminal enterprise on the streets was deposited into money stashes or “accounts” controlled by the commission and eventually laundered through strip clubs, custom motorcycle shops and other legitimate businesses.
The motorcycle shops, Greschner said, also served as sources for cyanide, which the AB put to several uses. “Cyanide’s used for chroming mufflers and engines, so they could order it without any hassle. We’d get a little cyanide sent in [smuggled into prison] and I’d use it to make different kinds of explosives or we’d serve a guy a hot shot [a poisoned syringe of narcotics].”
By the mid-1980s, Greschner said, the federal AB had ongoing criminal operations established in major cities across the country. The leader “on the street” in each city, or, in more sparsely populated areas, each region, was appointed by and reported directly to the three-man commission. “These are designated people we give the authority to run the day-to-day in their areas,” he said. “One of their responsibilities is to set up a switchboard, meaning a way to handle the mail, the phone calls.”
AB switchboards communicated with each other and relayed messages between the streets and the prisons using a complex system of codes that Greschner said he devised. “Basically it was just a bunch of different variations on a bilateral encryption system based on a code the French Underground used during World War II,” he said.
“It’s like, when you do a code puzzle in a game book, and you figure out that X means A, you know every time you run across X, it means A. But with our numbers, X may be A this time, but the next time X is B, and one sentence later it’s Z.”
Every switchboard had its own code and decryption key, which rotated often, Greschner said. “That way it was compartmentalized, as a security thing.”
In 1992, Greschner said, Aryan Brotherhood street operations received a huge boost after Italian-American Mafia boss John Gotti, the “Teflon Don,” was sentenced to life in prison without parole and transferred to the maximum security federal pen in Marion, Ill., a longtime AB stronghold. (In 1983, AB members there stabbed to death two corrections officers on the same day.)
Gotti first hired the AB to protect him in the prison, and then began to set up deals between his crews and theirs on the streets. “It’s like, it’s his world out there, but it’s our world in here, and he’s in here doing forever, so he’s in our world now, and we scratched each other’s backs,” Greschner said. “We could tap into his resources up in New York, so when we needed glassware or whatever to set up [methamphetamine] labs, hey, his crews have righteous [legitimate] businesses through their unions that can get all the glasswork, all the chemicals, and, you know, the beat just went on from there.”
Dealing with Gotti, though, had a major unintended consequence, according to Greschner. “Barry started to want to be like Gotti, he started to trip like he was some kind of godfather.” Greschner said that Mills began issuing orders without first consulting Greschner or the other commissioner, T.D. Bingham. “He was a good brother before shit started going to his head,” said Greschner. “But it got the point where I told him, ‘Look, bro, AB stands for ‘Aryan Brotherhood,’ not ‘Aryan Barryhood.’”
This occurred in the late 1990s, when Greschner, Mills, Bingham and several other key AB leaders were all incarcerated in solitary confinement cells in the ADX (Administrative Maximum) prison in Florence, Colo. Federal authorities had transferred them to the Supermax prison in hopes of disrupting AB operations by preventing them from communicating between themselves or issuing orders to the outside world.
Still, they found ways. One, Greschner said, was called “getting on the phone,” where the commissioners would drain the water from their metal toilets and then have a meeting by speaking to one another through the pipes.
Meanwhile, his relationship with Mills continued to fray. According to Greschner, he was outraged when Mills ordered hits on five AB members for what Greschner perceived as “personal beefs, not official business” (see story, p. 27). Also, Greschner later testified, Mills began pressuring him to design package bombs to be mailed to federal prosecutors, despite his protests that such a bombing campaign would cause too much collateral damage and bring too much heat.
In mid-1999, Greschner sent a message to AB members that Mills was ordering hits on his own authority, a glaring violation of the gang’s code. That October, he severed ties with the gang forever, and guaranteed his own death warrant, by testifying against a high-ranking member of the AB in a federal drug trafficking case.
Three years later, in 2002, 29 leaders of the federal AB were rounded up from prisons all over the country and charged with violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, including conspiracy to commit murder, which carries the death penalty. Greschner was not among the RICO defendants.
Federal prosecutors declared their intention to seek the death penalty against 21 of the AB shot callers, or top leaders, including the two commissioners Mills and Bingham, in a highly publicized “decapitation strike” designed to cripple the gang’s leadership. Officials said they could see no other way of preventing imprisoned AB leaders, even if held in segregation, from continuing to run the gang. The tactic failed when juries returned convictions but no death penalties. Mills and Bingham, for example, were sentenced to life without parole and returned to the ADX in Colorado, where they were already serving life with no possibility of parole.
“The worst thing the government could have done if it was looking to shut down the AB was to bring that racketeering case and pump it all up through the news media, everywhere, all the newspapers about how, ‘The only way to deal with these guys is to cut the head off the dragon,’ and then nobody gets the death penalty, not one,” said Greschner. “All they did was provide the AB with the greatest recruitment tool ever, for all these young, white, radical fools all over the country. The AB couldn’t have bought PR shit like this.”
Today, Greschner spends his days in a prison yard, meditating and practicing Kundalini yoga. He says he harbors no ill will for the Brand, though his hatred for Mills is palpable. When asked if he minds spending the rest of his natural life behind bars, he shrugs and shakes his head. “This is my ashram, man, my temple. I can close my eyes and go anywhere I want. Without coming here, I never would have gotten where I’m going.”
Greschner is eligible for parole in 2055. He would be 103.