Bringing Down the Brotherhood

Inside the fedsí war on the countryís deadliest prison gang: 16 murders, 21 death-penalty cases, and snitches galore.

A wide red line runs across the floor of the visiting room like a clown's grin, separating the guard post and the civilian exit from the rest of the place. Prisoners are forbidden to cross that line.

Joseph Principe stays way, way clear of the line. The last thing he needs, today or any of the other days he has to spend behind bars, is trouble.

Maybe it's the olive-green uniform, maybe it's the way he stands for a frisk, but there is little to distinguish Principe from the other convicts in this medium-security lockup on Colorado's high plains. Only this: When the female guard who pats him down tells him to tuck in his shirt, he doesn't give her attitude -- just a slight smile.

Crossing over: Former prison guard Joe Principe at 
the time of his 2000 arrest (from left), in the hole, and 
Crossing over: Former prison guard Joe Principe at the time of his 2000 arrest (from left), in the hole, and today.

"Is this new?" he asks.

She shakes her head slowly. He turns away from her, for modesty's sake, and tucks. The whole exchange takes only a few seconds, but it's rich in ritual. Here are the rules, ancient and implacable, thus it has always been and always shall be... and over here is Joe Principe, a man in a unique position to understand both the absurdity and the necessity of what is being asked of him.

Until a few years ago, Principe was the one doing the frisking and making inmates toe the line. He was a correctional officer at the highest-security prison in the country, the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum. Better known as ADX, the federal pen outside of Florence is home to many of the nation's most dangerous terrorists, gang leaders and murderers, and Principe was their keeper. But then the world turned upside down, and he found himself on the wrong side of the bars.

Disgraced cops who go to prison usually end up in some form of protective custody -- "checking in," convicts call it. But that's not Principe's way. He walks the yard with the rest of the cons, takes his meals with them. Checking in is for rats, and Principe is no rat. His refusal to snitch is a point of pride with him. Depending on how you look at it, it's the one thing that has kept him alive -- or the thing that got him in trouble in the first place.

News travels fast in prison, rumors even faster. Everybody knows a little bit about who Principe is and what he once did. "Usually all they hear is that this guy used to be a fed," he says. "It gets passed around. So I put it out there: 'You got any questions? Bring them to me. I'll tell you what's up.' But I don't feel comfortable telling them the whole story."

The whole story, as Principe tells it, is about snitches and the games they play. One day you're a trusted employee of the United States Bureau of Prisons. Then the snitches go to work, and you're a pariah. Before you know it, you're a named defendant in the biggest, hairiest high-stakes racketeering case the federal government has ever prosecuted. That's your name on the 110-page indictment, linked to a bunch of hard-core killers, dope dealers and degenerates -- lifers and career criminals with nicknames such as The Baron, The Hulk, Blinky, McKool, Tank, Turtle, Youngster and Lucifer.

Unveiled in 2002 by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, the sprawling indictment is the culmination of years of effort by federal and state agencies to smash the Aryan Brotherhood, the most notorious of all prison gangs. The case is stunning in scope, targeting forty defendants -- virtually the entire upper management of the AB, as well as various "associates," wannabes and stooges -- for their alleged roles in a criminal enterprise stretching over decades. It encompasses sixteen murders, dating back to the 1979 near-beheading of an inmate by AB leader Barry "The Baron" Mills, and sixteen other plotted or attempted murders; numerous heroin deals, in and outside of prison; and other acts of mayhem intended to enforce the gang's will on the toughest prisons in the California and federal systems.

The case has been long in coming -- in part, prison officials say, because the fear created by the AB is so pervasive. Although bona fide members make up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal prison population, the AB has been blamed for up to 25 percent of the killings in federal pens. It's also said to be responsible for at least six inmate murders at California's Pelican Bay State Prison. Allied with the Mexican Mafia and no longer a white-supremacist organization, the group has zero tolerance for informants, rival drug, gambling or pimping operations, or pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders. AB loyalists have executed their own brethren for homosexual indiscretions. Outsiders desperate to impress the gang have been known to slaughter suspected snitches in hopes of an invitation to join.

In one infamous 24-hour period in 1983, two AB lifers escaped their handcuffs and killed two guards in the most secure unit of the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. They did it, most chroniclers of the event agree, for sport as much as spite, simply because they could -- spurring the outcry for a federal supermax that eventually led to the construction of ADX, the "Alcatraz of the Rockies." Yet despite being housed in the bowels of ADX, Mills and Tyler Davis "The Hulk" Bingham have allegedly continued to direct AB activities in other prisons, including the killing of black inmates in Illinois and Pennsylvania during a racially charged turf war in the late 1990s.

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