By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
In recent months, nearly half the defendants in the racketeering case, many of whom are already serving long sentences for other crimes, have accepted plea deals --including Principe. All of the 21 who remain are eligible for the death penalty. Although the government has not yet declared in which instances it will seek death, the group is likely to include Mills and Bingham, who are expected to go to trial next year. The only way to deal with the AB, the feds have decided, is to do what Mills tried to do to an inmate named John Marzloff back in '79: cut off its head.
But prison gangs are multi-headed beasts, and the feds have made some questionable deals in their effort to crush the AB. Much of the information and several key witnesses behind the racketeering case can be traced to a single cellblock at ADX known as H Unit, a secret intelligence unit where six top defectors from the gang were assembled and debriefed. The existence of the operation was first disclosed in Westwordfive years ago, when a former resident of H Unit charged that the group's members conned their handlers, smuggled out sensitive documents and embellished their stories in order to obtain special privileges and transfers to less austere prisons ("A Broken Code," July 27, 2000).
Other informants have since come forward with their own tales about H Unit, and attorneys for the death-eligible defendants are challenging the credibility of the state's top snitches. They contend that the defectors tailored their testimony to suit the government and that the whole debriefing process was fatally flawed.
"I think this case started with H Unit," says Dean Steward, Mills's attorney. "All of these guys were looking to find a way out of ADX. They had other agendas, but that was their top priority -- getting out of there."
The murky case against Principe relied almost entirely on the snitches in H Unit. And if that case is any indication of the type of evidence the government hopes to present against Mills and the other AB leaders, putting them on death row may be harder than it sounds.
"There was no honor in my case, just a lot of lying and exaggerating," Principe says. "Add to that the dirty tricks they used on me -- the dungeon housing, the delays, the manipulation of discovery. The court process has become a playground for egocentricity and snitch sniping. It's a disgrace to justice."
Nobody sets out in life with a gnawing ambition to spend time in prison. Inmates don't plan on ending up there, and neither do staff. Correctional officers often come to their profession down a winding path that starts out with a hankering for the military or law enforcement, or possibly just for a uniform and the authority that goes with it.
For Joe Principe, the calling had nothing to do with uniforms or the scent of danger; it was all about a regular paycheck and good benefits and a pension. After trying on all sorts of jobs and lives, he found himself turning thirty, ready to settle down and raise a family. Corrections looked like his ticket to suburbia, a way of repudiating what had gone before.
"I've mellowed out quite a bit," he says, "but I used to have quite an itch to scratch."
Born and raised in the Bronx, Principe reinvented himself throughout his youth. He joined the Army right out of high school, went airborne with the First Ranger Battalion, jumped out of airplanes. Then he decided to chuck the Army and major in philosophy at Manhattan College. Then there was the whole '80s greed-is-good thing; he was the guy up in the booth at the American Stock Exchange, frantically flashing hand signals to the options traders on the floor. The crash of '87 put an end to that one.
After that, there was a stream of other jobs, including a stint as a private investigator, working insurance and marital surveillance cases all over New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Fun -- hell, yes, but his fiancée wanted him to find something more stable, and the Bureau of Prisons was hiring. "I never thought of it as a fighting-crime thing," he says. "It was a job I could handle, I guess, that I didn't think would bother me too much."
Principe started at USP Lewisburg in central Pennsylvania in 1991. The hours were regular, the camaraderie among staff strong. Three years later, the bureau opened its new supermax in Florence. Rated highly in his work at Lewisburg, Principe decided to put in for a transfer.
ADX was a new kind of prison, designed to house the system's high-risk inmates in isolation 22 hours a day. The place was a maze of control rooms, double doors and cameras. When prisoners were taken out of their cells -- to the recreation cages in the yard, for example, or to phone their lawyers -- they were heavily shackled and escorted by three guards. For Principe, accustomed to the noise and action of Lewisburg, working inside ADX was like taking a moonwalk.
"It was kind of scary quiet," he says. "All the doors and grills, and it takes you forever to walk from one side to the other. It was supposed to be safer, but things can always happen. Those bars, they're an illusion. I used to tell the young officers, ŒMake believe they're not there. Because when you start depending on them, you're going to start screwing up.'"