Bringing Down the Brotherhood

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

For years, few law-enforcement officials paid attention to the AB; as long as their principal victims were other inmates, there was little public outrage over their activities. But the 1983 killing of the two Marion guards, as well as incidents of street violence from paroled members who were dealing drugs and expected to pay "taxes" to the gang, drew increasing scrutiny. In the mid-'80s, the FBI tried to build a racketeering case against the AB, citing the extensive narcotics network in California prisons and the group's apparent efforts to extort Mafia elements inside the walls. "Source information indicates that the AB has a stranglehold on some of the top LCN [La Cosa Nostra] members who are inside the prison system," one report stated, "so now it allows the AB access to the funding of organized crime."

But in 1989, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles declined to prosecute the case, reportedly because of credibility problems with the snitches that the FBI had developed. A scandal had just erupted at the Los Angeles county jail over a "snitch tank" full of informants who'd fabricated testimony in homicide cases in order to get their sentences reduced, and the FBI fretted that some so-called AB defectors might actually be double agents seeking to infiltrate the witness-protection program. "There are many witnesses in the WITSEC program who have testified against members of the AB and now have contracts on their lives," one memo advised.

Over the next decade, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) became the lead agency investigating the AB. A new crop of informants emerged, especially after a war erupted in federal pens between the gang and the DC Blacks in the late 1990s ("Marked for Death," May 25, 2000). In 1998 the probe landed what may have been its biggest fish. An ADX inmate named Kevin Roach, who claimed to be a high-ranking AB "councilman" who'd served directly under federal commissioners Mills and Bingham, expressed an interest in cooperating with authorities.

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

Roach was placed in H Unit, an isolated area tucked near ADX's central control room. For several months, he was the only occupant of the unit; guards took to calling it the Roach Motel. In 1999 he was joined by five other defectors, including a California state prisoner, Brian Healy, who'd come from Pelican Bay and had been talking to federal authorities for the past two years.

Only a few top administrators and staffers were allowed access to H Unit. Still, it didn't take long for other guards to notice the bags of food from the outside world -- ribs, pizza, burgers from Carl's Jr. -- vanishing into the Roach Motel. Rumors spread that Warden Pugh had assembled a bunch of lowlifes to look at pictures of officers and tell tales about the "dirty" ones.

But investigating staff was only a small part of H Unit's mission. The group was given other inmates' mail and asked to decode the secret messages that AB members were known to conceal in what seemed like innocuous small talk. (One method of sending orders involved a disappearing "ink" made of urine that reappeared when heated.) They made training videos that purported to show how gang members passed notes and drugs, compromised staff and made weapons out of ordinary commissary items. They were debriefed at length on their knowledge of various AB murder plots, even if much of what they knew was hand-me-down prison lore. And they were handed hush-hush files on everything from other AB rollovers to Latin American drug cartels, in the hopes that they could fill in some gaps in pending investigations.

In return for their help, they got perks no ADX inmate could have dreamed possible. Carl's Jr. A television and VCR. A laptop computer -- and occasional, supervised access to the Internet. The ability to move freely throughout the unit. At least one soft-core porn video, smuggled in by one of their chummier handlers. What would ultimately amount to thousands of dollars in cash payments, placed in their commissary accounts. And promises of transfers to less secure prisons or spots in the witness-protection program.

A few months into the operation, a former AB shot-caller named Danny Weeks had a falling-out with Roach and was moved out of H Unit. Weeks began snitching on the snitches. He contacted Westword and declared that the debriefing was a fraud. Roach and another top informant, Eugene Bentley, had exaggerated their role in the AB, he wrote, and the group had compared stories and coached each other on what to tell the grand jury preparing the racketeering indictment. They had made up stories, taking their cues from the files provided to them.

"We would theorize what certain things meant and always embellish everything to make us look good," Weeks wrote. "Kevin would later confide in me that he was playing the biggest game he had ever played, and if he made a wrong move he was through. He told me that he had [a BOP intelligence officer] by the nuts and had told him so."

The game may have included passing on to others the top-secret information that their handlers gave them. Weeks smuggled sensitive data on a DEA investigation out of ADX and into a public court file to show how easily it could be done.

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