Bringing Down the Brotherhood

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

Officer Principe was no more. Felon Principe was shipped off to the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. He worked the weight pile, did his own time. In some ways, he made a better convict than a hack. But he was under no illusion about where he was.

"I've seen people in prison look out for each other," he says. "But that falls apart, too. All it takes is one rumor, and a guy can go from being on top of the pile to checking in."

He didn't check in -- not even when he got an engraved invitation. A year into his sentence, he had a visit from Les Smith, an ADX intelligence officer, and Michael Halualani, the ATF agent heading the Aryan Brotherhood investigation. They handed him a copy of the racketeering indictment.

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.

In the dozens of criminal acts described in the document, Principe's name came up in connection with only three obscure incidents. He was charged with having arranged to put Barry Mills and Kevin Roach next to each other during recreation so that they could discuss AB business; on another occasion, he was supposed to have placed Mills next to Eugene Bentley, another H Unit snitch. He was also accused of falsifying a report of a 1998 fight between T.D. Bingham and a black inmate, Leroy Elmore, claiming that Elmore had a weapon and had started the fight.

Principe was stunned. Anybody who knew ADX knew that one guard couldn't move inmates around; it took at least three. Even if Mills ended up on the yard next to Roach or Bentley, it could have been happenstance or because of a request to be put next to a workout partner, one of the small "accommodations" that were sometimes granted at the supermax. It didn't mean Principe knew anything about their conversations -- which, the indictment implied, had something to do with the war against the DC Blacks and a supposed $500,000 contract that mobster John Gotti wanted the AB to carry out against a black inmate who'd beaten him up at Marion. (The contract, if it ever existed, was never carried out -- but that didn't stop the New York newspapers from going wild with the story of Gotti, the AB and Joe Principe, an Italian kid from the Bronx turned "rogue guard.")

The third charge was even more laughable. Principe insists that he filed a righteous report, stating that combatants Bingham and Elmore appeared to go at each other simultaneously. Defense investigators who've seen a videotape of the fight say that it backs up Principe's version and that Elmore had a pair of gloves in his hand that could have been mistaken for a weapon. There's also a strong suggestion in accounts of the incident that administrators arranged for the fight to occur, since only a glaring lapse in security could have placed the pair in a sally port together, along with a member of the Mexican Mafia -- and a SWAT team was standing by, apparently at the ready to break it up.

Yet the government was saying that these incidents made Principe part of the whole racketeering conspiracy; if convicted, he was looking at twenty years to life in prison. "Even if I was truly guilty of putting these guys next to each other intentionally, how could that be a life sentence?" Principe asks. "I don't get it."

After Principe had inspected the indictment, his visitors wasted no time explaining why they'd come to see him. "This is easy," Halualani said. "You're either with the government, or you're with the Aryan Brotherhood. What's it going to be?"

Principe stared at him. "Say that again," he said.

The agent repeated himself.

"You're out of your mind," Principe said. "I got nothing to say to you."

"This is a life sentence, Joe," Smith added. "The AB or the Dirty White Boys are going to get you. We're trying to help you."

Help him? They were trying to flip him. Like they'd flipped Roach and Bentley, the fine pair who'd hung these charges on him.

"I already tried the government," he said. "You let me drown. I'm a convict now."

He declined their offer. Then he headed for the weight pile and had his best workout in a long time.

A month later, the feds took him out of Arkansas Valley and flew him to California. They put him in the special housing unit at Terminal Island. He'd spend most of the next two years in the hole awaiting trial, a life of isolation that would make home duty look like an endless party.

Shortly after he arrived in California, a corrections officer cuffed him and took him to recreation. Principe recognized his escort. He was someone Principe had trained years ago, one of the rookies he'd told not to rely too much on the bars to protect him.

Using the racketeering laws, the government has scored several victories in its war against the Aryan Brotherhood. Numerous AB soldiers have been flipped or convicted on conspiracy charges, and two years ago, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, a prominent AB leader at Pelican Bay, got a life sentence for conspiracy in the 1995 murder of a sheriff's deputy.

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