Bringing Down the Brotherhood

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

But the cases against upper-level AB have tended to be marathon prosecutions, often yielding meager results. Tracing the carnage behind prison walls to its source can be a daunting task, especially when your chief witnesses are convicts with long histories of violence themselves -- and you're asking a jury to believe that they took their orders from someone else who belongs on death row.

"If you take the informants in our case and do a body count, then compare it to the defendants, their body count is way higher," says Dean Steward, Mills's attorney. "One of their witnesses has supposedly killed seven or eight guys."

It took three trials in Kansas to convict AB stalwart Michael "Big Mac" McElhiney of running a heroin ring in the Leavenworth federal pen. In the first trial, a female juror fell in love with the defendant. A guilty verdict in a second trial was reversed on appeal. The third time around, McElhiney caught thirty years on top of the 21-year sentence he was already serving.

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.

Last year's prosecution in Illinois of David Sahakian, alleged to be one of the AB's federal commissioners, was an even greater debacle. Sahakian and two other Marion inmates were charged with murder and conspiracy in the stabbing death of a black inmate, Terry Walker. The trial lasted seven months, cost more than $3 million just for the defense mounted by court-appointed lawyers, and resulted in a hung jury on most of the charges. Sahakian was convicted on a single charge of possession of a homemade knife -- a tough charge to beat, since the shank was found concealed in his rectum.

Interviews by defense attorneys with jurors after the trial indicated they were hung 7-5 in favor of acquittal on the homicide charges, says Steward. "The jurors found the informants -- Kevin Roach and a bunch of others -- to be lying weasels," he says. "They found the Bureau of Prisons personnel who testified to be incompetent and hiding things. They found the prisoner witnesses called by the defense to be charming and truthful. 'Charming and truthful' -- those are their words."

The Los Angeles racketeering case gives the feds another shot at McElhiney, Sahakian and other top AB members. But first they'll have to overcome defense efforts to suppress the snitch testimony arising out of H Unit, which Steward calls "hopelessly tainted." A hearing on the matter is scheduled in June.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner, who's been pursuing the case since the late '90s, declines to comment on the H Unit operation. "That's something that's going to be decided at the hearing," he says. "It's not appropriate for me to say what happened before the witnesses testify. The proof will be in the pudding."

Since Weeks first blew the lid off H Unit five years ago, several other disgruntled informants have told their stories to the defense, accusing the government of reneging on its promises to them. Some claim to have been fed information or offered incentives to lie; others say they've been threatened with being put in general population and labeled a rat if they don't play ball. Some appear to be playing both sides. One told defense investigators he should be considered "a double-edged sword that cuts both ways."

Yet the snitch testimony is essential if Jessner is going to convince a jury that Mills and Bingham, despite being locked down under the tightest conditions the Bureau of Prisons has ever devised, continued to send and receive messages, order murders and settle disputes across the federal prison system. Defense-team veterans such as Terry Rearick, an investigator who's known Mills and Bingham for decades, says the premise has problems.

"You got a bunch of dysfunctional dope fiends, and the government's theory is that they became this well-oiled killing machine," Rearick points outs. "These guys are a bunch of broke-dick convicts. Mills can't tell them what to do. I mean, they get two fifteen-minute phone calls a month at best, all their mail gets copied and read -- and they're running the prison system? Come on."

But if Mills and Bingham are as powerful as the indictment claims, then what does that say about the effectiveness of supermax prisons such as ADX?

"In order for the government to prevail at trial, the Bureau of Prisons is going to have to concede that they were incompetent and screwed up," Steward says. "That's an enormous problem in the prosecution's camp right now. They don't want to admit that they couldn't control the people they were supposed to be controlling."

Among staff at ADX, the case presents other worries. The federal system reinstated the death penalty in 1988, after a 25-year moratorium, but it's never been used as widely as it could be in the AB case. News of the indictment was met with trash talk from some AB loyalists. In many cases, the defendants were already serving time for some of the same crimes for which they were now facing conspiracy charges; Mills, for example, is already doing life for the 1979 murder of inmate Mazloff. Others, like Bingham, are up for parole in a few years. Now the government was making noises about killing them.

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