Aryan Brotherhood mastered low-tech network, U.S. claims

Deep inside a hushed fortress at the edge of the Colorado Rockies, behind razor-wire coils and reinforced steel doors, one of America’s most feared inmates was being watched.

There was little that T.D. “The Hulk” Bingham could do that escaped the attention of intelligence agents at the Supermax federal prison, the tightest lockup in the U.S.

They feared that Mr. Bingham — whom they believed to be one of the walrus-mustached warlords of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang — might launch his soldiers into a bloody race war. They monitored his visitors, tapped his phone calls, studied his mail.

But in August 1997, an order slipped out of Mr. Bingham’s cell in “the Alcatraz of the Rockies,” sneaked past impregnable walls and gun towers, foiled a network of cameras and surveillance lasers, and allegedly unleashed carnage at another high-security compound 1,700 miles away. At the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., Brotherhood members armed with shivs charged black inmates, slaying two.

Against high-tech scrutiny, prosecutors say, Mr. Bingham had employed a decidedly low-tech method, one used by spies in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army but which dates to the 1st century when Roman writer Pliny the Elder recorded its use: invisible ink. Prisoners make it from urine or citrus juice.

The Aryan Brotherhood’s arsenal of cloaked communication is central to the trial now underway at U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Calif., which started in March and is the first of several murder and racketeering trials targeting the gang’s leadership.

To run their barbed-wire empire of terror, drugs and extortion, the government says, Brotherhood bosses improvised methods of smuggling messages while under constant surveillance.

They shouted through the pipes of drained toilets. They wadded up notes and slipped them in mop handles. They possessed an eclectic system of codes and cryptograms, and the time to perfect them.

Federal prosecutors have introduced stacks of coded documents in the current case against alleged kingpins Mr. Bingham, Barry “The Baron” Mills and two lesser Brotherhood leaders. The evidence ranges from a gang membership list encoded in a dual-alphabet cipher devised by Sir Francis Bacon, to a call to arms embedded in the text of a library book on Napoleon Bonaparte.

The documents are crucial to the government’s case because they bolster — or so prosecutors hope — the testimony of its witnesses, many of them gang defectors, killers and practiced perjurers whose credibility defense attorneys have attacked.

The evidence also reflects how the Aryan Brotherhood gang has evolved, since its founding at San Quentin State Prison in the 1960s, into what prosecutors call a highly organized nationwide syndicate that relies on the quick, effective transmission of orders from its high command.

Still, the defense maintains that what prosecutors view as clear-cut physical evidence is ambiguous at best. Defense lawyers don’t deny that the Brotherhood sneaked messages back and forth, but insist it was for the same reason that the gang made knives, called “shanks”: for self-defense.

Dip a Q-Tip in citrus juice, urine or bleach, write with it, and the resulting words will remain invisible until exposed to direct heat.

Despite its ancient pedigree — and easily available instructions in reference books — the technique was obscure to Bureau of Prisons experts in 1997, when authorities say Mr. Bingham’s use of it blindsided them.

“We didn’t know that that existed at the time,” said Danine Adams, a prison agent who monitored the gang’s correspondence at the Supermax. She said it was likely that Mr. Bingham’s letter allegedly greenlighting the Lewisburg attacks passed right under a prison agents’ eyes.

From the prison in the Rockies, prosecutors say, the letter went to Ron Slocum, a Brotherhood courier on the streets, who sent it to Al Benton, the gang’s boss at the federal prison in Lewisburg.

Benton testified that he received the letter, which carried an innocuous text in regular ink to mask its secret message, in the 4 p.m. mail on Aug. 27. He and an underling heated it over a match flame, which brought the hidden writing into view:

“War with DC Blacks, T.D.”

Defense attorneys do not deny that T.D. Bingham sent a message to Mr. Benton, who says he flushed it down the toilet. But they maintain it merely warned about potential assault from the DC Blacks gang, rather than ordering an attack on it.

But Mr. Benton said Mr. Bingham’s message was unmistakable: “It meant kill every black you can find. That’s exactly what it meant.”

While the current trial in Santa Ana involves dozens of alleged murders or attempted murders over two decades, the Lewisburg violence is among the most notorious and best documented. It is also the basis for murder conspiracy counts against Mr. Mills and Mr. Bingham that make them eligible for the death penalty.

To Bureau of Prisons agents, the bloodshed at Lewisburg came as a particular shock, considering how closely they had been watching the Brotherhood leaders. “We figured we had stopped the trigger for the violence,” said Mr. Adams. But after the stabbings, “We knew that we had missed it. We knew that we had missed how the message went out.”

The Brotherhood guarded its secrets jealously. It forbade members from discussing gang business with outsiders, defectors say, promising death to those who even acknowledged membership.

With a mere 100 or so full-fledged members scattered in state and federal lockups nationwide, much of the gang’s power derived from its structure, with clear lines of command running from a three-man supreme commission, to a handful of counselors, to ranks of soldiers. Beyond them were legions of “associates” that could be threatened or enticed into service.

Al Benton, who was one of the gang’s commissioners along with Mr. Bingham and Mr. Mills in the 1990s, recently testified that the tiered system was meant to prevent “knuckleheads and idiots from doing things on their own” — a way to channel the gang’s violence and to resolve in-house feuds. Every member became an extension of the bosses’ will.

If the Brotherhood had a code-master, it was the scraggly-bearded, slow-talking killer who wore the title of the gang’s Intelligence and Security Director. In and out of prison since the 1970s, Jonathan McGinley had once gunned down a bi-racial couple because, he admitted, “it was something I disagreed with.”

His interest in cryptograms began in boyhood, when he fished secret-decoder badges out of cereal boxes. In the Florence, Colo., lockup — built because other prisons had failed to contain Brotherhood violence — conditions posed a supreme challenge.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Los Angeles Times, via the Post-Gazette, USA
July 2, 2006
Christopher Goffard

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 5, 2006.
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