White supremacist group had been outstripping local police, but multi-agency effort is getting results.
From the streets of San Bernardino County to the exercise yards of San Quentin prison, authorities began to notice a troubling trend in the late 1990s, rooted in a familiar combination: violence, intimidation, drugs and hate.
White prison inmates calling themselves the Nazi Low Riders, or NLR for short, had begun to fill a power vacuum created in a bid by the Department of Corrections to break up and isolate a more entrenched white supremacist gang, the Aryan Brotherhood.
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Acting as the larger gang’s surrogates, NLR members mixed with the general state prison population, reasserting claims on the prison drug market and committing brazen attacks in which they stabbed or beat down black and Latino gang members.
They also began enforcing strict rules (one such prohibition was against getting into drug debt to inmates of other races) among their own foot soldiers, a prison army that had grown to an estimated 1,500 members. In addition, 400 gang members were active in the San Bernardino area, officials said.
“They became pretty vocal about who they were and what they were doing,” said FBI Special Agent David Volk. “With the Aryan Brotherhood locked down, they ran the main lines in the prison.”
The gang also claimed territory in areas of Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, where law enforcement officials noted a marked increase in home invasion robberies, assaults and drug dealing connected to their activities.
“There was a huge increase in activity,” said Ontario Police Cpl. David McBride. “Anything they could get their hands into — the methamphetamine trade was big — they were involved in. They were also involved in extortion and witness intimidation.”
McBride said the gangs’ racist tendencies were made evident by tattoos and communications with fellow gang members. Police said they could not recall any racially motivated attacks by gangs outside prison.
He said the gang could be as hard on its own members as on others, punishing those who didn’t carry out orders to commit crimes from robberies to running guns and drugs.
As the gang’s senior leaders were released from prison, they were “given the keys” to regions — law enforcement parlance for controlling drug profits generated by junior members. Most of the money and drugs were funneled back into the prisons for use by Nazi Low Rider felons.
“They would do it by setting bank accounts with girlfriends, wives and acquaintances, who, acting as secretaries, would hold the profits by sending money to be put on the inmates’ books or distributed to other members on the streets who may have had a need for it.”
One of the hardest hit areas was the city of Ontario, where police officials quickly realized that they could not fight the gang alone. Soon afterward, in April 1999, the Nazi Low Rider Task Force was born.
Led by four full-time Ontario police officers and the FBI, which dedicated four agents full time, the team was assisted by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the California Department of Corrections; the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; the Fontana Police Department; the Upland Police Department; and the Costa Mesa Police Department.
The first objective was taking the fight to the streets by identifying members in NLR strongholds such as southwest San Bernardino County, Pomona, Costa Mesa and Victorville, McBride said. The team also sought to track down NLR fugitives with street enforcement work.
In the prison system, corrections officials began gathering intelligence about the workings of the gang and, more important, its hierarchy, in an effort to cut the head off the organization.
Using the strong arm of federal law — which has far longer prison sentences — the task force helped win indictments of Nazi Low Rider leaders for federal racketeering offenses.
After four years, the task force has made a total of 263 arrests on state-related charges in the Ontario area and 13 federal arrests. It has obtained 28 federal indictments, 41 state convictions and 20 federal convictions.
The federal convictions include those of 12 gang leaders and soldiers indicted on federal racketeering violations. Seven members have pleaded guilty. Five more await trial in May.
Just as important, gang members have begun dropping out of the gang and cooperating with the investigations, cutting deeply into future membership, authorities said.
In recognition of those efforts, the task force and other law enforcement officials were honored earlier this month with the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene and Joseph Sherwood Family Prize for Combating Hate at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Amanda Susskind, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Los Angeles regional office, said that the honor shows the importance of working together to combat a quiet scourge that could grow to threaten the quality of life for everyone.
“One of the reasons people have underestimated prison gangs is because they think they are in a closed society where they can only hurt themselves,” Susskind said. “The trend we are concerned about is when extremism on the fringes of society starts to infiltrate mainstream thinking.”
“Unchecked, it can go from prison yards to playgrounds,” she said.
McBride said gang members used to be proud to identify themselves as NLR members.
“As a result of the enforcement, we come in contact with people who disassociate themselves from the gang.”