State and federal law enforcement authorities were looking Monday for any connection between an indictment late last year against more than two dozen members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the shooting deaths of two prosecutors in Kaufman County, about 35 miles southeast of Dallas.
Top U.S. Justice Department officials in November announced racketeering conspiracy charges against 34 members of the white supremacist group, basing the case on alleged crimes—including fire bombings and murder—that spanned more than two decades. The whites-only Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, federal officials said, has its roots in 1980s in the Texas prison system.
The 17-count indictment, then-Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said during a press conference in Houston, represented "a devastating blow" to the organization, which he described as a "violent and highly structured criminal enterprise" operating throughout the state.
District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were fatally shot on Saturday in their house, the authorities said. The double-homicide followed the January 31 shooting of one of McLelland’s assistants, Mark Hasse, in a parking lot as he walked to his office.
McLelland earlier told the Associated Press that white supremacists could be responsible for Hasse’s death. "We put some real dents in the Aryan Brotherhood around here in the past year," McLelland said. Investigators, however, haven’t pinned the blame on any one group. There were no immediate arrests in the killings.
Two federal prosecutors who are involved in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas case, assistant U.S. attorney Jay Hileman in Houston and David Karpel, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s organized crime and gang section in Washington, did not respond to a request for comment.
Karpel and Hileman teamed up on criminal cases against members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Last August, a top member of the group, Steven Cooke, also known as "Stainless," was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for his role in the beating of a prospective member of the gang. The sentence will run concurrent to the federal life term he is serving in connection to a homicide in Liberty County, Texas, in 2008.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said that federal authorities were assisting a "multi-agency investigation into the killings." Hornbuckle declined further comment, citing the open investigation. The Dallas FBI office is participating in the probe of the killings.
In announcing the indictment in November, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas called the charges a "culmination of a joint, federal, state and local law enforcement effort targeting a large-scale prison gang involved in violent crime."
The 10-lawyer Kaufman County district attorney’s office was one of four local prosecution shops that participated in the investigation, the Justice Department said. Attorneys from across Texas are helping the Kaufman office manage day-to-day needs, NLJ affiliate Texas Lawyer reported. Authorities are boosting security for other district attorneys’ offices, including in Harris County, the state’s largest prosecution office.
No trial date has been set in the racketeering case against the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Federal prosecutors recently fought one defendant’s request for release pending trial. Hileman said the allegations against that defendant, Rebecca Cropp, "establish the very real danger that she poses to the community at large and also to witnesses and co-defendants in this case." U.S. District Judge Sim Lake in Houston in February ordered that Cropp remain in federal custody.
Ten defendants are eligible for the death penalty. The Justice Department, however, hasn’t announced whether the government will seek execution.
Defense lawyers representing top members of the group said a link between the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the killing of McLelland and Hasse could motivate the government to seek death sentences. Justice Department policy requires the attorney general to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
One defense attorney, Gus Saper of the Houston firm Mallett Saper Berg, said he’s concerned that negative publicity could harm his client, Terry Blake. "It makes it a little harder—maybe even a lot harder—to get a jury if we decide to go to trial," Saper said.
"I pray and hope that the ABT is not involved in this, but it sure has the characteristics of their past work," said James Stafford of Houston’s Stafford Keyser & Bromberg, who represents defendant Larry Bryan, whom prosecutors called a "general" in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. "I hope no more lives are taken before they solve this riddle."
Stafford recalled thinking, after Hasse was killed in January, Stafford that the move to beef up security for prosecutors was an overreaction. He no longer is of that opinion. "They don’t deserve this anxiety," he said. "This is the kind of stuff that keeps you awake at night."
Despite their common origins behind bars, Gregory Jessner, former chief of the criminal complaints section of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was unlikely to be affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood, the notorious gang that evolved within California’s prison system during the 1960s.
"This doesn’t sound like them," said Jessner, who spearheaded a racketeering case against more than 40 members of the Aryan Brotherhood that spanned a decade. He now is a partner at Phillips Jessner in Los Angeles. "They don’t have a history of doing anything to law enforcement."
Like the mafia and other professional criminal organizations, the Aryan Brotherhood would stop well short of targeting law enforcement authorities, he said. "It’s bad for business. The last thing you want is to have law enforcement make it a mission to stamp you out. You kill police and prosecutors, that’s the natural outgrowth of that."
The Aryan Brotherhood is a crime syndicate with members located primarily in the nation’s federal prison system. Although founded as a white supremacist group in California’s San Quentin prison, the organization has refocused on drug trafficking, prostitution and murders for hire. The prosecution in Los Angeles led to murder convictions in 2006 of some of the most powerful leaders of the gang, including Barry "The Baron" Mills and Tyler "The Hulk" Bingham.
Many prison gangs have adopted the Aryan Brotherhood name yet have no affiliation with the gang, he said. The shooters in the Texas slayings are probably "younger, less sophisticated," he said. They also are more likely to be driven by emotion, Jessner said. Unlike the Aryan Brotherhood, which does business with Latinos and blacks, groups focused on ideological creeds are more likely to invite violence.
"It could be riskier to prosecute a hard-core white supremacist organization than a criminal organization because you get people taking steps that aren’t necessarily rational," Jessner said. He never feared for his life while prosecuting Aryan Brotherhood members, he said.
That said, federal prosecutors, if they need to, can request basic security measures including secured parking at the courthouse and the posting of law officers at their homes, he said.
County and state prosecutor offices, on the other hand, are less equipped to deal with security associated with prosecuting large criminal organizations, said Steven Swensen, a former U.S. marshal and founder of the Center for Judicial and Executive Security in Saint Paul, Minn.
"On the federal side, you’ve got the U.S. marshals and Secret Service that sustain a comprehensive threat-management program and are dedicated to it," said Swensen, whose group is working with the National Center for State Courts in assessing safety at courthouses across the nation. "At the local level—not as much. From site to site, you’d see that most locations in most counties do not have a threat management program in place."
Swensen added that white supremacist groups are increasingly recruiting members with military training or coming out of the prison system, he said. "When it comes down to it, prisons are not safe environments," he said.
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