By Chris Francescani
KAUFMAN, Texas (Reuters) - In sweeping indictments last November, federal prosecutors accused the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas of involvement in three murders, multiple attempted murders, kidnappings, assaults, and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.
The indictments against 34 suspected members and associates of the white supremacist group were the latest and largest in a string of federal and state prosecutions against the gang stretching back to at least 2005.
The November 9 indictments prompted unnerving calls for retaliation. Last December, Texas officials issued a state-wide law enforcement bulletin, warning that high-ranking gang members were "involved in issuing orders to inflict 'mass casualties or death' to law enforcement officials who were involved in cases where Aryan Brotherhood of Texas are facing life sentences or the death penalty."
So, when two Texas prosecutors were killed in the space of just two months, the gang swiftly became the target of suspicion by some law enforcement officers and by rattled local residents of Kaufman County on the outskirts of Dallas. The Kaufman District Attorney's office had been involved in bringing the indictments.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was killed in daylight near the Kaufman town square on January 31, and District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, who were shot dead last Saturday.
Investigators on the case have given no indication of where their probe is leading them. Some current and former Texas law enforcement officials and experts on white pride gangs express skepticism the Aryan Brotherhood was responsible.
Still, the unsolved murders have thrown a spotlight on the powerful prison gang.
Since the Hasse killing, Texas municipal, county and state authorities have aggressively questioned Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, who are responding with claims of innocence, according to current and former Texas law enforcement officials.
The group stemmed from the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang that was founded in the 1960s in California's San Quentin State Prison. When Texas inmates petitioned the national prison gang for membership in the 1980s, they were turned down, said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks and documents actions by hate groups.
"They basically stole the Aryan Brotherhood name, added ‘of Texas,' and went about their own thing," Beirich said.
She described the gang as "an intensely violent outfit."
"More than 100 murders as of 2007. Ten kidnappings. It's a blood-in, blood-out system," Beirich said. "Blood in means you must commit violence to get in the gang and blood out means you die on the way out. They run a very, very serious business inside and outside of the prisons."
The gang was once deeply involved in methamphetamine production. A decade ago, Mexican drug cartels would hire ex-inmates from the Brotherhood to cook methamphetamine in makeshift labs in rural areas outside Dallas, said Doug Lowe, a third-term district attorney in Anderson County, 75 miles southeast of Kaufman and home to five maximum security prisons.
The cartels would finance labs in East Texas, operated by former inmates who showed a proficiency for cooking the toxic stew of chemicals that comprise the street drug, said former Texas prison warden Terry Pelz.
The gang maintains a working relationship with the Mexican cartels, as distributors of methamphetamine and crack cocaine, former and current Texas law enforcement officials said.
"There's some meth still cooked around here, but it's not like it used to be 10 years ago," Lowe said. The Brotherhood expanded its criminal portfolio to "ID theft, deaths, guns and dope, just whatever they do to make a living," he added.
Last November's indictments included grim details of alleged violence by the gang. That included demands by a gang leader that a finger be severed from a dead victim's hand and an attempt to kidnap one of the group's own members and slice his gang tattoos off with knives, as punishment for disobeying gang orders.
Court records show that on June 28, less than four months before the indictments, federal prosecutors filed notice that a senior gang member had agreed to be a cooperating witness.
At the time of the indictments, 15 of the suspects were already in prison and the rest were taken into custody. A few pleaded guilty but most of the cases have yet to come to trial.
Frank Meeink, a former skinhead who counsels other former white pride gang members and helps them adjust to a law-abiding life, said the crackdown had a profound effect on the group.
"People could say it's not the ABT style," Meeink said of the suspicion that the gang was responsible for the murders of prosecutors. "But the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas has never had indictments handed down like they have recently, have never been struck so hard by law enforcement as they did last year."
SKEPTICS QUESTION MOTIVES
Other current and former Texas law enforcement officials - skeptical that the Brotherhood was involved in the killings - said the gang had never previously demonstrated the capacity to execute public officials, and a frontal attack on the criminal justice system would bring unwanted reprisals from law enforcement.
"Think about it - if you're in an illegal business, what do you not want to happen?," asked Lowe, a friend of the murdered prosecutor Mark Hasse.
"You don't want to bring heat down. You know how crazy Texans are? If you say, ‘I'm going to plan a hit,' the way it happened to Mark, someone who is an elected prosecutor, you are declaring war pretty much on the whole state of Texas."
The gang is more powerful inside prisons than out, Lowe added. "They can get cigarettes delivered, they can get dope delivered, and they can intimidate people to keep them in line, to protect the organization," he said. "But once they get out, they're not that effective."
Pelz, the former Texas prison warden who maintains contact with former Aryan Brotherhood of Texas convicts and monitors white pride chat rooms, said his personal hunch was that the killings could be the work of Mexican drug cartels.
"Do I think the AB did this? No," said Pelz. "This is not their style, not their M.O."
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Frances Kerry)