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The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas at one time was one of the most violent crime syndicates in the country. Its influence stretched from state prison cell blocks where it organized to the free world where members sold drugs and committed brutal crimes against each other.
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A federal crackdown two years ago decimated the group's leadership, and all 73 gang members were convicted. NPR's John Burnett recently sat down with one of the convicted enforcers who's on his way to a federal prison. And we want to pause now to tell you that some of the content in this report may be difficult to hear.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: James Burns is a 46-year-old former meth dealer, oilfield roughneck and Aryan Brotherhood enforcer. He's covered from the neck down in tattoos of swastikas, SS lightning bolts and other Nazi symbology. Guards bring him handcuffed from his isolation cell into the visiting room and lock him in a cage with black iron bars. The inmate is buff from doing pushups in his cell all day. He's relaxed, wary and seems to enjoy the change of scenery.
They call you Chance.
JAMES BURNS: Yeah. It's usually your last chance when you see me.
BURNETT: And you've got Last Chance tattooed on your neck.
BURNETT: And why is it a person's last chance when they see you?
BURNS: I mean usually they've done something to the family to get me sent.
BURNETT: The family is the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or ABT. State chapters of this racist prison gang are all over the country from California to Florida. The Department of Justice considered the Texas branch to be the biggest and most ruthless of them all, and it had to be stopped.
Sweeping racketeering convictions took down James Burns and 72 other gang members, guys with nicknames like Big Nasty, Chopper and Bam Bam. Their crimes included murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, drug dealing and weapons trafficking. Investigators say today, with more ABT members locked up, there's less of this mayhem on the streets and fewer vicious attacks by Aryan Brothers on each other.
MARK POTOCK: That said, there are other people who will pop up as leaders. I do not think that the ABT is finished.
BURNETT: Mark Potock is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in America.
POTOCK: But certainly they have suffered a very serious blow. I think we'll just have to wait and see how quickly they're able to come back.
BURNETT: James Chance Burns held the rank of senior major of the Dallas-Fort Worth region. As such, he decided whether members had committed infractions, like stealing from the gang, disrespecting a brother, forgetting the organization's creed or snitching to the cops. Burns says prospects know what they're getting into when they take the oath.
BURNS: It's like riding bulls. You're going to get hurt. It's not when. It's how bad. Well, the same way with the Aryan Brotherhood.
BURNETT: The ABT is well known to law enforcement for the savagery of its retribution. Most criminal gangs direct violence outwardly at rivals. Aryan Brothers employ brutality internally to maintain discipline. Art Clayton, a prosecutor in Fort Worth who's handled some gruesome ABT attacks, thinks they're drug-crazy.
ARTHUR CLAYTON: When you read the cases, it's violence for the sake of violence. It doesn't have as much rhyme or reason to it. And I think on that, methamphetamine plays into it quite a bit.
BURNETT: You're about to hear an example of this ultraviolence, and it's not nice. We're including it so you'll understand why a federal task force made up of 20 local, state and federal agencies spent six years pursuing this group. Burns describes how he removed an ABT tattoo - or patch - from one of his associates who Burns believed had talked to the authorities.
BURNS: That patch on his side - I burned it off.
BURNETT: With the blowtorch.
BURNETT: What was that like?
BURNS: It stinks. It's your skin. It catches on fire. Your grease in your body - and on that side, there's a lot of fat there, so...
BURNETT: You're kind of smiling when you say that.
BURNETT: Doesn't the memory bother you?
BURNS: Not at all. What he did, he - if you snitch or you do something else, you're going to get it, you know? And it's going to be bad.
BURNETT: James Burns got 20 years in prison in part for this assault. His victim survived torture only to be murdered later in a separate incident. Burns is now in a state prison in South Texas finishing a parole violation before he transfers to the federal system.
The remarkable thing about this case is that more than half of all the defendants cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for leniency. They snitched against the family, a betrayal punishable by death in the gang's harsh code of justice. Such is the hatred of informants that Burns has a tattoo on his neck of an ABT general who testified for the government. His nickname, Terry Littlewood Sillars, is spelled out hanging from a gallows.
BURNS: Littlewood hung his self to me. He was my friend, my brother. He did the cardinal sin to the Aryan Brotherhood. He gave up state's evidence to get out of trouble.
ALLEN DARILEK: They just decided the gang life wasn't for them.
BURNETT: Federal prosecutors declined to comment for this report. But Special Agent Allen Darilek of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was an investigator on the task force.
DARILEK: Well, I think they're getting older, and yes, some of them have kids. I think also some of them were looking at the charges that we had against them and decided that maybe they didn't want to spend every last minute of their life in jail.
BURNETT: You might ask, how do you dismantle a prison gang by sending the members back to prison? Mike Squyres, a gang investigator at the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston, says the key is that these defendants got time in federal prison, not in Texas prisons where they thrive.
MIKE SQUYRES: The whole federal thing can have a real punch. Not only are they going to do way more time than they would do in the state's system but I think all over the United States. So yeah, if you do get sent to New York in the federal penitentiary, there may only be one other Aryan Brotherhood of Texas member.
BURNETT: Back in the prison visiting room, James Chance Burns is asked if the racketeering convictions have decimated the Aryan Brotherhood as the feds say.
BURNS: No, the family's not in chaos. No, we're not worried about nothing. You've got - you're helping us get rid of our trash. If they're going to talk, we don't want them in the family.
BURNETT: From the cops perspective, it's a respite, says one investigator. We can exhale for a minute, and then the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas will start growing again. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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