Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He tracks hate groups, including the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.
A potential link to white supremacist prison gangs is being probed in the killing of a Texas district attorney and his wife in their home. Mike McLelland and Cynthia McLelland were shot dead inside their home just two months after Assistant Prosecutor Mark Hasse was gunned down outside the Kaufman County courthouse. The killings come just months after Texas warned of potential retaliation by the Aryan Brotherhood against law enforcement officials after 34 members of the white supremacist group were indicted. The murder of McLelland also comes less than two weeks after Tom Clements, the Colorado prisons chief, was shot and killed after answering the doorbell at his home. Two days later, the suspect, Evan Spencer Ebel, a former Colorado inmate and white supremacist, was killed in a shootout with Texas deputies. We speak to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who tracks hate groups. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Texas, where law enforcement officials are on edge after a district attorney and his wife were gunned down in their home Saturday night in what may be retaliation from white supremacist prison gangs. The attack happened in a rural area about 20 miles southeast of Dallas in the town of Forney in Kaufman County. The district attorney’s neighbor said he heard shots fired in the middle of the night.
MIKE GRIFFITH: It sounded like a high-powered rifle, you know, like an assault weapon or something like that. It was rapid fire, and I knew it wasn’t fireworks or anything like that. It makes me very, very angry, and also sad at the same time for these people’s loss right here at Easter time.
AMY GOODMAN: The murder of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia comes just two months after the county’s assistant district attorney, Mark Hasse, was gunned down as he walked from his car to the Kaufman County courthouse. It was McLelland, killed this weekend, who spoke to reporters after the attack on his ADA.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE McLELLAND: I hope that the people that did this are watching, because we’re very confident that we’re going to find you. We’re going to pull you out of whatever hole your in. We’re going to bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.
AMY GOODMAN: While officials have not confirmed a link in the two killings, investigators believe a white supremacist group called the Aryan Brotherhood may be involved. In November, 34 members of the Aryan Brotherhood, including four senior leaders, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Houston for racketeering. Soon after, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent a memo to about 5,000 prosecutors across Texas. It warned them the Aryan Brotherhood might be plotting retaliation against law enforcement officials. Mark Hasse was reportedly "heavily involved" in prosecutions of members of the group. And District Attorney McLelland himself had told the Associated Press the gangs had a strong presence in the area, saying, quote, "We put some real dents in the Aryan Brotherhood around here in the past year."
Meanwhile, the murder of McLelland and his wife comes less than two weeks after Tom Clements, the Colorado prisons chief, was shot and killed after answering the doorbell at his home in Colorado. Two days later, Evan Spencer Ebel, a former Colorado prisoner and white supremacist suspected of murdering Clements, was killed in a shootout with Texas deputies about a hundred miles from Kaufman County.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law center. The group tracks hate groups, and he describes the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or ABT, as perhaps the most violent white supremacist gang in the country. He’s joining us from Montgomery, Alabama.
Mark, welcome back to Democracy Now! So let’s talk about—
MARK POTOK: Well, thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what happened this weekend with the district attorney, McLelland, and his wife and then go backwards from there, the killing of his ADA, the prosecutor heavily involved in the investigations of the Aryan Brotherhood, and also what’s been going on in Colorado.
MARK POTOK: Well, it’s an incredible set of circumstances. As you’ve said, Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia were murdered over the weekend, on Saturday or perhaps Friday night. It sounds very much like an assassination. Their door was reportedly kicked in. There were all kinds of shell casings all over the floor. So, you know, it looks like they opened the door to a stranger and were simply murdered right there.
The remarkable thing, of course, about this is this came almost two months to the day after the January 31st murder of Mark Hasse, who was killed as he was going to work in the Kaufman County courthouse. He was in the courthouse parking lot, stepped out of his car and was shot by one or two men who appeared to have been wearing bulletproof vests, or some kind of tactical vest, and some kind of masks. So, you know, we have all that going on.
And as you say, the memo warned, from the Department of Public Safety in Texas, of retaliation from this incredibly violent group. I mean, you know, I should say, this is a group that at times, in disciplining people who are believed to work with law enforcement, have ordered people murdered and their fingers brought back as trophies.
So, meanwhile, then we have this whole other set of circumstances in Texas where it seems quite definite that the man killed in a shootout in Texas last week was in fact the murderer of Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. This man, this killer, Evan Ebel, was a member of another white supremacist prison gang called the 211 Crew.
So, you know, we don’t know at all that these—this whole set of incidents are related to one another, but they may be. It seems quite possible. These are two white supremacist prison gangs in states quite near to one another. They’re both heavily into running drugs. And they are both under very heavy pressure from both the federal government and local authorities. The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas went through, as you mentioned, a very serious indictment, 34 members looking at very serious charges just last fall, last November. And in the case of the 211 Crew in Colorado, they had had a major indictment way back in 2005. But in both states, this crackdown had been continuing, and it seems entirely possible that this is payback in some form.
AMY GOODMAN: On the same day that the Kaufman assistant district attorney—I’m not sure how to pronounce his name, Mark Hasse or Mark Hasse—was gunned down in broad daylight in January, his office was one of several credited with—in a Department of Justice announcement that two Aryan Brotherhood of Texas gang members had pled guilty to federal racketeering charges. The press release said the two had, quote, "agreed to commit multiple acts of murder, robbery, arson, kidnapping and narcotics trafficking," and had, quote, "met on a regular basis at various locations throughout Texas to report on gang-related business, collect dues, commit disciplinary assaults against fellow gang members and discuss acts of violence against rival gang members, among other things." Can you talk more about this case that this assistant district attorney was involved in and the past cases against the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, who they are? Are they just in Texas, or are they around the country? Who is the ABT?
MARK POTOK: Well, I frankly don’t know what Mark Hasse’s role was in earlier prosecutions. I know that officials in Texas have said that he was heavily involved, that he was a major player, particularly when he worked in another county as the head of the organized crime unit within the district attorney’s office.
The gang Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is, as I said, incredibly vicious. It’s known to have committed more than 100 murders and 10 kidnappings, going back to when it was formed in the early 1980s. Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is not actually related to the larger national group, the Aryan Brotherhood, which is another white supremacist prison gang. In fact, back in the early '80s when it was formed, a group of white Texas inmates actually asked the Aryan Brotherhood for permission to start a chapter of the group, and they were refused. They went ahead and started their own group, Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, anyway. You know, it's structured in some ways similarly to the larger Aryan Brotherhood. It’s got a paramilitary structure. It calls its leaders generals and majors and lieutenants and colonels and all that sort of thing. They’re heavily involved in running rackets outside of the prisons, although they are mainly in the prisons. They do this through a kind of elaborate set of codes, both verbal and written codes.
And the other thing I think that can be said about both the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the 211 Crew in Colorado is these are groups that used to be largely contained within the prisons but increasingly are spilling out onto the streets. Increasingly, we’re seeing these gangs exercise real muscle on the streets. You mentioned extortion. That’s something they do quite a lot of. And, of course, they also are extorting inmates within the prison system.
You know, one last thing I think that bears saying about all of these groups is that while they are certainly white supremacist, that is, in a sense, a kind of overlay. At the end of the day, they are fundamentally criminal enterprises. So these groups, while they have all kinds of, quote-unquote, "Aryan ideology" and so on, are very quick to make alliances with, say, the Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerrilla Family—in other words, non-white prison gangs—especially if it will help them in the running of methamphetamine and heroin and drugs like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, I want to ask you a little more about the 211 Crew. That’s the white supremacist prison gang linked to Evan Ebel, the 28-year-old suspect in the murder of Tom Clements, head of Colorado Department of Corrections, last month. Clements was gunned down when he opened his front door. Ebel was later shot to death during a shootout with police in North Texas. Can you talk about the size and reach of the 211 Crew, also known as the Aryan Alliance, its history in Colorado, the symbols it uses, its so-called "blood in, blood out" policy of membership, and why it’s even called 211?
MARK POTOK: Sure. The 211 Crew was formed back in 1995 within the Colorado prison system. It is still almost entirely limited to the Colorado system. I’ve seen estimates of anywhere from 200 to a thousand members. It has become increasingly a kind of savage enterprise. They’re very heavily involved in extorting inmates and people outside the prisons, as well, running drugs and methamphetamine.
The 211 name reportedly comes from the California code for robbery. And why that is, I can’t say. But apparently, you know, the larger Aryan Brotherhood was started in California, and it may be that the 211 Crew in some way were looking up to them. In any case, that is what the gang is like. It’s really quite something. They’ve—as I say, they’ve increasingly kind of spilled out onto the streets.
And now—they also had a major indictment brought against them back in 2005. Their leader and founder, a guy named Benjamin [Davis], at that point was indicted along with about 30 other people, and he’s now serving over a 108-year sentence for racketeering. Nevertheless, the thing that could be said at the end of the day is these groups have been incredibly successful at running criminal enterprises, not only within the prisons, but outside on the street.
AMY GOODMAN: And this "blood in, blood out" policy, what is that?
MARK POTOK: That is the idea that in order to get into the 211 Crew, you have got to go out there and either hurt someone or actually kill someone on the orders of one of the leaders, the so-called "shot callers" or generals. That is what gets you into the gang. And blood out, of course, the idea is that you can never get out of the gang; only by dying can you leave this gang.
211 Crew is really known for enforcing these rules, in the sense that when 211 Crew members leave prison, they are required absolutely to go out onto the streets and to "earn," quote-unquote—in other words, to engage in various kinds of crimes to bring back money that will ultimately end up under the control of the imprisoned leaders of the gang. And if a member goes out there and refuses to do something like that, it is very likely that the shot callers in prison will send someone after you and have you seriously hurt, if not worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, can you talk about whether the white Aryan groups are increasing since President Obama was first elected?
MARK POTOK: I’m not sure that that’s happening as a result of Obama’s election. It is certainly true that hate groups outside the prisons have grown, along with other kinds of radical right groups, I think in large part as a reaction to Obama’s election and re-election, the kind of demographic change that represents in the country. But the prison groups seem like a different animal to me. I don’t think they’re so much related to what’s happening politically in the country as they are to their own growth as criminal enterprises.
You know, what I think one of the remarkable things is, when you look at prison gangs, how widespread they are, how they’re really shot through the federal system, as well as many, many state correctional systems, and the increasing power they seem to have. And, you know, I think, at the end of the day, that’s what this incredible set of murders, of assassinations, in both Texas and Colorado, says. You know, we don’t know, obviously, who carried them out, but they certainly seem to suggest that these gangs are more brazen really than they’ve ever been.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mark Potok, you have this incident in Memphis this weekend. Klan members, what, around 60, 75 of them, KKK, held a rally, and they were protesting the renaming of three parks. The old names were Confederate Park; Jefferson Davis Park, who was of course the Confederacy’s president; and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, named for a Confederate lieutenant general and the Klan’s first grand wizard. The city was changing the names of all three parks—the new names Memphis Park, Mississippi River Park and Health Sciences Park, but apparently the city council may change those, as well. The significance of this rally?
MARK POTOK: Well, the real significance was especially to Memphians, to people who live in Memphis, who were, I think, very uptight about this rally, in large part because there was a fairly major Klan rally in Memphis back in 1998 that ended in a lot of violence, basically between anti-racist counter-protesters and the police. So what happened this Saturday was an absolutely massive police presence in Memphis that really put the lid on everything. I think there were quite a few complaints from the counter-protesters that they were not even allowed close enough to the Klan to hear what was being said. In any case, you know, it was quite an event, I think. People came from all over. There were somewhere about in the order of 1,300 counter-protesters versus about 60 Klansmen. You know, so, I think in the end it turned out all right, but I do think there was a lot of frustration on the part of anti-racists who traveled from all over the country to be in Memphis to protest the Klan and then were kept so far away that many of them felt that, you know, this was not democracy in action.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Mark, we do have to be clear that the murders of the Texas district attorney, McLelland, and his wife, we have no idea who committed them, just as we don’t know who committed the murder against his ADA, Hasse in—as well, although he was gunned down on his way to the courthouse, and he was deeply involved in investigation of the Aryan Brotherhood. So we don’t have any—we don’t really know about the connections right now.
MARK POTOK: That’s right. I mean, it’s a set of incredibly intriguing or suggestive circumstances. That’s really what it is. I mean, but the fact of the warning, the memo from the Department of Public Safety suggesting that there were hits planned or retaliation planned, all of that, along with the fact that these two men in the very same county, an assistant district attorney and his boss, were murdered in really execution-style killings, really does make you think twice.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, I want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tracking hate groups, including the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, speaking to us from Alabama.
MARK POTOK: A real pleasure. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Mark. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about the case of Duane Buck, on death row in Texas. Interestingly, a former governor of Texas as well as one of his prosecutors are saying he should not be given the death penalty. We’ll find out why. Stay with us.
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