Deep inside a hushed fortress at the edge of the Colorado Rockies, behind razor-wire coils and reinforced steel doors, one of America’s most feared inmates was being carefully watched.
There was little that T.D. “The Hulk” Bingham could do that escaped the attention of intelligence agents at the Supermax federal prison, the nation’s tightest lockup.
They feared that Bingham, believed to be one of the walrus-mustached warlords of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, might launch his soldiers into a bloody race war. They monitored his visitors, tapped his phone calls, studied his mail.
But in August 1997, an alleged order slipped out of Bingham’s cell in “the Alcatraz of the Rockies,” sneaked past impregnable walls and gun towers, foiled a network of cameras and surveillance lasers, and unleashed carnage at another high-security compound 1,700 miles away. At the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., Brotherhood members armed themselves with shivs and charged black inmates, slaying two.
Against high-tech scrutiny, prosecutors say, Bingham had employed a decidedly low-tech method, one used by spies in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army but which dates to the first century, when the Roman writer Pliny the Elder recorded its use: invisible ink. Prisoners make it from urine or citrus juice.
The Aryan Brotherhood’s arsenal of cloaked communication is central to the trial underway at U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, which started in March and is the first of several murder and racketeering trials targeting the gang’s alleged leadership.
To run their barbed-wire empire of terror, drugs and extortion, the government says, Brotherhood bosses improvised methods of smuggling messages while under constant surveillance in some of the tightest cages ever built.
They shouted through the pipes of drained toilets. They wadded up notes and slipped them into mop handles. They possessed an eclectic system of codes and cryptograms, and the gift of time to perfect them.
Federal prosecutors have introduced stacks of coded documents in the current case against alleged kingpins Bingham, Barry “The Baron” Mills and two lesser figures. The evidence includes a gang membership list encoded in a dual-alphabet cipher devised by Sir Francis Bacon and a call to arms embedded in the text of a library book on Napoleon Bonaparte.
The documents are crucial to the government’s case because they bolster -- or so prosecutors hope -- the testimony of its witnesses, many of them gang defectors, killers and practiced perjurers whose credibility defense attorneys have attacked.
The evidence also reflects how the gang has evolved, since its founding at San Quentin State Prison in the 1960s, into what prosecutors call a highly organized nationwide syndicate that relied on the quick, effective transmission of orders from its high command.
Still, the defense maintains that what prosecutors view as clear-cut physical evidence is ambiguous at best. Defense lawyers don’t deny that the Brotherhood sneaked messages back and forth but insist it was for the same reason that the gang made shanks: for self-defense in an environment where enemies far outnumbered friends.
To fool the Persians, the Spartans hid notes in the bellies of slain rabbits. Genghis Khan commanded armies by pigeon relays. Napoleon crushed enemies with the help of signal towers. The Allies won one of World War II’s key battles by cracking the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine.
And the government’s campaign against what it has called one of the nation’s most murderous prison gangs has played out, in part, on the field of cryptology -- as an extended duel between code-makers and code-breakers, between inmates devising ingenious means of smuggling messages and agents charged with thwarting them.
Dip a Q-tip in citrus juice, urine or bleach, write with it, and the resulting words will remain invisible until exposed to direct heat. Despite its ancient pedigree -- and easily available instructions in reference books -- the technique was obscure to Bureau of Prisons experts in 1997, when authorities say Bingham’s use of it blindsided them.
“We didn’t know that that existed at the time,” said Danine Adams, a prison agent who monitored the gang’s correspondence at the Supermax. She said it was likely that Bingham’s letter allegedly greenlighting the Lewisburg attacks passed right under a prison agent’s eyes.
From the prison in the Rockies, prosecutors say, the letter went to Ron Slocum, a Brotherhood courier on the streets, who in turn sent it to Al Benton, the gang’s boss at the federal prison in Lewisburg.
Benton testified that he received the letter, which carried an innocuous text in regular ink to mask its secret message, in the 4 p.m. mail Aug. 27. He and an underling heated it over a match flame, which brought the hidden writing into view:
“War with DC blacks, T.D.”
Defense attorneys do not deny that T.D. Bingham sent a message to Benton, who says he flushed it down the toilet. But they maintain that it merely warned about potential assault from the DC Blacks gang, rather than ordering an attack on it.
Benton said Bingham’s message was unmistakable: “It meant kill every black you can find. That’s exactly what it meant.”
The day after the letter arrived, Benton said, he and his underlings armed themselves with shanks and killed two black inmates.
While the current trial in Santa Ana involves dozens of killings or attempted killings over two decades, the Lewisburg violence is among the most notorious and best documented. It is also the basis for murder conspiracy counts against Mills and Bingham that make them eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
To Bureau of Prisons agents, the bloodshed at Lewisburg came as a particular shock, considering how closely they had been watching the Brotherhood leaders. In fact, just two days before the killings, Supermax agents believed they had outsmarted the gang, intercepting and decoding a handwritten missive apparently intended for Mills from Bingham.
“Bubba,” the plain text read, “Well I am a grandfather. At last my boys [sic] wife gave birth to a strapping eight pound seven ounce baby boy.”
Scanning the letter, agents noticed the numbers invoked the California penal code for murder, 187, and “baby boy” belonged to the gang’s known lexicon for a slaying.
“We figured we had stopped the trigger for the violence,” said Adams. But after the stabbings, “We knew that we had missed it. We knew that we had missed how the message went out.”
The Brotherhood guarded its secrets jealously. It forbade members to discuss gang business with outsiders, defectors say, promising death to those who even acknowledged membership.
With a mere 100 or so full-fledged members scattered in state and federal lockups nationwide, much of the gang’s power derived from its structure, with clear lines of command running from a three-man supreme commission to a handful of counselors, then to soldiers. Beyond them were legions of “associates” who could be threatened or enticed into service.
Al Benton, who allegedly was one of the gang’s commissioners along with Bingham and Mills in the 1990s, recently testified that the tiered system was meant to prevent “knuckleheads and idiots from doing things on their own” -- a way to channel the gang’s violence and to resolve in-house feuds.
A gang that aspired to the efficiency of an army had to communicate like one. While code-speak among inmates is as old as the first jail cells, prosecutors allege the Brotherhood displayed a shocking ingenuity and elaborateness. When prison officials took pains to isolate the Brotherhood’s leaders from each other, it delayed gang business but did not quash it for long.
Among prisoners, they were an uncommonly studious pack. They read Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” And they found new ways to talk.
If the Brotherhood had a code master, a one-man Enigma machine, it was the scraggly-bearded, slow-talking killer who wore the title of the gang’s Intelligence and security director.
McGinley joined the gang in 1996 and preferred working behind the scenes, rather than as a leader like Bingham and Mills, who were his fellow inmates at the Supermax. His interest in cryptograms began in boyhood, when he fished secret-decoder badges out of cereal boxes. In the Florence, Colo., lockup -- built in part because other prisons had failed to contain Brotherhood violence -- conditions posed a supreme challenge.
“Everybody’s under a microscope,” he testified in the Santa Ana trial. “Messages wouldn’t get from point A to point B if people could see the contents of them. So we used cryptography.”
Reading in his cell, McGinley said, he came across a 400-year-old method of secret writing devised by Sir Francis Bacon. Called a “bi-literal cipher,” it employed two separate alphabets. The A alphabet featured regular letters, while the B alphabet featured letters with tiny tails, loops and crosses. Combined in the dummy text of a letter, they translated into five-letter sequences, which in turn corresponded to individual letters.
“It seemed like it was good, because no one would remember it,” said McGinley, who introduced it to Mills. “We went over it and over it and over it.” Using the cipher, McGinley said, he encoded a roster of Brotherhood members within what appeared to be a reading list of obscure religious scholarship.
As racial tensions intensified in August 1997, McGinley testified, his coding skills played a key role in disseminating what he said was Bingham’s order to “sharpen the knives up.”
To get a message to gang member Kevin Roach in another part of the Supermax, McGinley used a pre-arranged method of circling letters in a library book that Roach would later check out. In this case, the book was “Napoleon Bonaparte,” and the message included the information that the DC Blacks gang had put a “hit” on gang members in the Marion, Ill., prison:
“Order lethal counteraction,” the assembled letters read. “Coordinating multiple simultaneous action. Your unit make preparations.”
In the run-up to the Lewisburg slayings, McGinley testified, he was also responsible for encoding the “Bubba” letter to Mills, at Bingham’s behest. Apart from the 187 reference, McGinley also embedded a bi-literal cipher that requested confirmation of the war against the DC Blacks.
Defense attorneys have suggested that the code master schemed to instigate the violence -- even writing the “Bubba” letter himself without Bingham’s knowledge -- as a way of consolidating his own power.
“You wanted a war desperately, didn’t you?” Michael White, Bingham’s lawyer, asked McGinley on the stand.
“Not at all,” McGinley said.
Still, McGinley acknowledged that he had plotted to murder Mills and Bingham, unhappy with their leadership. Disgruntled, McGinley defected from the gang in 1998 and became a government witness. Now, defense lawyers argue, he is abetting the government’s effort to execute them by lying on the stand.
Defense lawyers acknowledge that McGinley coded documents using the Baconian cipher but say he did it on his own. When officials searched dozens of Brotherhood cells in 2002, the defense likes to point out, they found no code keys that would have unlocked the system.
“The problem is, you’ve got a bunch of hard-core convicts that have no desire to mess around with a complicated code to communicate,” said H. Dean Steward, Mills’ attorney. “You’d need an advance degree to cipher one up and to read it.”
The ciphers represented “a device by McGinley, like these other rats, to hype up their testimony and to make it more valuable than it is,” Steward said. “It made a sexy little piece of evidence that prosecutors wanted.”
During the current trial in Santa Ana, prosecutors have not shied from cryptological drama. On a recent day, they called an FBI cryptanalyst, trained in code breaking by the National Security Agency, to describe how she used “frequency analysis” and “word pattern analysis” to break into the Brotherhood’s messages.
On another day, the government asked Danine Adams, the prison agent who monitored gang mail at the Supermax, to demonstrate how Bingham allegedly slipped a secret letter past security.
Taking the witness stand, Adams held a blank piece of paper before the jury. The previous night in her hotel, she explained, she had written on it using a Q-tip dabbed in her own urine.
Then, amid the stately marble of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, she flicked a lighter and waved it patiently under the paper. The judge had ordered the sprinklers turned off above jurors, to prevent them from being soaked should something catch fire. Finally, on the paper in Adams’ hand, the word “URINE” magically began to materialize.
It was sheathed in plastic and passed among jurors, who solemnly examined it. The panel is expected to begin deliberating by the end of July.