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Challenge in Aryan Gang Case: Witnesses

Times Staff Writer

Prosecutors seeking justice for Terry Lamar Walker in death found little good to say about him in life.

A convicted burglar, stickup man and bank robber, Walker spent much of his adult life behind bars. His killing in May 1999, at the high-security federal prison in Marion, Ill., was anything but discreet. A guard reported seeing one inmate grab the unarmed Walker from behind while another lunged at him, over and over, with a 4-inch shiv.

Prison officials soon found informers to explain why the 37-year-old Walker, who was black, had to die: He had made the mistake of scuffling with a white inmate. The Aryan Brotherhood, arguably the nation’s most vicious prison gang, was sending a message.

During a seven-month trial in Benton, Ill., the government called a procession of violent career criminals, including admitted murderers and perjurers, to build a case against the alleged regional gang leader, David “Big Dave” Sahakian, and two of his supposed assassins. After the jury deadlocked in March 2004 on murder charges, handing prosecutors a hugely expensive embarrassment, one juror offered this explanation: “The government’s witnesses were scarier than the defendants.”

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The Aryan Brotherhood is on trial again, this time in Orange County as part of a racketeering and murder case involving many of the same figures from the Illinois case. But this time, the aim is far bolder: Destroy the gang’s alleged empire of drug-trafficking, extortion and gambling by scything away its entire high command.

For two months, the two men prosecutors call the brotherhood’s supreme bosses in the federal prison system, Barry “The Baron” Mills and T.D. “The Hulk” Bingham -- along with alleged lower-ranked leaders Edgar “The Snail” Hevle and Christopher Gibson -- have been chained to the floor of a U.S. district courtroom in Santa Ana. There they have watched a stream of pale, bull-necked inmates -- their former friends and confidants -- take the witness stand with a clank of manacles and, one by one, turn on them.

The trial involves dozens of prison murders or attempted murders over two decades. Like the trial against Sahakian, it is a conspiracy case -- ostensibly a prosecutor’s dream, because it allows enormous latitude in presenting hearsay testimony.

But the dynamics that complicated the prosecution in Illinois -- a repellent victim and deeply compromised, even terrifying, witnesses -- suggest the shoals now facing the government as it navigates a vastly more complicated trial.

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“When someone like [Walker] gets killed, it’s not the same as a child or a mommy or an innocent bystander. It’s not going to resonate in the same way,” said Richard Sindel, who represented one of Sahakian’s alleged henchmen, Carl Knorr, in Illinois.

There are only about 100 members of the gang nationwide, the government says, but it is ruthless enough to dominate vast prison populations. As in Illinois, the defense team says the government’s current case stems from the fabrications of self-serving snitches. Prosecutors acknowledge that many of their witnesses have long criminal records but promise to present them “warts and all.”

*

Scotty Martin picked the fight.

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A Brotherhood errand boy and convicted bank robber, Martin overheard fellow inmate Terry Walker gloating about how blacks had trounced whites in a rec yard brawl. Furious, Martin sucker-punched Walker in the face. Walker, described by authorities as “the prison wimp,” fought back with surprising strength, twisting Martin’s Hammer of Thor medallion around his neck and leaving him humiliated.

For revenge, by Martin’s account, he turned to the Brotherhood’s alleged kingpin at the Marion penitentiary, David Sahakian -- a man said to mine Grey’s Anatomy as a murder manual and study Nietzsche -- and demanded Walker’s death. He said Sahakian had a firm position on such matters: “Any black inmate that put their hands on [a] white inmate is going to die.”

It was the morning of May 18, 1999, authorities say, when Sahakian sent Carl Knorr and Richard McIntosh to move against Walker. A prison guard said he watched Knorr grab the unarmed, 5-foot-6, 145-pound Walker in a full Nelson, spin him around and expose him to McIntosh’s thrusting blade. The knife, allegedly improvised from a light fixture, went in again and again, nine times. One jab went through his heart.

The government sought the death penalty against Sahakian, McIntosh and Knorr, accused of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Their trial began at the U.S. District Court in Benton in September 2003 under unusually tight security, with concrete barriers erected outside the courthouse and the defendants chained to the floor.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Carr told jurors that Walker was a casualty in a war between the Aryan Brotherhood and black inmates. “These people were traveling in a wolf pack, in a wolf pack looking for the weakest,” Carr said.

Jurors watched the government present a gallery of career criminals-turned-informants, who spent months recounting gruesome Brotherhood-related violence and the arcana of prison life.

Dewey Lee, a brotherhood associate and convicted bank robber, said the gang favored attacking its enemies at first light, a technique learned from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”

“It’s called ‘Catch them when their chi is low,’ ” he said. “You’re supposed to catch the enemy when his energy level is low.”

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Lee told jurors he helped stab an inmate and watched a Brotherhood associate gouge out his eye. Miraculously, he lived. His crime, Lee said, had been scuffling with Sahakian on the prison basketball court.

Defense lawyers argued that the Aryan Brotherhood represented a tiny fraction of the prison population, bound together for survival in a spectacularly violent climate. The defense sought to undercut the notion of a race war and argued that Walker instigated the fight.

During the trial, lawyers say, not once did anyone show up on Walker’s behalf. He was as unmourned in death as he was unloved in life. The prosecutor seemed keenly aware of the trouble presented by such a victim. He warned jurors not to think that “it’s just one scumbag killing another scumbag,” adding, “It is against the law to kill somebody whether you’re on one side of the bars or the other.”

Jurors deliberated eight days before deadlocking on murder and conspiracy charges, though they convicted Sahakian of possessing a knife in prison, which brought him a five-year sentence just as he was finishing a 15-year stint for felony possession of a firearm.

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“The government really didn’t have the kind of case for death that was going to go over in Middle America,” Sindel said. “If you’ve got a death case as a prosecutor, and you can’t even get a guilty verdict, you’ve got real problems.”

It is unclear what lessons, if any, government prosecutors learned from Benton. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment for this story, citing policy. Prosecutors appear to be offering a streamlined, speeded-up case in California intended to limit the jury’s exposure to compromised witnesses.

The defendants -- Mills, Bingham, Hevle and Gibson -- wear spectacles and handlebar mustaches that are white or graying. Mills and Bingham, the alleged kingpins, face the death penalty. “They’re a bunch of old guys trying to survive in a violent world,” said H. Dean Steward, Mills’ attorney. “That’s what strikes everybody when they come in that courtroom.”

The Brotherhood killed or assaulted inmates, the government contends, for grievances ranging from disrespecting the gang to cooperating with authorities. In one case, an inmate was nearly decapitated for hoarding drugs. In another, prosecutors say, a member of the gang itself was murdered for openly taking a male lover.

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The Santa Ana trial is the first of three targeting the Aryan Brotherhood leadership, which together constitute one of the largest capital cases in U.S. history.

Like the Benton case, the Santa Ana trial is playing out in a conservative area, which Steward said might help the defense insofar as jurors will perceive a shocking contrast between their environment and the violent world of prison, with its different rules of survival.

The government, which expects to rest its case by the end of the month, has called about 50 witnesses, among them prolific killers.

One hulking, aging gang member, Clifford Smith, who testified wearing a patch over an eye he lost to a spider bite, casually admitted to 21 murders.

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Some witnesses seem haunted. Under cross-examination, a former Aryan Brotherhood associate, Thomas “Buzz” Miller, described holding down the legs of an inmate while a confederate garroted him with a bedsheet.

“It was brutal, when I saw the light go out in his eyes,” he said.

Then Miller had a question for the defense attorney: Have you ever seen the light go out in someone’s eyes? The lawyer paused for a moment before answering. No, he was obliged to say, he had not.


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