Every law enforcement agency in North Texas has descended on Kaufman County in the past several days following the murder of District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, at their home. The couple was found by a concerned friend around 6:45 p.m. on Saturday night, according to a search warrant obtained by WFAA. Both had been shot multiple times. Their killings come two months after Assistant District Mark Hasse was gunned down early one morning while walking from a parking lot to the courthouse. Witnesses to the Hasse killing reported one or two men, dressed in black and possibly wearing tactical vests, shot the prosecutor before fleeing in a dark brown or silver sedan.
There have been no arrests in the murders, and law enforcement hasn't publicly identified any suspects. But there's rampant speculation in the media that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT), a prison gang founded in the 1980s, is responsible for the killings, in retaliation for three dozen of their members being federally indicted last year. There's also a good deal of curiosity as to whether the recent killing of top Colorado prisons official Tom Clements is related to the Kaufman County murders. Clements was shot dead at his home on March 19; the prime suspect is Evan Ebel, a 28-year-old alleged white supremacist with a gang called the 211 Crew. Ebel was serving seven years for robbery, with time added on for assaulting a prison guard. He was accidentally released from jail four years early because of an apparent clerical error. Law enforcement officials believe that he may have murdered Clements before fleeing to Texas, where he subsequently died in a shootout with police in Decatur, about 100 miles northeast from Kaufman County.
As the buzz around all three murders continues to reach fever pitch, the Texas Department of Public Safety released their annual Gang Threat Assessment. The DPS found that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas' membership has increased, especially in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the ABT, along with a gang called Tango Blast, and one called the Bandidos Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, are the most prevalent gangs. DPS also reports a "consistent level of violence and other criminal activity" in the ABT. So what do we actually know about the ABT's structure and their violent history?
Although several media outlets have conflated the two gangs, according to reports from the Department of Justice and the FBI, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is distinct from the Aryan Brotherhood.
"They're definitely not the same group," says Mark Potok, the spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The Aryan Brotherhood was formed initially in 1964 in San Quentin. It went on to become a national group; they've got chapters all over and throughout the prison system, and maybe some people in the Texas prisons as well."
Aryan Brotherhood of Texas began in the early 1980s within the prison system here, Potok says. "It began with a request from some white Texas inmates to the Aryan Brotherhood to start a chapter in Texas and they were refused. We don't know why."
Instead, the ABT formed their own "entirely separate" group, Potok says, and "aren't particularly allies" with the AB.
When it was founded, according to press materials from the Department of Justice, the ABT was primarily concerned with "the protection of white inmates and white supremacy/separatism." ABT members referred to the gang, as they apparently still do, as "The Family." It eventually evolved into two competing factions, each with a rigid hierarchy, each headed by a "general." The five top ABT generals comprised what was called "The Wheel," or what federal court documents rather humorously refer to as a "steering committee."
Other ABT members were classified as majors, captains, lieutenants, sergeants-at-arms and, at the bottom level, soldiers. The feds say full membership is achieved by committing a "blood-tie" (an aggravated assault or a murder) on behalf of the gang. Blood-ties were also rewarded with a coveted ABT patch, which was usually decorated with a sword, a swastika and a crown, along with a lightning bolt design drawn from Nazi SS insignia. Tattoos of swastikas and other Nazi insignia are also reportedly popular within the group. The motto: "God Forgives, Brothers Don't."
The hierarchy within the gang is enforced with violence, law enforcement officials say, as is a rather strict rule against cooperating with law enforcement. One leader, Kelly Ray "Magic" Elley, 37, is said to have ordered the murder of a new recruit, with additional instructions to "make it as messy as possible" to discourage anyone from talking to the authorities. Magic is reported to have ordered the recruit's finger to be severed and returned to him as a trophy. In a separate case from 2010, three ABT members allegedly burned an ABT tattoo off another member with a blowtorch, to punish him for refusing an order.
Last year, the ATF believed there to be about 2,600 ABT members in Texas prisons and another 180 or so in federal prisons. Over time, as the gang grew, it also started to to branch out from the prisons, "expand[ing] its criminal enterprise to include illegal activities for profit," according to the DOJ, including drug dealing and racketeering. Women aren't allowed to be ABT members, but the ones who associate with the gang and commit crimes on their behalf earn the title of "featherwood."
We know all this because of a massive federal indictment level against 34 ABT members in November of last year. The members, who all went by nicknames ("Big Terry," "Chance," "Slick," "Tuff," and "Feathers," to name a few), were charged with a number of offenses including racketeering, assault, attempted murder and murder. Several were also charged with "conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute" meth and cocaine. The indictment was the result of a three-year investigation by the feds and Houston-area police. At the same time the indictment was handed down, 18 ABT members were immediately arrested, including six in Dallas. One of the arrested "majors" was based in Dallas; he's been linked with murder, kidnapping, arson, gambling and drug distribution.
At the time, the feds claimed to have "dismantled" the leadership of the organization. "A conscious effort was made to go after the worst of the worst," FBI Agent Stephen Morris said at a news conference announcing the indictment. "You've heard people talk about how, in order to kill a snake, you have to cut its head off and that's what this team has done."
But whether the ABT was involved in the Kaufman and Colorado killings or not, there's little doubt that they're still very much active in Texas. The DPS gang assessment writes that they're a "tier 2" gang. They're not considered a threat to the border area or border security, the report states, but are still "a prevailing gang that threatens Texas internally because of its involvement in violent crimes, the methamphetamine business and frequent property crimes."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
DPS also states that "some information regarding the gang's relationship with cartels continues to be reported." Law enforcement has been warning since 2010 that white supremacist gangs and Mexican cartels might be crossing their usually strict racial allegiances in order to traffic drugs. DPS states in their report that the relationships between Texas gangs and cartels continues to evolve, as gang membership in Texas as a whole continues to grow.
Lovely. Here's a copy of that enormous federal indictment for your perusal. We expect to have more for you on the ABT later this week.