Las Vegas Sun

March 24, 2019

Currently: 55° — Complete forecast


If a recent federal indictment proves accurate, what the Aryan Warriors do behind bars is as bad as - or worse than - what the white supremacist gang members did to be imprisoned in the first place.

Six years after Nevada officials turned to federal investigators for help in controlling the gang, the ongoing crackdown resulted in a July 10 indictment charging 14 gang leaders, members and associates with running a racketeering enterprise that committed murder and other violence, trafficked in drugs inside and outside the prison system and corrupted corrections officers to help them gain control of prison yards.

Law enforcement authorities outside Nevada know little about the Aryan Warriors, a gang that operates solely in the state and is not affiliated with national white supremacist prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood.

But in Nevada, the Aryan Warriors have a notorious reputation dating to their creation in the early 1970s.

Established to protect inmates who were promoting white separatism in the prison system, the gang eventually progressed to importing drugs and other contraband into the system for profit.

In recent months, the federal indictment alleged, the Aryan Warriors took the gang's message of racial purity and its operations to the streets of Southern Nevada, distributing methamphetamine and carrying out extortion plots.

What attracted the federal scrutiny, authorities said, was the Aug. 10, 2001, slaying of Jacob Armstrong, a 21-year-old Las Vegas man serving time for attempted murder in the robbery of a gas station at Charleston and Martin Luther King boulevards.

Armstrong, who had been incarcerated since the age of 15, was trying for weeks to become a member of the Aryan Warriors and persuaded prison officials to put him in the same cell with Paul Derischebourg, one of the gang's leaders.

But word had gotten back to Derischebourg and the Aryan Warriors that Armstrong didn't really share the gang's white supremacy ideology and that his interest in joining was a ruse to pump up his image in the dangerous maximum security prison.

Nine minutes after walking into the same cell with Derischebourg, Armstrong was stabbed seven times with a homemade knife. He died 11 days later from a wound that punctured his liver.

Derischebourg, who claimed self - defense, was convicted of his killing. He was sentenced to two life terms without parole.

Gerald Gardner, the Nevada attorney general's former criminal division chief who prosecuted Derischebourg, said Armstrong's slaying "literally lit up" the growing concerns about the Aryan Warriors in the prison system.

Gang members at the time brazenly attacked inmates in front of corrections officers and even attacked corrections officers, seemingly unconcerned about the consequences, Gardner said.

"There was a real sense after that murder that things had gotten out of control," he said. "This was definitely one of the more shocking crimes committed by the group."

Howard Skolnik, who was appointed director of the Nevada Department of Corrections in February, said : "This was a murder that was driven by instructions from the gang leadership . It was something we hadn't seen in a while."

Skolnik said prison officials had trouble getting a handle on the escalating violence of the Aryan Warriors .

"That's why we sought assistance ," he said.

The federal indictment charges the gang's current reputed leader, 39-year-old Ronald "Joey" Sellers, among other things, with conspiring to assault Armstrong. Sellers, who is serving a life sentence without parole for murder and other crimes, was shipped to a prison outside Nevada during the federal investigation. Though still in state custody, he is expected to be transferred soon to Las Vegas to be placed in federal custody.

Derischebourg, who no longer is thought to be an Aryan Warriors leader, was not charged in the indictment.

The federal probe has brought into focus the violent nature of the Aryan Warriors, a gang that although small in numbers - about 100 members - wielded much influence among the prison system's 13,500 inmates.

"They are minuscule, but they are very organized and disciplined," said Gardner, who prosecuted many prison gang crimes during his tenure in the attorney general's office, which ended last year. "The other gangs are afraid of them and respectful of them."

Gardner said some inmates and corrections officers think the Aryan Warriors actually help keep order among the other gangs and maintain a balance in the prison system.

Members, the indictment alleged, abide by a written manifesto that preaches "the supremacy of the Aryan race," maintain a code of secrecy over their activities and rise through the ranks by committing violence.

"These guys are pretty serious," said Joni Drahos, a senior corrections officer at the Ely State Prison, where nearly half of the gang members reside. "They're the most deadly of all of the groups. When they set their mind to do something, it's accomplished."

Prison officials did not want to specifically discuss other gangs in the system, but said they have linked roughly 3,000 inmates to what they call "security threat groups."

The Aryan Warriors, who also have a sizeable membership at the High Desert State Prison in Southern Nevada, have a well-defined chain of command that starts at the lower end with the recruitment of "prospects."

To become a member, a prospect must perform a "blood move," or act of violence, on another inmate at the direction of the leadership. After that mission is accomplished, the prospect is admitted into the gang as a "bolt holder" and branded with a lightning bolt tattoo on the inside of his left biceps.

A bolt holder can rise to the highest level of the gang, "horn holder," by committing a more severe act of violence, including murder. Horn holders are identified by a tattoo on their upper left chest that resembles a Viking helmet and horns bearing the letters "AW." A council of horn holders, headed by a "supreme horn holder," run s the gang's daily operations.

Few people in Nevada know more about the rise of the Aryan Warriors than Bill Valentine, who worked in the Nevada prison system as a corrections officer from January 1978 to December 1997. For part of that time Valentine was a prison gang intelligence officer.

In his 1995 book, "Gang Intelligence Manual: Identifying and Understanding Modern Day Violent Gangs in the United States," Valentine said the Aryan Warriors were founded in 1973 by a "troublesome" Nevada inmate who had spent some time in the California prison system. The inmate brought with him the knowledge gained from his exposure to the Aryan Brotherhood in California.

The Brotherhood, though, refused to sanction a Nevada chapter. So the inmate and his friends created their own group at the old maximum security prison in Carson City, taking the name of the Aryan Warriors.

"Candidates were recruited from the yard: They were required to be white and preferably strong," Valentine wrote. "They were expected to stand up to the blacks and come out ahead no matter what had to be done."

As the Aryan Warriors grew in numbers, the gang's acts of violence increased, attracting more attention from prison officials.

The violence escalated with the Nov. 5, 1980, strangulation of 35-year-old inmate Danny Lee Jackson in a rest room at the Carson City prison. Jackson, described by Valentine as a "two-bit cheat" and an informant, was serving four years for possession of stolen property and forgery. He was two months from being released when he was killed.

Jackson was lured into a prison rest room, where he was surrounded by several Aryan Warriors hopefuls "eager to earn their horns ." A noose tied to a large pipe running across the rest room ceiling was thrown around his neck, and he was hanged.

His death led to a crackdown on the rising prison violence. Several Aryan Warriors cooperated in the state investigation, and ultimately three gang members were convicted in the killing, leaving the gang in disarray.

The gang, Valentine wrote, suffered a "contorted death in the 1980s," losing the respect of white supremacy groups across the country because of the way it crumbled under state investigation.

But it turns out it hadn't died .

When the Ely State Prison opened in 1989 and replaced the Carson City maximum facility, Drahos said, the Aryan Warriors set up shop, too.

Drahos witnessed the gang's rise to dominance at the turn of the century with new members calling the shots, including Sellers, whom she described as a strong leader but an "immature little punk."

As recently as a few months ago, as the federal investigation was winding down, Drahos said, the gang was trying to organize a riot over a prison rule requiring inmates to wear orange jumpsuits at all times during a prison lockdown.

The gang's status today, however, is in doubt as a result of the federal indictment of its top leaders.

"The leadership has been removed from the Nevada prison system," Skolnik said. "There's a vacuum at the top, and we're not sure how it's going to get filled."

Skolnik said prison officials have noticed some defections from the gang since the indictment, and they are watching closely to see whether any other gangs step in to fill the void left by the Aryan Warriors.

"They're as weak as they've ever been," Skolnik said. "But how weak that really is, I don't know yet. It's still playing out within our system."

Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, said authorities have yet to figure out a way to wipe out prison gangs.

"What you can do is minimize the harm that they cause by trying to inhibit their activities whenever possible," he said, "You can inhibit their ability to communicate with each other and plan activities."

But when authorities move on one prison gang, others often rise to prominence, Pitcavage said. That's what happened in California's prisons after authorities investigated the Aryan Brotherhood in the 1990s. Two other white supremacist gangs, Public Enemy Number One and Nazi Low Riders, stepped to the forefront. The Aryan Brotherhood, however, remains a force in the prison system.

Valentine speculated that the Aryan Warriors might actually gain strength here because of the federal indictment.

He said he doesn't see the gang collapsing as it did after 1980.

The circumstances are different now, he explained, because the Aryan Warriors have a structure outside the prison system.

Being targeted by federal authorities also gives the Aryan Warriors more stature , he said.

"No longer are they Nevada's cowboys," he said. "Being indicted by the feds gives birth to a following of wannabes, both in prison and outside. These persons will be anxious to do the bidding of the AWs."

Left unresolved by the indictment are allegations that the Aryan Warriors operated freely by corrupting corrections officers.

The indictment charges that the gang bribed officers to help them bring drugs into the prison system, obtain confidential prison records to extort inmates, and conduct gambling and other illegal operations that gave the gang control over the prison yards.

No corrections officers were charged in the indictment, but federal prosecutors said the investigation continues.

Skolnik, however, said prison officials do not think they have a pervasive problem with corrections officers on the take.

"We are still in charge of the Nevada Department of Corrections," he said. "We've identified a problem and we've addressed it. And we're not done yet."

Prison officials, who cooperated with federal authorities, continue to conduct their own internal investigation into ties between corrections officers and the Aryan Warriors and other gangs, Skolnik said.

During the investigation, he said, one corrections officer has been arrested and charged with drug trafficking, and another accused of wrongdoing has been fired.

Late last week, state investigators charged two more corrections officers with criminal wrongdoing. Patrick Ahching was arrested on charges of possessing and distributing drugs to an inmate, and Paul Chaffee was indicted on one count of battery with a deadly weapon stemming from an incident at the High Desert Prison.

"There are some of us who are weak and don't know how to say no," Drahos said. "But 98 percent of us are very upstanding. We do the best we can when we walk the yards with these guys."