A federal investigation into gang violence in Nevada’s prison system began in January 2004, but the actual drama did not begin to unfold until July 2007 when 14 members of the Aryan Warriors prison gang were indicted on a variety of charges, including drug distribution, extortion and murder.
The indictments named Ronald “Joey” Sellers (AKA “Fuzzy”), Daniel Joseph Egan (AKA “Dano”), James Milton Wallis (AKA “Gargoyle”), Guy Edward Almony and Ronnie Lee Jones (AKA “RJ”) as high-ranking leaders in the gang. Sellers, the most infamous member, was accused of killing fellow prisoner Anthony Beltran in 2006 and stabbing one of his own gang members in 2007. Prosecutors charged Aryan Warriors members in prison as well as several who had been re-leased.
The trial began on May 18, 2009, with heightened security and two unusual twists in court procedure. Fearful of retaliation against witnesses and jurors, the U.S. District Court issued a rare order allowing prosecutors to withhold the names of witnesses from defense attorneys until just before trial.
In the words of Judge Kent Dawson, “The court further finds that the [Aryan Warriors] are capable of locating the wit-nesses and carrying out such threats and assaults and that the witnesses cannot be adequately protected from physical harm if their identities are revealed well in advance of their anticipated testimony.” Judge Dawson also cited security reasons for withholding the identities of the jurors.
The defendants remained shackled during court proceedings after an FBI intelligence report alleged that gang mem-bers were planning “unspecified major disruptions” during the trial.
Members of the public attending the trial were not allowed to bring any electronic devices into the courtroom, including cell phones or laptop computers.
Defense attorneys argued that witnesses for the prosecution had incentives to lie in exchange for reduced sentences and special treatment. One witness who turned state’s evidence, Michael Calabrese, had originally faced state and federal charges for armed robbery. The state charges were dropped completely.
“His sentence could be reduced down to nothing,” observed defense attorney Osvaldo Fumo.
“He went from facing life without [parole] to being back on the streets.”
Hawaiian prisoner Michael Alvarez agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for hormone treatments. “All I wanted to do was get treatment for my gender disorder,” he said. “No one knows what it’s like to be a ‘Type 5’ transsexual.”
Alvarez was originally serving a 30-year sentence for attempted murder and robbery; he was sent to a Nevada prison in exchange for cooperating in a prison investigation in Hawaii. While in Nevada he was a leader in a Hispanic gang called Sureños, a rival of the Aryan Warriors.
In November 2006, Alvarez testified before a federal grand jury that Nevada prison guards had helped distribute sheets of construction paper saturated with methamphetamine for both the Sureños and the Aryan Warriors.
“[I]t would come in on a daily basis [through the mail], and we’d always, you know, send things to the other units ... and use COs, correctional officers, to do it,” Alvarez told the grand jury. He said the sheets sold for $75 to $100 each.
The most damning testimony came from Guy Almony, one of the original Aryan Warriors defendants. Shortly after be-ing indicted with the other gang members in 2007, Almony was attacked and stabbed by Sellers. State officials agreed to drop charges against Almony in exchange for his testimony against the gang, though they may not have anticipated his knowledge concerning the extensive involvement of their own prison guards in the gang members’ illicit activities.
According to a January 2008 FBI report, Almony implicated guards in almost every aspect of the gang’s crimes. He specifically identified five prison staff members who assisted in bringing drugs into the North Las Vegas Detention Center, and directed officials to a guard who smuggled drugs so he could feed his own heroin addiction. According to Almony the guard had a “heroin problem” and “would smuggle in anything for half the product.” Almony’s testimony was corroborated by another prison guard, according to a follow-up FBI report issued in February 2008.
Former Aryan Warriors leader Michael Kennedy testified that a guard would often bring compact disc cases filled with white powder and slide them under the cell doors of various prisoners. Kennedy reportedly had a dispute with the gang over money from a sports-betting operation, and was “blooded out” by other gang members who repeatedly stabbed him.
Guards were accused of opening doors for gang members so they could attack other prisoners, bringing in cell phones, and passing messages to Aryan Warriors members both inside and outside of prison. Testimony from one witness implicated guards in a prisoner’s murder; the witness said guards had ignored a written message about a planned hit on the prisoner’s life.
One guard was suspended after it was learned he received a tattoo from an incarcerated skinhead gang member. Another guard was accused of having sex with a prisoner, while several others were reprimanded. However, despite numerous verified accusations, no charges were filed against the guards identified by gang members. At the time of the Aryan Warriors trial, 8 of at least 16 guards implicated in helping the gang still worked for the state prison system.
In an earlier statement, Nevada Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Howard Skolnik defended the integrity of his employees. “Our staff does an incredible job with the resources it has,” he said, noting that federal officials had “not taken any action against any of our staff, which leads me to believe they don’t have any substantiation or there’s going to be another wave” of indictments.
“There might be superseding indictments down the road,” remarked FBI spokesman Dave Staretz. “This is not the end of the investigation.”
Those indictments might not be easy without cooperation from state prison officials, though. On April 28, 2009, the Nevada DOC moved to quash a subpoena from defense counsel in the gang members’ prosecution, seeking “the personnel files of correctional officers investigated about their conduct involving the Aryan Warriors,” claiming the subpoena was “overbroad and seeks confidential personnel information.” The motion was granted by the court.
On July 6, 2009, five of the Aryan Warriors gang members were convicted of multiple charges that included racketeering, firearms violations and conspiracy. In December, Kenneth “Yum Yum” Krum was sentenced to 292 months in federal prison, Charles Gensemer received a 35-year prison term and Robert Allen Young was sentenced to 17½ years. James Wallis had been sentenced a month earlier to 25 years in federal prison, which included 120 months to be served consecutive to his state sentence, while Michael Wayne “Big Mike” Yost received a 168-month sentence on March 17, 2010.
Seven of the defendants pleaded guilty and received prison terms ranging from five to 16 years, and in earlier proceedings Michael Kennedy pleaded guilty to RICO violations in a related case. Michael Calabrese accepted a plea bar-gain for felony gun possession and was sentenced to 15 years, while Ronnie Lee Jones was found not guilty. Aryan Warriors leader Ronald Sellers is scheduled to go to trial on January 10, 2011; federal prosecutors are considering the death penalty in his case.
Prison officials confirmed that six major “security threat groups” exist in the Nevada DOC. Of the state prison system’s 12,800 prisoners, roughly 4,000, or one-third, have been identified as gang members.
“We’ve started providing training to our staff about the culture and the behavior of these groups,” said DOC Director Skolnik. “And we’re acknowledging that it’s a problem, where in the past we tended to deny that these groups exist.” Apparently, though, Nevada prison officials continue to deny the existence of corrupt guards who assist incarcerated gang members.
Sources: Associated Press, FBI Press Release, Las Vegas Review Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Sun
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