Fort Worth

Tarrant County prosecutors take down top Aryan Brotherhood gangsters

Feds Dismantle Racist Prison Gangs

Prosecutor Joshua Ross talks about convicting Aryan Brotherhood leader James Byrd.
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Prosecutor Joshua Ross talks about convicting Aryan Brotherhood leader James Byrd.

James Lemarc “Byrdman” Byrd is a sadistic torturer and a bloodthirsty gangster obsessed with his allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

He once soaked a slice of white bread in blood from a victim’s stab wound, then ate it. Another time, authorities say, he stabbed a man 37 times and left him for dead. To show off his undying commitment even when sleeping, his eyelids are tattooed with Aryan Brotherhood symbols.

“This guy was like an episode of Sons of Anarchy,” said Tarrant County prosecutor Joshua Ross, referencing the popular TV series depicting the violent life of a California motorcycle gang. “He was a true believer. His dedication bordered on theology. For him, the brotherhood came first.”

Byrd, 45, is in prison now, convicted in Tarrant County of directing the activities of a street gang, also known as the kingpin statute.

This guy was like an episode of

Tarrant County prosecutor Joshua Ross

He is among at least 73 Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members who have landed in prison as part of a years-long federal initiative to weaken the white-supremacist gang that dabbles in drugs, extortion, robbery, identity theft and, if necessary, murder.

And while five generals — the brotherhood’s highest rank — were among those put away in federal penitentiaries in Texas, Byrd’s 50-year sentence was considered a major takedown.

“There was no more devoted person to the precepts of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas than James Byrd,” Ross said. “He was the highest-ranking person out of prison in this area.”

73Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members that have landed in prison as part of a years-long federal initiative to weaken the white supremacist gang.

Byrd rose to be a major in the gang during his previous time in federal prison. Some inmates complained about the power-hungry threats he would make in prison living areas. Other inmates were stabbed on his orders. Because of his violent behavior, he was moved from one federal prison to another, officials said.

Upon his supervised release in November 2013, he was ordered by leadership to oversee ex-cons, partly because of the organizational skills he displayed in prison — and because of his penchant for artfully-applied violence.

Case in point: Byrd took three selfies of himself covered in of blood to impress upon a backsliding member what a bad day with Byrd might look like. The member was not going to brotherhood meetings — called “church” — paying his dues or checking in with rank.

Byrd’s involvement in another case is what landed him back in prison.

On Feb. 1, 2014, Byrd had ordered gang members to kidnap Lovick Stikeleather for infighting within the gang, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Stikeleather was taken to a Tarrant County residence, where he was stripped of his clothes, tied up and restrained under guard for hours. When Byrd later arrived, the affidavit states, he assaulted Stikeleather with a gun, kicked him, and stabbed him twice in the shoulders.

Byrd also ordered Stikeleather to pay a $1,000 penalty per month for disrespecting him, the affidavit states.

Byrd then placed a piece of bread in Stikeleather's stab wounds to absorb the blood, then ate half of the bread and ordered Stikeleather to eat the other half to make a point about how brotherhood members should live, Ross said.

Stikeleather survived, but Byrd was arrested and then convicted in August.

“Byrd liked to say, ‘What’s hard for some is just right for me,’ ” Ross said. “That’s how he lived his life, and it made him very dangerous on the streets of Tarrant County.”

‘Scary as humanly possible’

Mark Potok, senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors domestic hate groups, said the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas had grown into one of the most dangerous and racist prison gangs in the state.

“The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was formed as an attempt to take back the prisons from black inmates” in the mid-1980s, Potok said. “Since taking back the prisons, the ABT has killed at least 100 people and conducted at least a dozen kidnappings.”

The group “made a practice of being as scary as humanly possible,” Potok said. “The gangs had to be outrageous in order to survive. As their violence increasingly targeted people who were not in the penitentiary, it got more attention from law enforcement and from people at large.”

A federal task force went after the group — including in Dallas and Tarrant counties — on charges including racketeering, conspiracy, murder in aid of racketeering, narcotics trafficking, assault in aid of racketeering, firearms offenses and obstruction of justice.

“Groups like the ABT are criminal street gangs operating in and out of prison, actively funding themselves through criminal acts like identity theft, car theft, prostitution and drugs,” said Sharen Wilson, Tarrant County district attorney.

North Texas, state and national law enforcement officials were recently honored by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for their efforts in going after the group, said Steve Lair, a Homeland Security investigator assigned to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas task force.

“Never before in the history of law enforcement has the RICO statute been used to take down the leadership of a large prison gang like this,” Lair said.

‘Trying to rebuild’

Potok said the convictions led to a major shakeup of the brotherhood.

“I think they have weakened the ABT quite dramatically,” Potok said. “At one time, Texas was thought to have more than 2,600 ABT members in and out of prison. Our best guess now is that membership is down to about 1,500 and getting smaller by the month.”

Lair agreed, saying that while the prosecution of brotherhood leadership didn’t put a stake through the gang’s heart, it did put a “dent in its command-and-control capabilities.”

Lair said that the group is slowly being rebuilt and that Byrd played a role in the recruiting of new blood.

“That was why James Byrd was sent out here,” Lair said. “They are trying to rebuild inside and outside the prison system.”

There have been some upticks in violence as the gang works through the restructuring process, prosecutors said.

“You get violence up and down the chain in organizations like this,” said Tarrant County prosecutor Lisa Callaghan said. “They are still really, really violent.”

They are still really, really violent.

Tarrant county prosecutor Lisa Callaghan

Said Lair: “I don't know of another prison gang that has been more willing to engage with law enforcement in violent confrontations.”

Violent history in Tarrant County

Because of their dense populations, Fort Worth and Dallas have long been hubs for Aryan Brotherhood activity. The gang is also strong in Southeast Texas and along the Interstate 35 corridor, from DFW to San Antonio.

The brotherhood has a long and violent history in North Texas.

▪ Suspected member Stephen Lance Heard was convicted of killing Fort Worth police officer Henry “Hank” Nava, 39, who was shot in the head while trying to enter a mobile home in November 2005.

▪ Two of the three men who killed Richard Eugene Warren, 48, of Johnson County in September 2011 were suspected members.

▪ Member Ronnie Paul Kappel was sentenced to life in prison in May 2012 for knocking his estranged girlfriend unconscious while trying to reconcile with her at a home in Haltom City. Prosecutors said Kappel had abused women for 20 years.

As they feverishly try to rebuild their command structure, the brotherhood’s criminal footprint has expanded outside of its traditional business areas, such as the methamphetamine trade and vehicle theft, Lair said.

That criminal reach has grown to include identity theft, truck theft and credit card fraud, prosecutors say.

Many brotherhood families have two or three generations in the gang, local law enforcement officials said.

Women are not members, but they support the criminal activities and are called “featherwoods,” said Art Clayton, Tarrant County prosecutor. They are active on social media in defending their gang.

Men who support the brotherhood but are not necessarily members are called “peckerwoods” and have constructed a subculture around the white-supremacist theology outlined in the brotherhood constitution, Clayton said.

In the neighborhoods where they live, their criminal activity often goes unnoticed until an arrest is made, Clayton said.

The Aryan Brotherhood’s criminal reach has grown to include identity theft, truck theft and credit card fraud.

Almost all the killings and torture the gang members have been involved in occur in residential areas, Clayton said.

Convictions in Tarrant County

Prosecuting members is often difficult. Members who talked to police often ended up dead, prosecutors said. Getting gang members and victims to testify remains difficult.

“I don’t know of one witness we had who was not concerned about their safety,” Clayton said.

Ross said that Byrd once stabbed a man 37 times in a drug deal gone bad. When asked to provide more information, the victim and an eyewitness refused to participate, Ross said.

Despite the reluctance of some to help, Tarrant County prosecutors have had their share of success.

In May, Callaghan and Clayton got a jury to convict Staten “Monster” Corbett Jr., a brotherhood member who lived in Haltom City, on a murder charge. Corbett, 48, was sentenced to 60 years in prison in May by state District Judge Scott Wisch.

Corbett’s victim, Earnest Lackey, 34, was beaten, choked, hogtied and then sodomized with a hot soldering iron in a trailer near Lake Worth after he failed to properly recite a brotherhood credo, Clayton said. Lackey’s decomposed body was located Aug. 2, 2012, in a rural area of northwest Tarrant County.

Clayton called the actions of Corbett “a diabolical separation from humanity.”

Trials are pending against Aryan Brotherhood members Nicholas Ryan Acree, 33, of Arlington and Charles James Garrett Jr., 30, of Fort Worth in the death of Bryan A. Childers, a north Fort Worth man who disappeared in April 2014.

Three other members and a woman have been charged with crimes related to Childers’ murder.

Acree and Garrett, who remain in the Tarrant County Jail, have also been charged in the Stikeleather case.

“The common denominator of their members is the racial ideology, but the function is criminal activity, and like the mafia or the drug cartels, they’re dangerous to anyone who gets in the way of that activity, regardless of race,” said Wilson, the Tarrant County district attorney. “It’s organized crime at its worst and most violent, and this office is dedicated to prosecuting these cases in all forms.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3