But they knew what the tall, mustached convict represented. He carried with him a blown-up version of "the brand," a tattooed outline of a shamrock that stretched across his broad, pale chest almost from nipple to nipple.
The tattoo was an ostentatious testament to McElhiney's full membership in a prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood.
Keith Segien, a 32-year-old Floridian, was one of about 100 inmates in the lower tier of cellblock B when McElhiney arrived. Segien had been running an ongoing poker game. It soon drew the attention of his new neighbor.
In a Topeka courtroom five years later, Segien testified that McElhiney came to the door of his cell and told him to sit down. Segien said when he declined, McElhiney insisted: "If I wanted to get you killed, you'd have been killed by now."
Segien sat. "What's this you have a problem with the AB's running the poker game?" McElhiney asked.
"It's just been a players' game," Segien explained. "We don't need nobody to run our game and take a 10-percent cut."
"Well, I'm here to make money, and I'm taking over the poker game, the drug business and the football tickets," McElhiney told him. "Have you got a problem with that?"
"No, I don't," Segien responded. "I gave it up that day," he testified.
Segien could hardly be blamed for acquiescing so easily. He knew about McElhiney.
"He [McElhiney] was calling shots for the Aryan Brotherhood," a Leavenworth inmate named Allen Hawley testified during the same proceeding. "He was the boss of our group of people that we hung out with and did business with.... He was the boss of the white people."
The Aryan Brotherhood bossed more than just the white people and controlled more than just Leavenworth. By the time Segien and McElhiney had their chat, the Aryan Brotherhood had spent 30 years building a reputation as one of the most calculatedly violent organizations inside the nation's prisons -- or outside them.
An FBI agent acknowledged under oath in 1999 that the Aryan Brotherhood amounted to only one half of 1 percent of the federal prison population. But its members were responsible for 25 percent of the violence in federal prisons.
Now federal prosecutors want to end the long reign of the Aryan Brotherhood. On August 28, 2002, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner indicted forty people in a California court under the same racketeering statutes that have been used to bring down Mafia bosses. Twenty-three of the defendants could face the death penalty.
"I suspect they may kill more [often] than the Mafia [does]," Jessner told David Grann in a February New Yorker article that laid out the case. "I think they may be the most murderous criminal organization in the United States."
The New Yorker piece describes the surprise roundup in December 2002 of 29 suspected Brotherhood members being housed in prisons and jails from Pelican Bay, California, to Concord, New Hampshire. It charts the evolution of the Brotherhood from a clutch of California state prisoners who united for protection to a hierarchical organization that controlled the nation's maximum-security prisons from the inside. And it tallies scores of murders allegedly ordered by the Aryan Brotherhood leadership -- killings of rival gang members, blacks, homosexuals, child molesters, snitches and inmates who owed them money or stole their drugs, even prison guards.
The effect was to gain the Brotherhood a reputation so vengeful that its 100 or so full members could control thousands of murderers, rapists, drug dealers and robbers.
That control has waned over the past decade as Brotherhood leaders have been further isolated in increasingly secure state and federal institutions. And if Jessner succeeds, it faces the prospect of oblivion.
Some of the seeds of the group's ultimate downfall were sown at the federal prison located about 30 miles northwest of Kansas City. The evolution of the Aryan Brotherhood in Leavenworth -- from an emerging California import to a vulnerable criminal syndicate -- can be seen in hundreds of pages of court documents in the clerk's office at the U.S. District Courthouse in Topeka. The records are an account of the three trials of suspected Brotherhood member Michael McElhiney, who represented himself in court and was ultimately convicted of distributing heroin at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. McElhiney and a colleague, David Sahakian, cranked up a criminal operation inside Leavenworth, only to see it dismantled after the two men reached a little too far, sanctioning the first-ever murder in Leavenworth's "hole."
For Jessner and the other feds seeking to destroy the Brotherhood, the McElhiney cases in Leavenworth turned out to be important steps in the nationwide crackdown of the notorious prison gang, and they will provide key evidence in the California trial. But the difficulties for prosecutors in the cases -- it took three tries to nail McElhiney for his dope ring -- show how tough it is to eradicate a powerful syndicate that has had its way in prisons for decades.
The Aryan Brotherhood emerged in the 1960s at Californias San Quentin State Prison. The cadre of long-haired bikers and neo-Nazis with swastika tattoos organized to counter the newly formed Black Guerrilla Family, a violent group of African-American prisoners.
Lacking the strength of numbers, the group leveraged the extreme loyalty of its members, who followed the motto "Blood in, blood out." True membership was achieved only when an inmate killed somebody. And it ended only when the inmate himself died.
"It's not that there's necessarily a lot of them. It's just that they are crazy," one former federal inmate tells the Pitch. Brotherhood members were known for extreme reactions to insignificant slights. Stepping in front of a Brotherhood member in the chow line might be countered by an attack with a Master Lock in a sock.
But seemingly irrational violence had a tangible result: increasing power for the gang.
"There's white prison gangs, but they're the most prestigious one out of the whole group and the most respected one and the most feared one," Hawley testified. "And they have more influence on anybody in that area."
Hawley was among the Aryan Brotherhood devotees who couldn't claim full membership in the group but lingered around its members like adoring groupies.
"It's like, I guess, a Mafia thing, where it takes a long time to actually be a brother," Hawley explained in the Topeka courtroom. "You can be hanging out and associating and involved in every kind of action that's going on, but you're not actually a made member."
McElhiney was not pioneering new territory when he arrived at Leavenworth. By then, the Aryan Brotherhood had a long tradition at the Hot House, a nickname the prison had earned for the stifling heat that fermented in its long, poorly ventilated cellblocks.
Over the years, the Aryan Brotherhood had promulgated itself throughout the California state penal system and then the federal system as its members were transferred among institutions. They found fertile ground at Leavenworth.
Opened in 1906, it was the nation's first federal prison. It remains a heavily used maximum-security destination for problem inmates. But unlike prisoners in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, and the 10-year-old ADX "super max" in Florence, Colorado, Leavenworth's convicts are not locked in their cells 23 hours a day.
The facility employs just 300 corrections officers to look after 1,800 inmates, most of whom have the run of what amounts to a walled city. According to court testimony, 70 percent of the inmates have jobs. Most work for one of the prison industries -- the furniture plant or the printing operation. Others have qualified as plumbers or carpenters and work to keep the antiquated facilities operational. Meanwhile, an army of inmate orderlies cleans the buildings and polices the grounds.
Except for a 4 p.m. cell count each day and the 10 p.m. lockdown, there is relative freedom within the walls. But that freedom equates to danger for the men inside. The movie theater, basketball courts and miniature-golf course, along with the long corridors and cellblock television rooms, are places where the strong can prey on the weak.
"At Leavenworth, you can't hide out," says Charles Dedmon, an assistant federal public defender assigned to the U.S. District Court of Kansas. Dedmon has represented several Leavenworth inmates, including suspected members of the Aryan Brotherhood. "The concept of 'I' is different. It's not 'I.' It's whoever you are riding with."
The general population of Leavenworth is strictly divided by allegiances to prison gangs, the boundaries of which are never more apparent than at mealtime, the FBI's Dennis Conway explained to the Kansas jury. Each gang occupies a regular set of tables in the spacious cafeteria. "The Mexican Mafia sits here. The Black Guerrilla Family sits here. The Aryan Brotherhood sits here. The Dirty White Boys sit here," Conway said, gesturing to different spots on a diagram of the cafeteria. "They move together. They go out on the yard together. That's how they associate."
The primary division within the federal system is by race, Dedmon tells the Pitch. "If you're black, your friends are going to be black. If you're white, your friends are going to be white." But remaining unaffiliated is difficult.
"You gotta find friends," Dedmon says. "If you are the kind of guy who likes to get along with everybody, you are going to have enemies everywhere."
Prison administrators have learned how to use the gang structure, calling in leaders to brief them on policy changes or to intervene when a fight between two inmates threatens to escalate.
But when one gang seizes too much power, there can be problems.
"You want a balance," says a retired corrections officer, who spoke about his twenty years as a federal corrections officer, including ten at Leavenworth, on the condition he not be named.
When the officer started working in the federal system in the early 1980s, the Aryan Brotherhood had assembled a systemwide power structure, from which it controlled a number of illegal rackets. It trafficked in contraband such as drugs and alcohol. It pimped for inmates who served as male prostitutes. It extorted money, ran gambling operations and arranged for killings.
"The Aryan Brotherhood was in control," the officer says. "It was out of balance ... "
Without a true rival, Brotherhood members believed they could get away with anything.
In 1983, two Aryan Brotherhood members took that belief to an extreme at Marion, killing two corrections officers on the same day.
The former corrections officer tells the Pitch that a similar plot at Leavenworth was discovered by chance when a window that had been chipped out of a concrete wall fell to the floor inside the penitentiary's Special Housing Unit. The SHU, which inmates call "the hole," is a sort of jail within the penitentiary, a place where inmates who fight or steal or drink homemade booze are sent to be locked down 23 hours a day and kept from consorting with fellow inmates.
The ensuing investigation uncovered a plot by a few suspected Brotherhood members that was to include an attack on a corrections officer and an escape.
The incident changed the relationship between the Aryan Brotherhood and the officers and administrators at Leavenworth. "It became a personal thing," the corrections officer says. "Before then, it was inmate on inmate. As long as they were attacking each other, it's kind of OK."
The offending Brotherhood members were shipped out to Marion or the then-new ADX super max in Colorado. By the time McElhiney arrived in the fall of 1994, the organization's control at Leavenworth had waned.
The two known Brotherhood members were Thomas Silverstein, one of the guard killers from Marion who was locked in a specially made cell in the SHU, and Mark Nyquist, who was physically imposing -- he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 240 pounds -- but was not the most active member of the gang.
The Brotherhood shot caller -- McElhiney -- who came through the three gates at Leavenworth was much more motivated. He had just come from Marion, leaving behind two of the senior leaders of the Brotherhood, Barry Mills and T.D. Bingham.
Having quickly straightened out the gambling operation, McElhiney turned his attention to the much more lucrative drug trade, according to Allen Hawley, who said McElhiney asked him to help put together "a complete operation -- getting it in, packaging it up and selling it to other inmates."
Hawley says he was ordered to find "mules," inmates who had regular visitors and might be coerced into having them smuggle drugs into the prison. The group planned to concentrate on heroin, which was popular with the inmates, was potent and carried a huge profit margin.
FBI agent Conway helped work out the math on heroin during McElhiney's first trial. According to Conway, a gram of heroin could be had for about $65 on the street. Inside the walls, that gram could be divided into ten "papers" that could be sold for $100 apiece. Cash never circulated inside Leavenworth. Instead, money was exchanged between family members and friends on the outside.
Inside, the black heroin would be melted over a flame, drawn through a cigarette filter and injected using stolen syringes or homemade ones crafted from broken needles and Bic pens.
Hawley estimated that McElhiney had 20 to 25 people working for him.
They included Donna Stauffer, a Topeka woman who testified against McElhiney. Stauffer said she was introduced to Leavenworth inmate Carl Lockhart through a friend who had been visiting another inmate at Leavenworth.
"I had asked if there was anyone that was lonely and wanted to visit, and that's how I was introduced to Mr. Lockhart," Stauffer testified at McElhiney's second trial. The two exchanged letters and visited a few times before Lockhart suggested a way Stauffer could earn some extra money.
Then a package arrived at her house filled with 15 gumball-sized balloons. As instructed, Stauffer said she would visit Lockhart with four or five balloons in her mouth. She would pass the balloons to him during their hello kiss. Lockhart would swallow the balloons, expecting to retrieve them in a day or two.
Lockhart warned her against talking about what she was doing. "He had told me to make sure that I didn't mess up or chat with anybody, because I could get hurt," she said. "And I had asked him who this person was, and he says, 'Well, I'd rather not give no names, but let's just say the gentleman's name is Mac,' and the conversation then was changed."
In this way, a visit at a time, she unloaded the first package and then two more, one with 20 balloons and another with 15, earning $1,000 that, like the balloons, arrived in the mail. Then a much bigger box arrived from Dallas. Inside, packed in Styrofoam and wrapped in duct tape and cellophane, were 150 tiny balloons.
This time, she opened one and found it to be filled with what she knew to be heroin. "It was kind of black and brown, dreary, sticky and it stunk," she testified. The realization ended Stauffer's smuggling career.
"I packaged it back up, and I crossed my name and address off of it best I could," she said. "I took it and I drove around until I found a blue mailbox that I could stick it into, and I shoved it in there and I drove away and left it."
Stauffer testified against McElhiney in exchange for immunity from prosecution for smuggling drugs into Leavenworth.
McElhiney found another willing smuggler in Walter Moles, a bank robber who came to Leavenworth by way of the federal prison in Atlanta in the spring of 1995. Moles' father was sick with emphysema and needed money, and Moles had a drug habit of his own.
According to prison etiquette, the mule was entitled to a third of what he brought in. Like Stauffer, Moles' father received a package in the mail, the contents of which he dutifully brought through security at Leavenworth in his underwear.
Moles said he was told that the 12 grams of heroin would be packaged in six 2-ounce balloons. He instructed his father on what to do based on that assumption.
"I told him to go to the bathroom and take two of the balloons and put them in his mouth and, when he come back, to take a drink of his coffee and just spit them in his coffee," Moles testified. "And then I'd pick his coffee back up and drink it.
"He told me he couldn't do that," Moles continued. "And I said, 'Dad, what do you mean you can't do that?' And he said, 'Son, that wasn't six marbles ... It's one great big one."
Moles' father managed to splash the pingpong-ball-sized balloon into the coffee cup without being seen. Moles made a game effort to choke it down but failed.
Seeing a line of inmates and visitors occupying the two corrections officers, Moles slipped the balloon into his sock and told his father their visit was over, promising to throw the balloon in the trash if he didn't think he could get it out of the visiting room. "Of course, I had no intention of throwing it in the trash can," Moles said. "I just told him that to make him feel better."
Unable to swallow the balloon, Moles was left with only one other method of getting it through the post-visit strip search, a method he explained in court when McElhiney cross-examined him.
"At that point, I walked to the back of the visiting room and got in line to be strip-searched. I untucked my shirt before I got up out of the chair and then when I stood up on the wall I got the balloon out of my sock and started trying to tuck my shirt in. And it was at this point that I attempted to keister it the first time, or stick it up my rectum. And I was having trouble doing that. I couldn't get it up there until I bent my knees a little bit, and then finally it slipped up there."
"No lubrication whatsoever?" McElhiney asked.
"How deep of a knee bend was it?"
Though Moles said his father got some money, Moles himself never got his cut. Instead he was beaten up next to the miniature-golf course for bragging that he was bringing in heroin for the Aryan Brotherhood.
Compared to Charles "Bubba" Leger, Moles got off easy.
Like Moles, Segien and Hawley, Leger was not a full member of the Brotherhood. He clung to them for protection and made himself useful inking the dark, shirt-sleeve-length tattoos that long-term prisoners tend to accumulate.
But Leger was involved enough in the gang's activities to be useful to prison authorities. And David Sahakian had become convinced that Leger was squealing to someone.
Sahakian arrived at Leavenworth a few months after McElhiney. According to prison officials, Sahakian was at least equal in rank to McElhiney and was to become part of the three-man commission that ran the Brotherhood within the federal system. There is no indication that Sahakian intended to interfere with what McElhiney already had going. But he wasn't a silent partner, either.
As part of the federal case, prosecutors plan to prove that Sahakian ordered Leger's killing. They say he found a willing executioner in Gregory Storey. Prosecutors allege that Storey was a hanger-on who wanted to earn his bones and seize full membership in the Brotherhood.
Storey doesn't deny killing Leger. He pleaded guilty to the crime and was called to the stand as part of McElhiney's drug trial to describe what happened in the SHU's abbreviated yard.
"I went out in the rec pen, and [Leger] was standing against the back wall," Storey told the jury. "And I said, 'What's up?' He says, 'Nothing.' I turned around and started walking away, and he bends down. I turn around and look, and he's digging in his shoe, and he comes up, and he had a shank. And I had a shank, too, and I pulled my shank out, and we clashed."
"And your shank just happened to be a 12-inch metal rod sharpened to a point," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Luedke prompted. "And his shank was a toothbrush?"
"Bubba wasn't very smart, was he?"
Storey stabbed Leger 15 times, continuing his attack even after corrections officers were within sight and rushing to the scene.
The killing apparently converted several other former loyalists into snitches. The men had seen what happened to someone suspected of crossing the Brotherhood.
Wasting no time, Hawley "checked in," contacting authorities only a few days afterward. "I didn't think Bubba should have got killed, but he died," Hawley explained. "So it wasn't like I had to do anything major to get killed."
Charles Moorman, who shared McElhiney's hometown of Sacramento as well as a cell with him at Leavenworth, came forward five or six months later at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. "I thought my life was going to be taken, too."
Steven Ritter, a 39-year-old bank robber from Washington state, had the same fear.
"The reason I flipped was because, you know, I was pretty sure I was being put in the hat by Dave Sahakian's accusations and Michael McElhiney," Ritter testified in Topeka.
"Put in the hat. What do you mean?" Luedke prompted.
"I thought I was going to be killed by these guys," Ritter answered.
Dueling felons, however, made the case a tough one to win, Luedke says. Although several gang members had turned on McElhiney and Sahakian in the wake of the murder, others brought to Topeka by McElhiney to testify stuck to the gang's party line and denied the prosecutor's allegations.
Ultimately, it was a collection of prison notes that won the case, Luedke says.
Like McElhiney and other suspected Brotherhood associates, Hawley was sent to the SHU immediately after Leger's death. The only way they could maintain contact with each other was through the messages that prisoners call "kites," delivered by cooperative orderlies.
Hawley had already turned snitch when corrections officers found a cache of notes in his cell. Hawley's stash included notes from both McElhiney and Sahakian acknowledging in heavy prison slang that they both used and trafficked in heroin.
"All we had to do was come back to the kites," Luedke tells the Pitch.
One note from McElhiney criticized Hawley for sharing heroin he'd managed to get into the SHU with a guy who offered a syringe and another who brought it to him. "You're going to bring the beast out of me and Dave," McElhiney wrote. "Fuck everybody except us, you hear?"
In another, Sahakian ripped Hawley for the way he was handling messages, failing to seal them the way Sahakian wanted. "You better wise up, foolio. This ain't time for your goofy ass behavior. D."
"So what he's saying there is I better straighten up," Hawley explained in court. "But you know, at this point I know I'm already ... I'm through. He's pissed at me."
Sahakian's message also included something of a bombshell. "I ain't puttin' up with Brand Biz being put on Broadway," Sahakian wrote.
The message was a warning not to publicize what the Brotherhood was doing.
"For the first time in this trial at Leavenworth ... people in the Aryan Brotherhood acknowledged the Brotherhood existed," Luedke says.
It took three trials to convict McElhiney of bringing drugs into Leavenworth and distributing them.
The first trial, in the summer of 1999, resulted in a hung jury. Luedke tells the Pitch the proceeding was complicated by a lone female juror who had fallen in love with McElhiney. But the second jury had trouble reaching a verdict when U.S. District Judge Richard D. Rogers chose poor words to encourage the indecisive jury to deliberate a little more. "The time and attention and the danger of this case has been, you know, a problem," Rogers said. "We've had security here that was just -- I said to somebody we could have fought the Russian Army head-on with what we've had here in this case."
The troubling description caused the resulting conviction to be reversed. Luedke finally secured a conviction the third time around, adding 30 years to the 21 years McElhiney was already serving.
Luedke decided not to push additionally for murder-conspiracy charges against McElhiney or Sahakian for the Leger killing, believing it would be too tough to make the case.
But that's exactly what Jessner hopes to prove in California. McElhiney's Topeka trials, however, shows the problematic nature of making criminal cases when all of the prosecution witnesses are rats who are testifying in the hope that the system will look kindly on their cooperation -- or at least keep them safe from harm.
In the aftermath of Leger's murder, McElhiney was sent to Marion, then bounced around the federal prison system until the December 2002 roundup. He's now at a holding facility in Los Angeles awaiting trial in the racketeering case Jessner hopes to present next year.
Meanwhile, the Aryan Brotherhood presence in Leavenworth has all but been eradicated, says public defender Dedmon and the corrections officer who agreed to talk to the Pitch. The one exception is a single Brotherhood holdover, the guard-killing Silverstein, who remains in an isolation cell. (Leavenworth spokesman Chris Zyche says that talking about prison gangs by name is against Federal Bureau of Prisons policy.)
"I'm not aware of any major crimes alleged to have been committed by the Aryan Brotherhood at Leavenworth or any of the other prisons since we took down our case," Jessner says.
Jessner won't identify which witnesses from the Kansas trial will recount their stories when he makes his arguments next year, but he tells the Pitch that proving the Leavenworth drug and murder cases will be a key part of his attempt to crush the Aryan Brotherhood once and for all.