A state corrections official in Colorado. An assistant district attorney in Texas. His boss, two months later. Since January, three justice officials in two different states have been shot and killed in violent assassination-style murders. All three men had been involved in recent attempts to break up white supremacist prison gangs—the Aryan Brotherhood in Texas and the 211 Crew in Colorado. Are the killings a sort of payback? And are they linked?
At this point, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the prison gangs were involved in these killings. The question of whether the Colorado and Texas murders are linked is a little harder to answer.
Let’s begin by noting that “prison gang” is a slight misnomer here. Though the Aryan Brotherhood and other infamous gangs were certainly founded inside prisons, they have long since extended their criminal operations—drug trafficking, extortion, other forms of violent thuggery—to the outside world. A 2006 ABC News story listed the Aryan Brotherhood’s priorities as “making money, exacting revenge, terrorizing the uncooperative and maintaining thriving criminal enterprises inside and outside of prison.” These gangs are tremendously violent—and, since their leaders are already incarcerated, tremendously difficult to control. They also have a history of retaliating against those who have wronged them.
In November, the FBI came down hard on the Aryan Brotherhood, indicting 34 alleged members on racketeering charges. One month later, Texas state officials announced that the Aryan Brotherhood was “actively planning retaliation against law enforcement officials.” One month after that, Kaufman County, Texas assistant district attorney Mark Hasse was shot and killed while going to work. (The Kaufman County district attorney’s office was part of the multi-agency task force involved in the crackdown.) On Saturday, Hasse’s boss, Mike McLelland, was shot to death at his house. His wife Cynthia was also shot and killed. There have been no suspects named in the Texas murders.
Evan Ebel, the main suspect in the recent murder of Colorado Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements, was not a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But he allegedly belonged to another white-power prison gang called the 211 Crew. Last week, the Denver Post published a two-part series on that group; in it, a source in the Colorado prison system speculated that “one possible motive for the Clements murder was the shuffling weeks earlier of top 211 Crew members” from one prison to another. (Moving gang leaders around from prison to prison is one of the only effective weapons that prison officials have against these gangs.)
It seems highly plausible that all of these killings were retaliatory. But were the Texas and Colorado murders coordinated and linked? The timing of these killings—and the fact that Ebel died in a police shootout in Texas, not far from Kaufman County—certainly makes it a valid question. Prison gangs do communicate with one another, but it takes a lot of planning to coordinate a multi-state law enforcement murder spree, and most gangs would see little upside in such a plot. But, then again, these aren’t most gangs.