SACRAMENTO — In the summer of 2016, Ronald Dean Yandell was as on top of the world as a man doomed to spend the rest of his days in a prison cell could be.
Prison officials, citing Yandell’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood, had kept him locked away in a modern-day dungeon; he had spent 15 years in solitary confinement at California’s most notorious and secure prison, Pelican Bay.
But in 2015, after statewide hunger strikes and lawsuits challenging the use of solitary confinement, Yandell was transferred to New Folsom prison in Sacramento. For the first time this century, he had a cellmate, relatively easy access to other inmates and he managed to get something else: a contraband cellphone, and with it the ability to reach like-minded gangsters throughout California.
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What followed, according to federal prosecutors, was an attempted takeover of the state prison system’s other predominantly white gangs, which has resulted in one of the biggest organized crime takedowns in California. Now, Yandell and 15 other accused Aryan Brotherhood members and associates are fighting federal charges, alleging five murders, four murder plots, prison drug trafficking and other crimes.
Other than Yandell, 57, the defendants are Danny Troxell, 66; Travis Burhop, 46; Brant “Two Scoops” Daniel, 45; Donald “Popeye” Mazza, 48; Pat “Big Pat” Brady, 49; Jason Corbett, 47; Matthew “Psycho” Hall, 48; Samuel Keeton, 40; Michael “Mosca” Torres, 55; Jeanna Quesenberry, 51; Kevin McNamara, 39; Kristen Demar, 44; Justin “Rune” Petty, 38; and Kathleen Nolan, 65.
Prosecutors allege Yandell and Troxell are part of the three-man commission that runs the California wing of the gang.
The case is moving forward, albeit slowly. On Wednesday, about a dozen of the defendants appeared in federal court as a group for the first time. They were shackled, chained to their desks and surrounded by a team of armed U.S. marshals, who escorted them in and out of the courtroom.
Wednesday’s hearing lasted about a half-hour, and each defense attorney was given an opportunity to bring up issues or announce what motions they plan to file.
Torres, an alleged Mexican Mafia member accused of heroin trafficking, successfully moved to become his own attorney, which will give him increased access to case evidence. Judge Kimberly Mueller granted Torres an attorney to use as an adviser while he represents himself.
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Corbett’s attorney, meanwhile, put forth an odd motion that his client be provided with special shoes to accommodate his “very unique foot,” explaining that Corbett has battled gout and other problems stemming from motorcycle injuries since his teen years. As a detailed description of Corbett’s foot was put onto the record, Yandell leaned over and began hysterically laughing, while the armed guards near him shifted nervously.
The group is due back in court on Oct. 23 in front of Mueller, who said she expects to hear a number of defense motions on that date. The defendants have all waived their right to a speedy trial, ensuring the early stages of the case will last for months.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty, with two notable exceptions: Nolan and Hall have not yet been caught, and authorities do not know where they are.
‘Build an army’
The charges against the group are largely built on a multi-week wiretap of Yandell’s contraband cellphone, in which he allegedly discussed previous murders that were committed on behalf of the Aryan Brotherhood, coordinated drug deals and “counseled, mentored, cajoled, berated and plotted to kill other members” of the gang, according to prosecutors.
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Prosecutors say Yandell spoke of wanting to “build an army” within California prisons, and forming a “new Aryan Brotherhood” composed entirely of hardened killers, with plans to force rival white gangs across the state to bend the knee.
He is accused of recruiting members of Public Enemy Number 1, or PENI, a white supremacist gang whose founder was stabbed to death last year on a prison yard controlled by the Aryan Brotherhood. He allegedly told others he learned that four other white supremacist prison gangs — the United Society of Aryan Skinheads, Wolf Pack, Golden State Skins and American Front — had all recently formed a secret alliance against the Aryan Brotherhood.
The 143-page complaint, unsealed in June, alleges that Yandell used the prospect of Aryan Brotherhood membership or increased status in the gang to convince others to commit murders. The four would-be murder victims were rescued and moved into protective custody thanks to the wiretap, according to prosecutors.
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The complaint has given the public a rare look into the Aryan Brotherhood — also known as the AB and The Brand — considered one of the nation’s most dangerous and secretive prison gangs. It started in California prisons in the 1960s, and basically functions as a large, violent drug trafficking organization. It has an alliance with the Mexican Mafia, and is a rival of various African-American gangs, though all but one of the murder conspiracies alleged in the case are the result of internal politics.
According to prosecutors, members are not allowed to leave the gang, and cooperation with law enforcement is one of several slights punishable by death.
“AB members are required, when ordered, to kill without hesitation,” the criminal complaint says. “Members who do not fulfill their obligations to the AB are subject to murder.”
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AB members are trained to commit brutal murders that will dissuade others from crossing the gang, according to prosecutors. The prison murders outlined in court records are in-line with this description.
“I hit him so hard, (the knife) went in his back and out his chest,” an adrenaline-addled Brant Daniel allegedly told a prison guard, moments after using a shank to murder Zachary Scott, 36, on a yard in Salinas Valley State Prison. Daniel also allegedly told the guard he was targeting another inmate who had recently been moved to protective custody.
As guards carted him off, Daniel allegedly yelled out that other white inmates had two weeks to get off, “this weak a– PC yard” or else another AB-sanctioned hit would take place.
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Another murder victim, Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, was stabbed to death, allegedly by AB associates Jayson “Beaver” Weaver and Waylon Pitchford on a Folsom yard in 2015. Pinell was in the Black Guerilla Family, one of the state’s most dominant African-American prison gangs, and was one of the so-called San Quentin Six, an infamous group said to be behind a 1971 riot and escape attempt at San Quentin, which left six dead.
Pinell was targeted, according to the criminal complaint, because he frequently aired “virulently racists opinions and provocative statements” at white inmates, which made him a “high priority” target for the AB. The complaint says that Weaver began the attack, stabbing Pinell and ignoring smoke grenades fired by guards to subdue him, and that after a few seconds Pitchford joined in. Pinell was stabbed 20 times.
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The attack kicked off a riot between black and white inmates on the Folsom yard, which lasted roughly 20 minutes, according to the complaint. A year later, Yandell allegedly discussed the murder in a 20-minute call with AB member Pat Brady, an inmate at High Desert State Prison who also had a cellphone, according to prosecutors.
In the call, Yandell admitted to Brady that the AB had Beaver “kill that n—- Yogi” and that AB members had been trying to kill him for years, according to the complaint. Beaver, Yandell allegedly said, “earned his rock,” meaning he earned a shamrock tattoo signifying Aryan Brotherhood membership, by committing the deed.