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How the Aryan Brotherhood moved drugs in secret, as told by those who did it

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How the Aryan Brotherhood moved drugs in secret, as told by those who did it

Since 2001, Travis Burhop had been behind bars for a mistaken-identity murder. But by the late 2010s, the inmate was earning well above the median household income in California, all tax free, through the drug trade.

Burhop needed just two things to accomplish this: a contraband cell phone, and association with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.

He started with minor drug sales, but in a prison environment where a gram of low-quality heroin can go for $200 — currency sent to family members through mobile payment services — there was plenty of money to be made. By his peak, Burhop was making $100,000 a year, buying cars and properties for his couriers and family on the outside. He earned so much that some within the Aryan Brotherhood would begrudgingly say he paid his way into the gang, rather than going through the traditional channel of viciously stabbing someone.

Burhop may have been one of the most successful prison drug dealers in the all-white gang, but he was far from alone. Over the past two months, a jury of Northern California residents in Sacramento has heard from a half-dozen men and women who testified as prosecution witnesses on the day-to-day life of a drug dealer for the Aryan Brotherhood.

Some, like Burhop, reaped the financial rewards. Most lost money or barely stayed afloat. They now say they moved drugs out of fear, loyalty or both, and took financial hits for similar reasons, even though their bosses have virtually no chance of ever leaving prison.

The ins and outs of the Aryan Brotherhood drug underworld — where narcotics could travel from cell to cell or several states over, involving everyone from jailers to drug addicts to attorneys — has surfaced in the racketeering trial for Ronald Dean Yandell, William Sylvester and Danny Troxell. The three AB members are accused of running the violent prison gang, operating contraband routes into various California prisons and using smuggled cell phones to hold conference calls on gang business that ranged from discussing finances to coordinating murders.

Some of the prosecution’s evidence comes from wiretaps of those cell phones. Other evidence comes in the form of witnesses like Burhop, who testified for two days about his life in prison and eventual decision to leave the gang and become a government informant. He said he relied on prison staffers like a cook and a guard to smuggle contraband inside.

Burhop’s couriers would sneak him phone chargers with the help of a corrections officer, but wouldn’t tell the jailer they were packed with several ounces of heroin. When the officer eventually found out there was dope inside the chargers, he simply asked for more money and continued to bring it in, Burhop testified.

The other big challenge was managing drug debts, said Burhop, which led to strict rules among white inmates. They implemented a $200 cap on debts, a moratorium on owing money to Black prisoners and violent consequences for those who failed to obey. Burhop recalled on the witness stand how on one occasion, an Aryan Brotherhood member named Pat Brady wanted to kill an inmate over a $1,000 debt.

But Burhop was fond of the intended victim, who went by the nickname “Pocket Nazi.”

“I told (Brady) I knew Pocket Nazi and he’s a pretty good kid,” Burhop testified. He proposed an alternative as an act of compassion: “We stab him but not hit any organs.”

Another example came in 2018, at Corcoran State Prison, where Burhop had to deal with two men — nicknamed Knuckles and Fat Pat — who both owed substantial drug debts. The easiest solution, they figured, was for “one of them to take care of the other,” Burhop testified.

“So we had Knuckles stab Fat Pat,” he said.

The use of cell phones allowed Burhop’s drug business to grow “exponentially,” he said, and that’s where a drug courier named Nickolas Perez came into the picture. Burhop had known the Southern California resident since Perez was a kid, he testified, because Burhop used to sell drugs to his mother. That was apparently enough to build trust between them, and Perez testified that in the mid-2010s he began driving heroin from Southern California to Sacramento at Burhop, Yandell and Sylvester’s direction.

“I was kinda just doing it as a favor,” Perez said, in the hopes it would get him in Burhop’s good graces.

What it got him instead was a nightmare scenario in May 2016, where he was busted in Missouri with heroin, methamphetamine and roughly $20,000 in cash. Not wanting to admit to the bust, he panicked, and made up a lie about needing to bury the money and drugs to avoid government detection. Burhop believed him, but that caused another problem; he sent Perez and a man named Samuel Keeton out to Missouri with metal detectors to locate the stash, which of course couldn’t be found.

Keeton testified too, about his role selling drugs in and out of prison. He said he would send “taxes” — a portion of what he earned — to an incarcerated man named James Mickey, who later allegedly became a target for murder.

“You wanted to make sure you wouldn’t alienate (Mickey), correct?” a defense attorney asked Keeton about the taxes.

“I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get murdered,” Keeton replied.

After paroling from prison, Keeton began acting as a drug courier for Yandell, which entailed meeting up with a heroin dealer in the Bay Area. He’d also help supply an allegedly crooked attorney, Kevin McNamara, and his paralegal, Kristen Demar, who’d agreed to smuggle drugs and contraband inside prison. Each trip he took as a courier, Keeton said, he’d be lucky to break even.

Demar, testifying as a prosecution witness, said she was on the verge of homelessness when McNamara hired her as a paralegal. She said she was told that her incarcerated husband — Charles “Boots” Demar — owed a drug debt that she’d have to pay off by assisting with smuggling. After they were busted sneaking contraband to Sylvester during one visit, she was “absolutely” scared to death and began calling her cohorts nonstop for reassurance, she said.

Another contraband route involved Justin “Rune” Petty, a skinhead gang member who conveniently worked for a company that shipped commissary packages to California prisoners. He was caught on wiretaps discussing orders with Yandell, which included not just drugs but saw blades, screwdrivers, chargers, green paint and phones. Petty told Yandell he expected their business to go on “forever” as long as they were careful, hiding contraband in oatmeal creme pies, fudge brownies and honey buns.

“I’m not a stupid criminal at all,” Petty said on one wiretapped call. “I’m not trying to go back, I’m trying to have fun out here.”

Police intercepted two of his contraband packages a few days later; Petty has since been sentenced to 130 months in prison after pleading guilty and refusing to cooperate with the government.

Burhop testified he had a hand in everything, and was making so much money he showed little interest when Yandell offered him a piece of Petty’s scam. While denying he bought his mother a $350,000 home in Southern California — which federal authorities have a pending forfeiture petition to seize — Burhop said the drug proceeds ensured he and his family were well-off.

“I bought my wife a car, my runner a brand new car, made sure they had a nice place to stay and just took care of them,” he said.



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