Joshua D. Ross
Allenna D. Bangs
Tarrant County prosecutors tried a dangerous leader of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas under the drug kingpin statute—with no weapon, physical evidence, or sympathetic witnesses.
In 2011, multiple law enforcement agencies in the Dallas–Fort Worth area made more than 70 arrests in an effort to disrupt and dismantle the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) in our area. These arrests led to multiple indictments and the imprisonment of many in the ABT’s leadership echelon in the free world, leaving the ABT (a highly structured prison gang) without leadership in Dallas and Tarrant Counties. Outside of prison, the ABT is routinely involved in high-level narcotic trafficking, illegal gun possession and sales, theft, fraud, and acts of violence. The targets of their most violent crimes are often women, other ABT members, and rival gang members, so this gang is just as dangerous outside prison as it is inside.
Through continued surveillance of many known ABT affiliates, agents with Homeland Security, Fort Worth Police Intelligence, and other law enforcement discovered that the highest-ranking members of the ABT, known as The Wheel, had designated James Lemarc Byrd to come to the DFW area to reorganize members on the “outside.” Byrd, an Outside Major within the Brotherhood (the highest-held position outside of prison) was to be paroled from federal prison in November 2013. He was a multiple-time felon and documented member of the ABT who held ranking positions within the many federal prisons where he’d spent time.
He was released to a halfway house just outside of downtown Fort Worth as planned. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) informed local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that Byrd was someone to watch out for, and by March of 2014, just five months after his release, he would be back in federal custody for violating his supervised release.
When Byrd was released from prison in November 2013, he promptly put together a roster of “good and loyal” ABT members on the outside. During the months after his release, Byrd alternated between houses in Wichita Falls and Fort Worth. Wichita Falls police and DPS began separate investigations into his narcotics trafficking in their areas, and letters designating his plans and goals were found when his home in Wichita Falls was searched as part of that investigation. Besides organizing the ABT, Byrd was trying to monopolize the methamphetamine market in Tarrant County and Wichita Falls and had made contact with other drug-dealing members of the ABT on the outside. One such local drug dealer, whom we’ll call Hank, ended up the victim of Byrd’s violent tendencies. (We will use pseudonyms for all involved witnesses due to ongoing threats.)
Hank had been in and out of prison since 2004 when he got hooked on methamphetamine after a divorce, dealing up to $8,000 of meth per day. During one of his stints in prison, Hank joined the ABT and was a documented member with the Fort Worth Police, but he was not active outside of prison. Byrd had become aware of Hank’s meth business and sent word for him to “check in.” Hank met Byrd one time at a motel as directed, and nothing became of that encounter.
On January 29, 2014, Byrd called Hank, directing him to report again. Hank was busy with family obligations at the time, yelled at Byrd, and hung up on him. Byrd found this to be a violation of a direct order and a sign of disrespect. Within hours, six or seven ABT members showed up at Hank’s house wanting to know where he was. He wasn’t home at the time but was alerted that they were looking for him. Hank called a member whom he knew and told them to come get him, so three ABT members picked up Hank and drove him to another house. He was told he would be held until Byrd could come over. The ABT members then stripped him naked, hog-tied him, and left him on the floor of a freezing cold laundry room for three hours.
Eventually Byrd showed up. He confronted Hank and accused him of disrespecting the ABT and its chain of command. Byrd punched and kicked him while Hank lay helpless on the floor. Byrd put a gun in Hank’s mouth and asked the other members if he should kill him. (Hank said later he believed he would die.) One of the members told Byrd not to kill him, and Byrd told Hank he would let him live but that he owed a tax of $1,000 a month. Before Hank was allowed to leave, Byrd took a knife off his belt and stabbed Hank twice. Byrd then took a slice of white bread, soaked up Hank’s blood, ripped the bread in half, ate one half himself, and shoved the other in Hank’s mouth. Hank was then allowed to leave. He returned home, never seeking medical treatment or calling police.
It just so happened that the next day, Department of Homeland Security Agent Steve VanGeem was listening to jail conversations between a confirmed ABT member and his wife. VanGeem overheard that “Byrdman” had “disciplined” Hank. VanGeem knew that James Byrd was “Byrdman” and that “discipline” in the ABT most likely meant an act of violence. VanGeem wanted to investigate the incident in the hopes of making a case against Byrd, who was of particular interest to law enforcement for a few reasons. He was high-ranking, and in the past, removing the higher ranks often disrupted ABT activities. Byrd’s reputation in the federal system was very violent and in the simplest terms “full-throttle.” The longer Byrd was out of prison, the higher the potential for mobilization of the local ABT—and at an amped-up level of violence.
By March, VanGeem and his partner, Mike McCurdy, tracked Hank down: He was sitting in federal custody on a dope charge. By happenstance, Hank had been sharing a cell with Byrd, who had been picked up on a federal parole violation. VanGeem approached Hank on two separate occasions and interviewed him about the “discipline” he received from Byrd. Hank wrote a statement and showed VanGeem the scars from the stab wounds.
‘What’s hard for some is just right for me’
When the case came to our office, these two tidbits were the extent of the file: a statement from an incarcerated, habitual felon and a photo of a healed wound. That’s it. Clearly, we had a lot of work to do to hold James Byrd accountable for this violent crime. Fortunately, all of the agencies involved in the previous dismantling of the ABT in 2011 were ready to build this case piece by piece until we could try it.
There was a sense of urgency in sending Byrd back to the penitentiary for many reasons. First, Byrd needed to go to TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice). While in the federal Bureau of Prisons, Byrd was allowed to roam the yard and communicate freely with other gang members. Prosecuting him at the state level would put him in TDCJ where he would immediately be categorized and designated for solitary confinement with minimal privileges. Cutting off communication to ranking officials of the ABT is crucial to limiting their criminal activity. Second, intelligence from many different agencies showed that Byrd had committed many violent acts in the time he was out, and at that time, no other victims were cooperative. For example, Byrd stabbed a man 37 times in a drug deal gone bad and left him for dead. That victim and an eyewitness, when approached, refused to report anything further on James Byrd. A statement Byrd likes to use is, “What’s hard for some is just right for me.” That’s how he lived his life, and it made him very dangerous on the streets of Tarrant County.
The warrant for James Byrd’s arrest did not issue until August 2014, when we also obtained warrants for co-defendants Charles Garrett Jr. (aka CJ), Nicholas Acree (aka Bulldog), and Michael Young (aka Coyote), the ABT affiliates who were present during Hank’s stabbing. Byrd had already been revoked from his supervised release and sentenced to 24 additional months in federal prison; CJ and Bulldog were also arrested on the gang-related murder of an Aryan Circle affiliate in April 2014. Because Byrd was already in federal prison, bringing him to Tarrant County for trial required extradition, a request that either the State or the defendant can make. In this case, Byrd signed his own Interstate Detainer request and was transported back to Tarrant County. From the day he landed in local custody, the State had 120 days, per federal statute, to try him. For a case file that was already thin, such a short timeline for preparation was certainly daunting.
Getting the rest of the story
By March 2015 we had a June trial date. We informed our Fort Worth Intelligence agent, Mike Valdez, that we needed a sit-down. When Valdez came to our first meeting, he did not come alone. There to present the case on James Byrd was Texas Ranger Joshua Burson, who assisted, and the two Homeland Security Investigations special agents from the National Gang Unit, Steve VanGeem and Mike McCurdy. It was made patently clear that, while this case seemed thin, expectations were high. James Byrd was no average gang member; he was high-ranking, “dyed in the wool” ABT, and extremely dangerous. The agents informed us that while our case file consisted of about four pages of information, each of their agencies had thousands of pages on James Byrd that included ABT communication, directives, and information on other unreported violent crimes.
The first step for building the case was simply getting briefed. We needed to be up to speed on who the actors were, what we knew about them, their whereabouts, and whom we would call as witnesses. We also needed to become experts on the inner workings of the ABT: its hierarchy, constitution, and criminal enterprises. We discovered that our victim, Hank, was in federal prison in Memphis; he was sent there for his own protection as the information he provided law enforcement, including his statement against Byrd, put his life in imminent danger. The agents weren’t sure that Hank would cooperate further, nor did they know whether there were any other witnesses to the crime or any other corroboration. The agents, having worked many ABT cases themselves, knew that one major hurdle is always cooperation from the involved parties.
This meeting was also the first occasion for us to see Byrd’s tattoos, photographs of which were included in nearly 600 pages of federal prison records the agents provided. (See them yourself below as attachments.) He has three ABT “patches,” one on each side of his abdomen and one on his calf, multiple swastikas, and additional Nazi symbols. Some of the more prominent links to white supremacy were David Lane’s “14 words”1 written out on his side, a poem about the Brotherhood on the other side, the Roman numerals I and II (standing for A [Aryan] and B [Brotherhood], the first and second letters of the alphabet) on his eyelids, and a roughly 20-inch depiction of Adolf Hitler on his back. Proving his gang affiliation was not going to be a problem.
However, we wanted to go further. Agents put us in touch with Agent Steve Lair, a Carrollton Police Officer and deputized Homeland Security agent, who is an ABT expert. We needed his testimony to explain all of the findings to the jury. Lair made it very clear that James Byrd was a major in the gang—or, to put it in the terms of the Penal Code, “part of the identifiable leadership”—and we could re-indict this case under §71.023. That portion of the code is often called “the kingpin statute,” under which we could allege that Byrd used his position of rank to direct the commission of criminal offenses by other ABT affiliates. The punishment under §71.023 is 25 years to life. No one in our office had previously used this statute. We were aware that Kaufman County had recently used an older version of the statute, and we were able to speak with prosecutors there about their case, but because of language changes in the law, we had to choose how to indict the case with no prior cases or caselaw as direction. Using this statute is similar to using the engaging statute, but it adds an extra element of proving that an individual is directing the activities of the criminal street gang, as opposed to merely participating in them.
To prove Byrd’s position as director of gang activities, we needed all of the evidence the various law enforcement agencies had collected over the years: Reports, interviews, jail call recordings, statements, Facebook posts, phone records, call logs, and text messages had all been collected in various agencies’ surveillance of Byrd. HSI and Intelligence sent us emails almost daily with more information they were digging up—it was almost too much to digest in the short time we had. We got into the local ABT weeds, needing to remind ourselves at times to stick our heads up to see where we were. Having a large team of law enforcement at hand was invaluable for this portion of case preparation—their databases kept such clear logs of where information had been gained and from whom. We also kept organized by keeping case file boxes with notes and discovery obtained from potential witnesses. We divided up our social media research, captured it as we saw it, and maintained it in one file. We talked almost daily about new information to hand over to the defense and notices to put in the court’s file. We listened to hours and hours of phone calls, reviewed thousands of text messages, had investigators take us to where the offense took place (where we discovered we were being watched), learned nicknames, and spoke to any and every inmate who reached out.
The minute Byrd hit the Tarrant County Jail, we began receiving “kites” from snitches who wanted to tell us what they knew about Byrd in exchange for consideration in their own cases. What many of them knew boiled down to this: “He is very scary, he is very dangerous, he runs the ABT, I will tell you what I know, and I will never testify.” We followed every lead and visited each person who pointed us in the direction of another person. We spoke to more than 20 witnesses both in custody and out. We traveled to Bonham, Tennessee Colony, Parker County, and the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, and we made numerous trips to the Tarrant County Jail. We became aware of another extraneous victim, “Colin,” who had also been kidnapped at gunpoint by Byrd and Bulldog. He had reported the offense and was willing to testify at the time he was originally placed in custody. He was serving a 20-year federal sentence for selling methamphetamine and was in custody in Wisconsin—he, like Hank, had also been placed in that location for his own protection. We extradited him here with our fingers crossed that he would testify. (He told us later that he had planned to tell us he wouldn’t do it, but because one of the agents at our meeting had testified on his behalf at sentencing, he agreed to cooperate. We learned then that there is very little prosecutors can offer someone who has already been convicted and sentenced for a long amount of time. But taking the time to see if you can touch base with their mom, girlfriend, or attorney goes a long way with these prisoners.)
Unfortunately, while all of this information made great punishment evidence or evidence for the elements of directing activities, we still needed to prove the underlying offenses of aggravated kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. And to do that, we needed witnesses to the crimes. Hank, our victim, was totally unsympathetic—that’s usually the case with gang violence. He was a federal inmate who would have to be extradited from prison to testify in court, and he would appear in a jumpsuit and shackles in front of the jury. We first made contact with Hank via conference call to see if he was even willing to cooperate with us, then eventually get on a plane and testify in court. He was. Part of his cooperation was due to a downward departure he received at his federal sentencing—the information he had provided on Byrd had shaved 10 years off of his federal sentence, which could certainly be used by the defense to look like motive to make up his story. It was also another piece of information we would have to turn over to the defense and something else that made Hank unsympathetic.
Hank proved very helpful in pointing to witnesses. He told us who lived in the house at the time the ABT came by looking for him. We located the homeowner, “Shannon,” who herself was a known methamphetamine dealer. Shannon was cooperative but scared. She told us that she did in fact receive a phone call from a woman named “Kimberly” that the ABT was at her house looking for Hank. We were able to find Kimberly. She was a known thief and drug user who happened to be sitting in the Tarrant County Jail with two new pending cases. She was also on parole for a life sentence for a drug case. We met with her and she remembered in remarkable detail the events of the day that Hank was kidnapped. She even recalled him coming back to the house later in the night and seeing the stab wounds. Because of the time she had spent in the drug world, she knew some members of the ABT and could identify at least a few of the people who had come over looking for Hank. Kimberly wrote a three-page, handwritten letter from jail—she was cooperative. But of course, she was also in custody, and again, could have something to gain from helping our case.
Finally, we tracked down “Margo.” Margo made the original phone call to her husband, an ABT member in prison, about Byrd’s disciplining Hank that Steve VanGeem had overheard. She was the catalyst to the entire case, and we needed her. Margo was a local girl who was a drug user, a felon, and an affiliate of the ABT. She had been visiting Byrd in jail, so we had very little optimism that she would cooperate with us. We worked on developing a trusting relationship with her during the several months the case was pending. We kept up with her and spoke to her constantly. Margo would agree to testify one day, and the next day we would lose track of her. By the time we were ready to try the case, there was credible information that Margo had been “green-lit.” In ABT terminology, that means there was a threat on her life for her participation in the Byrd case—though she did end up testifying.
We were ready to try the case with witness testimony and evidence of Byrd’s affiliation with the ABT from law enforcement, but after being presented an extraneous notice listing 31 separate bad acts, Byrd requested (and received) a continuance. With a little over a month of additional time, we requested that the agents write search warrants for the tower records from the cell-phone providers of Byrd, Bulldog, CJ, and Hank’s phones. With the limited time we had before, this was not something we had been able to focus on. Cell phone companies can take weeks or months to respond to subpoenas and warrants, and the information they give on short notice can be very limited. We thought it was worth a shot to see what we could get and how we could use it to corroborate our victims’ testimony. The house where the offense occurred belonged to a woman named Tonya Blackwood, a known Featherwood. (Featherwoods are women who associate with the ABT. Oftentimes ABT members will refer to themselves as Peckerwoods or Woods, and Featherwood is a derivative of that moniker.) Blackwood had been arrested on federal conspiracy charges, and her phone was seized as well. The results of the cell tower data warrants became the final piece of the puzzle, as the phones corroborated Hank’s account of events on January 29 and 30, 2014. FBI Agent Mark Sedwick was able to create a map using the cell towers’ data that told the exact story that Hank, Kimberly, Shannon, and Margo would tell on the stand. The evidence would be devastating to the defense’s case, which relied on the idea that the State’s case was a masterminded conspiracy to take Byrd out and save everyone involved penitentiary time. It was truly a team effort by the District Attorney’s Office, FWPD, Wichita Falls PD, Texas DPS, Homeland Security, the United States Bureau of Prisons, and the FBI. We were now ready for trial.
Going to trial
The trial lasted a week. Voir dire, as it usually is, was the most important part. We had to be very up-front about our case’s difficulties and admit that every witness was unlikeable in his own way. We had to explain that we had no weapon and zero crime scene evidence of Hank’s kidnapping and stabbing. We focused on our witnesses’ credibility and the jury’s ability to look past their lack of knowledge of the ABT or gang lifestyle that would be presented in testimony. We used the idea of having “one courthouse for everyone.” Most of the jury panel understood and said they could find a criminal guilty even if they didn’t like the victim. As always, though, there were plenty of jurors who admitted that it would be difficult to punish someone for committing a crime against someone who “had it coming.” Those jurors exposed themselves readily because that opinion is deemed acceptable. (You won’t get glaring looks from other jurors for admitting you don’t care for drug dealers and gang members.) It was important to strike a balance between those people who would hate James Byrd and those who would hate both him and Hank.
During guilt-innocence, we called Hank, Kimberly, Shannon, and Margo to the stand. Each of them had an appointed attorney. In fact, we did not present any civilian witnesses who did not need to seek legal advice before implicating themselves in this offense. We approached each one in the same upfront manner, asking them to tell the jury about their lengthy criminal histories, what they had been given or not given to testify, and for what crimes they were currently incarcerated. In comparison to Byrd, each witness had likeable or relatable qualities. We also thought that offering no minimization whatsoever for the witnesses’ crimes made the jury more comfortable that they were being honest. At one point, the jury had to file by Hank to look at his wound. Many of them put their faces within inches of his shoulder, which led us to believe that they did not view him as threatening.
It also appeared that having the witnesses explain their lives before they were felons helped the jury understand how they ended up down this path. This would be important information to compare and contrast to Byrd himself later at trial.
After the civilians told their stories, we called Valdez, the Wichita Falls detective, Texas Ranger Burson, and Steve VanGeem. Each law enforcement agent could add another piece to the puzzle, certainly, but we were also hoping to convey to the jury—by calling officers from so many agencies—how many law enforcement groups had an interest in imprisoning James Byrd. We used photographs on PowerPoint, actual items seized from Byrd’s home and property, and recordings they had collected. Mark Sedwick was called to corroborate all of the civilian testimony with the cell tower data. He presented the evidence in an interactive PowerPoint that traced all the involved parties.
Finally, Steve Lair presented all of the expert testimony that Byrd was in the identifiable leadership of the ABT. It was damning evidence, and listening to him was like watching a reality show on TruTV. We had a letter that Byrd had hand-written (found in his home in Wichita Falls) and copied several times. It directed his fellow gang members to pay dues, get in line, and find other “good and loyal brothers” to check in. It corroborated Hank’s testimony that he was being required to “check-in” with Byrd, and it proved Byrd was no average rank-and-file soldier in the ABT. We blew up the letter 6 feet tall, put it front of the jury, and walked them through it line by line with Lair. Every juror was engaged and interested. Lair worked with our trial art coordinator, Rhona Wedderien, to create a demonstrative presentation that depicted the history of the ABT, its inside leaders, its symbols, and its presence throughout Texas and the United States. While this is typically punishment evidence, it was all relevant to the elements in §71.023. When Lair went through his PowerPoint of Byrd’s tattoos, he finished with the large depiction of Adolf Hitler on Byrd’s back. It elicited an audible gasp from the jury.
After the State rested, and despite efforts by his counsel to dissuade him, Byrd decided to take the witness stand in his own defense. He wanted to explain to the jury that he was being blamed for the crimes because, “Look at me—I’m an easy scapegoat.” He also needed to explain away the cell tower testimony, so he told the jury that he had given his phone to Coyote. His counsel tried his best to mitigate the defendant’s offensive lifestyle choices, almost creating the impression that Byrd was just an old grandpa-type who happened to bounce around the federal prison system. But then came cross-examination, where we made it perfectly clear to the jury that Byrd bounced around the system because he was a consistent security threat to other inmates. He was questioned on each of his ABT-related transgressions in federal prison, including putting hits on other inmates. Everyone in the courtroom could see that he was proud of his résumé, coldly staring back at the State with a grin.
The jury was out just under an hour and half before convicting James Byrd. The jury did not ask to speak afterwards, but one woman stopped to pose two questions to the bailiff: Was Byrd in custody, and would he ever be getting out? We felt that her asking showed that the jury knew just how dangerous James Byrd was.
Byrd elected to go to the judge for punishment, and we resumed trial after a weekend. Over the two-day break, Byrd had shaved his head to reveal a scalp covered in tattoos: a scorpion going up the back of his neck with its claws pointing to “1488” (the “14 spoken words” by David Lane and “88” for “Heil Hitler”—H being the eighth letter of the alphabet) and the stinger going around his neck and up his chin. He had grown his hair to cover them during the jury trial, but they were on full display for punishment. He clearly wanted to make the point that he was not ashamed of what he was and what he represented.
After the testimony of our extraneous victim, Colin, the judge promptly sentenced Byrd to 50 years in prison. All of the agents who had worked on the case were in the courtroom to show the court their support in this matter. For 45-year- old Byrd, this 50-year sentence in solitary confinement in TDCJ is a life sentence.
As previously mentioned, our goal was to have Byrd in TDCJ, where he will remain segregated, as opposed to the federal Bureau of Prisons facility where he would be allowed to remain on a yard and stay affiliated with the ABT. Byrd had to be transported back to a federal BOP in South Carolina for the few months remaining of his federal sentence, but agents believed he would likely do anything to stay in federal custody, including trying to kill someone in prison so as to not be transported to TDCJ. The BOP agreed and decided to segregate Byrd as a security threat for the remainder of his sentence, after which he’ll be transferred to TDCJ.
We spend so much time as prosecutors telling our juries that what they will see in a courtroom is nothing like what they see on TV. This trial and investigation seemed to be an exception. The facts themselves—from blood-soaked bread to the “hit” put out on a witness—were an introduction to an organized crime world that coexists right in our community that is totally unbelievable to the average person going about his daily life. Our goal was to make the jury understand that James Byrd was an exception even in that world, and we believe they did.
1 “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” David Lane was an American white supremacist leader, convicted felon, and a founding member of The Order (a white supremacist terrorist organization active in the United States in the 1980s).