SANTA ANA, California – Within the forbidding walls of the Supermax federal prison, where high-profile inmates live in heavily guarded isolation, a section was created in 1998 called "H Unit," where six special prisoners could mingle, use a computer and share information, a prison official testified Wednesday.
The six men, dropouts from the notorious Aryan Brotherhood white supremacist prison gang, were known as "cooperators," or in prison slang as "snitches."
Danny Shoff, a Bureau of Prisons official now assigned to Washington, D.C., said he was one of the few staff members at the Florence, Colorado, facility allowed entry to "H Unit" during the period that the inmates were helping the government in an investigation designed to crack the heart of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Shoff testified on the second day of the defense phase of a racketeering case in which the alleged ringleader of the Aryan Brotherhood is on trial with three others. The trial follows the arrests of 40 people in 2002 after a six-year investigation. Nineteen struck plea bargains, one person died, and trials of the remainder are pending.
The defense in the current trial is seeking to show that prosecution witnesses have exaggerated their own importance or had the opportunity to manufacture incriminating stories about the defendants.
Shoff said that he was aware that "H Unit" inmates were using a computer and were producing documents, but he said he could not say for sure whether they had access to internal prison databases which could have given them information that they would then represent as their own.
Under questioning by attorney Mark Fleming, who represents lead defendant Barry "The Baron" Mills, Shoff was asked whether he ever sat down and talked to one of the informants separately from the others.
"You never sat down specifically with one because they were all out and about, so you talked to all of them," Shoff said.
Fleming presented Shoff with various documents produced by inmate Danny Weeks, one of the key informants, which included information about another case involving major Mexican drug dealers. He suggested the detailed notes made by Weeks in tiny handwriting contained numbers taken from one or more prison databases.
Another defense lawyer, Michael V. White, who represents defendant T.D. "The Hulk" Bingham, asked how the unit was staffed and who was allowed entry.
The witness acknowledged that the unit was supposed to be kept a secret and was open only to a very few staff members.
Shoff repeatedly claimed a faulty memory of events that transpired in the unit even though he acknowledged he had testified previously in the trial and during pretrial hearings.
"You're asking me to respond to something seven, eight years ago," he said. "I don't recall."
He said that "H Unit," also known as "the bubble," ultimately was closed down after Weeks made complaints within the institution about its operation. The men who were housed there were transferred to "D Unit," which was more restricted and in which inmates were locked down 23 hours a day.
Shoff denied knowledge of a letter written by a psychiatrist who had access to the unit and who made complaints about it. The psychiatrist is expected to testify as a defense witness.
After weeks of prosecution testimony, the defense opened its case Tuesday by calling a federal agent who helped build the government's case against the Aryan Brotherhood.
The agent testified that many of the gang's former members were promised reduced sentences — and sometimes released — in exchange for their help. One inmate received $150,000 when he was released and placed into a witness-protection program, the witness said.
The case is one of the largest capital murder cases in U.S. history. The government alleges the defendants now on trial ordered or committed many of the 32 murders and attempted murders listed in the indictment.
Mills, the chief defendant, is serving two life terms for the 1979 killing of a fellow inmate. In the current trial, he faces a possible death sentence for allegedly orchestrating the 1997 killings of two black inmates in Pennsylvania.