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Aryan Brotherhood leader dies in prison, leaving behind bloody legacy in Bay Area

Barry Byron Mills, the murderous leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, was found dead July 8 in his single-person cell inside the United States’ most secure federal prison, in Florence, Colorado.

Mills, also known by the nickname “Baron,” died a day after his 70th birthday. His death does not appear to be suspicious, but an autopsy is being conducted, authorities said. He was serving multiple life without parole sentences for murder convictions in 2006.

Born in Sonoma County, Mills spent most of his life in confinement, and joined the Aryan Brotherhood during a stint at San Quentin State Prison, aggressively recruiting members as the gang spread throughout the state. His grip on the gang stretched from coast to coast but was strongest in the Bay Area and Northern California, where many of its highest-ranking members came from.

“There’s no doubt of his influence in the Bay Area. It’s fact, not debatable,” retired federal prison warden Robert Hood said. He later added, “I’m not trying to glorify him, but I can tell you this: He had the admiration of a lot of inmates, but he was also feared.”

Mills was known for committing brazen, brutal killings — including a savage attempted decapitation while in federal custody in Atlanta. When authorities placed him in solitary confinement, his bloody legacy continued. Using couriers, he distributed orders from coast to coast, leading to a race war between prison gangs and a notorious protection deal with Italian mobster John Gotti.

“There are a lot of rumors out there about Barry and his cohorts, some real, some imaginary,” said Dean Steward, Mills’ longtime attorney. “I saw a different side to him than that jury saw in ’06.”

Bay Area Connections

When Mills joined the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood — also known as The Brand — in San Quentin during the mid-1970s, it was a “dinky, little prison gang,” said Hood, a former warden of the ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Mills built it into a nationwide army and first caught authorities’ attention by planning and ordering a Central Valley bank robbery from his cell.

“Different states produce different types of inmates,” said Terry Rearick, a defense investigator who worked on Mills’ case. “California is a state that produces some of the most dangerous and clever inmates … these guys were more or less products of the prison system here.”

Considered one of the biggest public safety threats in the early 2000s, he was revered among Aryan gang members.

“(Mills) was the gold standard for gangsterism all over the USA,” said Coby Phillips, who with Mills’ permission co-founded an Aryan Brotherhood offshoot gang called the Family Affiliated Irish Mafia in Contra Costa County. “His word was the law … whether he was crocheting blankets for the kids or chopping someone’s head off, there wasn’t nobody better.”

In 1999, Mills pondered ordering a Contra Costa County resident — Ronnie Yandell, described by prosecutors as one of Mills’ generals — to retaliate against a black prison gang for an assault on Gotti. Mills changed his mind when he realized Yandell was scheduled for release from federal prison.

“Mills wanted Yandell to work for the AB on the outside,” prosecutor Bruce Flynn said.

So Yandell returned to Contra Costa County, where in 2001 he was arrested and charged with murdering William Bedwell, 38, and Dino Gutierrez, 38, in El Sobrante. He was ultimately convicted of murder and manslaughter, but wrote “I am innocent” in a failed 2007 appeal motion filed from prison.

While awaiting trial, Yandell allegedly ordered Aryan Brotherhood members Coby Phillips and Darryl Grockett to kill the witnesses. They failed, and some say Phillips flat-out refused.

“What I had heard was Coby or Grockett were then told to kill one another,” said Tom Kensok, a former Contra Costa senior deputy district attorney.

In 2004, Grockett was shot to death along an unincorporated country road. Phillips and another man, Jose Vega-Robles, were convicted and sentenced to life.

Federal crackdown and conviction

In the early 2000s, the federal government moved in on the Aryan Brotherhood. Mills became the lead defendant in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, indictment that sought to take down the gang. Forty members and co-conspirators were charged in 14 killings and dozens of attempted hits.

According to prosecutors, Mills and his second in command, Tyler Bingham, were preparing for a war with a gang called the DC Blacks. Prosecutors say they used multiple ways to carry out the message, including invisible ink created from urine and written onto an innocent-seeming correspondence.

Mills’ couriers included a Rodeo woman who was married to a Sonoma Hells Angels chapter club president at the time and spent months on the lam before she was caught.

In 2006, Mills, Bingham and two others went on trial together, facing racketeering and murder charges. They were convicted largely based upon the word of an Aryan Brotherhood dropout, who admitted to carrying out a killing but took a plea deal for fewer than 10 years in prison.

Mills faced the death penalty, which required a unanimous jury vote. When jurors voted 9-3 in favor of executing him, he was spared. He spent the rest of his life locked down at the supermax facility in Colorado, confined to his cell 23 hours a day.

“Barry would not let us put on a penalty phase case,” his attorney Steward said. “His whole thing was, ‘No sniveling.’”

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