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Drug trafficking bust targets Aryan Family prison gang in Washington

Nick Brown, U.S. attorney for Western Washington, addresses the media at a news conference on March 27.
Will James
Nick Brown, U.S. attorney for Western Washington, addresses the media at a news conference in Tacoma, Wash., on March 27, 2023.

A leader of a white power prison gang organized an operation from Pierce County that supplied fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, and other illegal drugs to the Pacific Northwest, law enforcement officials alleged Monday.

The 39-year-old man from Steilacoom, Wash., an alleged member of the Aryan Family prison gang, was one of 27 people accused in an indictment of trafficking “huge amounts” of illegal drugs from Mexican cartels into Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.

“The principal danger we face in this area when it comes to drug trafficking comes from cartels,” Nick Brown, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, said at a news conference in Tacoma, Wash. “But it takes organizations like the ones we indicted here to spread drugs in our communities where they do so much damage. And this includes my hometown of Steilacoom, Washington, where the lead defendant lived.”

Among those indicted is the man’s wife — a former Washington State prison guard who was fired following an investigation into their relationship — and other members of the Aryan Family, law enforcement officials said.

The Aryan Family has an estimated 200 members in Washington State prisons, plus others who have been released, said Sean Murphy, a deputy secretary with the state Department of Corrections. The white power group stands out among other gangs for being particularly violent, he said.

“Most of the groups or gangs that we have in prison set up a variety of informal rules that help them govern their group,” Murphy said in an interview. “And inevitably the Aryan Family’s group allows for more violence — and in some cases requires more violence — to enforce the rules that they believe should be in order.”

The FBI partnered with other agencies a year and a half ago to start investigating the Aryan Family and other mostly-white gangs, officials said. The investigation culminated March 22 with a “coordinated takedown” by SWAT teams at 18 locations in Washington and Arizona, where some targets of the probe had relocated after prior searches of their homes, officials said.

Investigators said they seized more than 1.9 million doses of fentanyl, more than 230 pounds of methamphetamine, and more than 225 guns and firearm parts during the investigation. The operation generally brought drugs from Mexico to the U.S. while the guns generally traveled from the U.S. to Mexico, law enforcement officials said.

“On the surface, we see the makings of a movie: prison gangs, Neo-Nazis, money laundering, confidential informants,” Richard Collodi, special agent in charge of the FBI office, said at the news conference.

"But what we don’t see, and what I’d like to emphasize, is the patience of law enforcement involved in this investigation. It takes an incredible amount of effort to analyze the data that connects the dots to the various levels of this drug trafficking organization.”

Of the 27 people indicted, 24 had been arrested as of Monday. The alleged leader of the operation and other defendants were scheduled to have hearings in Tacoma on Monday.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.