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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Since early 2010, the Albuquerque Police Department criminal intelligence unit has believed that APD was targeted by the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious white supremacist prison gang that allegedly marked an officer — any officer — for death.
The information that put APD on alert came from a jailhouse informant, who said the gang wanted to retaliate after APD shot and killed an alleged Aryan Brotherhood member, Iraq war veteran Kenneth Ellis III, who was holding a gun to his own head.
But questions about the credibility of the informant’s information — and whether the alleged threat played a role in two other incidents in which officers fatally shot one person and stomped another after a foot chase — are being raised by attorneys representing Ellis’ family in a wrongful death lawsuit.
“Is APD in a gang war with AB?” Albuquerque civil rights attorney Shannon Kennedy wrote in an email to APD’s lawyer, Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy, on May 14.
Since the intelligence warning went out to the entire police department in 2010, APD officers have been involved in two more high-profile cases in which the suspects were labeled as members of white supremacist gangs.
One of the men was fatally shot, and the other was kicked repeatedly in the head after a foot chase in an incident caught on a security camera. The incidents occurred within a few days of each other. Both men, along with their photos and alleged gang ties, have been featured in internal APD documents.
Kennedy, in a court filing, said that in both incidents — the fatal shooting of Jacob Mitschelen and kicking of Nicholas Blume — the officers “were well aware of the alleged Aryan Brotherhood threat to the lives of fellow officers.”
APD denies that the two incidents in 2011 were related to the threat sent out to officers the year before.
A memo written Feb. 3, 2010, by APD Sgt. Ryan Buckner of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, the department’s covert operations wing, cited “recent credible and multi-source information” of an “Aryan Brotherhood plot to kill an Albuquerque police officer.”
APD Cmdr. Doug West of the Special Investigations Division downplayed the significance of the warning in Buckner’s bulletin, saying officers receive similar information on a regular basis. He said the department was never able to establish 100 percent whether it existed.
Sgt. Dan Porter of the Special Investigations Division said police never determined whether Ellis or Aaron Renfro — the other man shot fatally by an APD officer in January 2010 whom Buckner referenced in his bulletin — were members of the Aryan Brotherhood.
In another email obtained by the Journal, Buckner informed West nearly a year after the initial tip that his intelligence unit had used physical and electronic surveillance, controlled drug buys, undercover operations and other tactics to disrupt the alleged threat.
In his email to West, dated Dec. 28, 2010, Buckner identified Ellis as an Aryan Brotherhood lieutenant.
Greg Weber, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said he remembered seeing Buckner’s officer safety bulletin.
While APD officers receive information about various criminal activity — both from internal sources and from other departments — on a near-daily basis, Weber said the threat that one of them could be murdered was different.
“Yeah, information like that definitely makes people a little more nervous,” Weber said. “It wouldn’t necessarily change the way someone responds to a situation, but it could change someone’s mindset a little bit. We are human beings.”
He said several strange things happened in the aftermath of the Ellis shooting, including some 911 calls APD received reporting that someone was “bleeding out on a street corner.” When officers responded, no one was there.
Officers believed the calls may have been an attempt to trap one of them, Weber said.
One officer who had fatally shot someone had his home broken into, Weber said. A butcher knife had been stuck into the door of the officer’s refrigerator, and his police uniforms had been vandalized.
“I can’t say what kind of message that was,” he said, declining to name the officer.
Real or not, court papers and recent testimony from a former APD officer during a personnel board hearing indicate the threat was in the APD’s collective consciousness through at least February 2011.
During that month, two more alleged members of white supremacist gangs had run-ins with APD officers: Jacob Mitschelen was fatally shot by then-Gang Unit Detective Byron “Trey” Economidy, who made headlines for listing his occupation as “human waste disposal” on Facebook; and Nicholas Blume, who was kicked repeatedly by then-officer John Doyle while then-officer Robert Woolever held him down after a traffic stop.
Buckner produced an intelligence memo on Mitschelen after his death for Police Chief Ray Schultz and city attorneys that identified Mitschelen as a white supremacist.
Doyle testified during a personnel board hearing last week that a gang unit sergeant had briefed him on the scene of the Mitschelen shooting that another white supremacist had just been shot and that Blume might try to retaliate.
Doyle testified that he was shown a photograph of Blume and had several conversations with other officers and attended briefings during which the Aryan Brotherhood “hit” on police officers was discussed between February 2010 and February 2011.
Doyle and Woolever’s encounter with Blume happened four days after the Mitschelen shooting.
Porter said APD has no information that the threat against officers “is or isn’t still out there.”
‘Very real threat’
Ellis was fatally shot in the neck outside a Northeast Heights convenience store by APD officer Bret Lampiris-Tremba on Jan. 13, 2010.
Attorneys Joe and Shannon Kennedy and Frances Carpenter filed a lawsuit against Lampiris-Tremba and APD in state District Court alleging wrongful death on behalf of Ellis’ family.
The motion filed June 8 contends that Ellis was not a member of the gang.
Buckner’s officer-safety bulletin was based on a tip from a jailhouse informant in Valencia County, according to court papers.
It was followed three days later by an email from a deputy police chief to all area commanders and the rest of the APD brass, including Schultz, with explicit orders to disseminate the “very real threat to APD’s officers” to the whole department.
According to the tip Buckner received, which came in an email from a fellow member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, Ellis was a ” ‘2-Bar’ (captain) in the AB in Texas, while Steve Gordon is currently a ‘one-bar’ (lieutenant) AB member.”
Steve “Flash” Gordon was in the car with Ellis the day he was shot. According to the motion, Buckner testified that it was Gordon who “gave the green light order to kill a cop.”
Gordon died in December 2010, according to online death records. The circumstances are unclear and may have happened outside New Mexico. There is no record of his death with the state Office of the Medical Investigator.
The lawyers for the Ellis family aren’t the only ones who question the validity of the informant’s information.
Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli, who has been appointed to represent several alleged Aryan Brotherhood members in federal court, said much of the information that “so-called gang experts” use to identify gang members is “no more reliable than astrology.”
Donatelli said he has never seen any credible information indicating that the Aryan Brotherhood has a centrally controlled power structure that would be capable of issuing a death threat on a police department.
“Could there be a group of criminals who swear vengeance against police officers? Sure,” he said. “But to say that the Aryan Brotherhood has announced a hit implies a gang with leaders who are delegating authority. It seems to overstate the threat.”
On Feb. 9, 2010, then-APD Impact Team Sgt. Jennifer Madrid-Otero sent an email to Foothills Watch Lt. Ruben Griego saying Buckner’s intelligence unit was “working some of the local ABs and have active (operations) going on,” including one with Gordon.
“The AB is not going to retract the order,” Madrid-Otero wrote. “Once it’s out there, it’s good. All the little mether tweakers that we’ve been dealing with have a lot of associations with AB and are capable of carrying out the order. Especially if they want to be ranked in.”
Her email said the APD intelligence and gang units were planning joint operations to “round up” suspected AB members, many of whom had felony warrants out for their arrests.
Buckner’s intelligence unit, Madrid-Otero wrote, wanted any information officers could gather on the Aryan Brotherhood. The unit did not want “anyone interfering with their current (operations) or trying to put a message out to the ABs.”
Buckner’s December 2010 email to West touted the Aryan Brotherhood investigation as one of his unit’s “accomplishments” for the year and was intended in a “sanatized version” for inclusion in Schultz’s annual report.
” … An established AB cell in Albuquerque was identified. (The intelligence unit) then employed controlled narcotics buys, disruptive interviews and tactical intelligence to SID and (the Field Services Bureau) to disrupt the alleged threat,” Buckner wrote.
“… As a result of this operation, (the intelligence unit) was able to effectively reduce the threat of violence to APD officers and gather an overwhelming amount of information on AB activity in the city of Albuquerque. (The intelligence unit) responded to and conducted background investigations on all 14 APD officers involved shootings in 2010 and provided critical information to the Chief of Police in each of these incidents.”
By using the word “cell,” Donatelli said, APD is implying that there is some connection to a larger network. He said he has never seen evidence that such a thing exists.
“Could it be that two or three or four guys decided they were going to shoot a police officer on sight?” Donatelli said. “That could be. But to suggest through using language like ‘cell’ or ‘plot’ would be unfair to officers in terms of assessing and discussing the level of the threat.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal