The Avengers

Stephen LemonsMay 23, 2019
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Career Criminal Squad members Heston Silbert, John Justus, Ray Egea, Ed Warner and Bill Long, with an undercover CCS officer who shall remain nameless (crouching).; Photo by Michael Woodall
Career Criminal Squad members Heston Silbert, John Justus, Ray Egea, Ed Warner and Bill Long, with an undercover CCS officer who shall remain nameless (crouching).; Photo by Michael Woodall
The Phoenix Police Department’s Career Criminal Squad smashed white supremacist gangs and assorted villains, until budget woes and department politics sealed its fate.

Outfitted in standard racist skinhead attire – Doc Martens, red suspenders, “wife-beater” tank tops and bomber jackets – Chad Kerns, 29, and four or five of his cohorts were lapping up warm domestic lager at the Rogue West bar in West Phoenix one March night in 2007, looking for an opportunity to do some neo-Nazi ultraviolence.

Giving each other the Hitler salute, shouting “Sieg heil!” and yelping “White power!” at the top of their lungs was growing old. No one was taking the bait. Not even when they asked the bartender if the dive was “a SHARP bar,” by which they meant, was it a hangout for their sworn enemies, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice?

Nope, the barkeep replied, it’s not a SHARP bar. The neo-Nazis shrugged, scanning the room for a potential victim. Since there were no SHARPs about, any minority would do.

As if on cue, in ambled a Hispanic gentleman, wearing a T-shirt that depicted a stick figure dumping a swastika into a trash bin, with the motto, “Keep your country clean.” Before you could say, “Schutzstaffel,” Kerns and his crew had jumped the man, kicking, punching and walloping him over the head with a barstool as he tried to escape. When the victim’s girlfriend tried to intervene, she got a fist in the face, and the Nazis amscrayed, their craven miscreancy done for the night. The Hispanic man and his gal pal were left bruised and bleeding, but fortunately no nearer death.

An African-American man shopping at the Walgreens near 35th Avenue and Dunlap Road one night a few months later was less fortunate. Two of Kerns’ pate-shaven associates provoked the black shopper, calling him a “fucking n****r,” according to a Phoenix Police Department report of the incident, and challenging him to fisticuffs in the parking lot.

Outside, the ruffians wanted to make an unfair fight even more so and called a few of their skinhead buds – Kerns included – on their cellphones to assist in the beatdown. With the victim surrounded, Kerns slipped up from behind, stabbing the man twice in the abdomen, slicing through his bowel and liver.

The victim, whose identity was withheld by police, barely survived the attack. When Phoenix PD interviewed him later, the one detail that he could remember about the guy who stabbed him was a red cast on his right forearm. Otherwise, let’s be honest, all skinheads look like Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper – just homelier by comparison.

The thing is, knifings and beatings in the Valley of the Sun are as common as cactus and car thieves, and the trail to Kerns and his fellow swastika-lickers soon grew cold.

Enter the Phoenix Police Department’s Career Criminal Squad (CCS). Formed several months after the Walgreens stabbing, it was an elite crew of four plainclothes officers and one sergeant whose mandate was to target hard-core career criminals, repeat felons, and, uniquely, what’s known in cop parlance as “white boys” – members of white prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, and assorted racist skinhead groups for whom a race-based ideology of white supremacy was more important than profit motive.

In its seven-year existence, this experiment in law enforcement proved brutally effective, collaring countless skinhead small-timers like Kerns, and busting up several street gangs. Ultimately, political backbiting and budgetary constraints would conspire to end this Phoenix version of Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-hunting Inglourious Basterds, but not before the crew scored its crowning achievement – the dismantling of the Arizona chapter of a skinhead gang known for its pitiless violence and unhinged white-power ideology: a group of hard-drinking, Thor-worshipping reprobates with the misleadingly genteel name of the Vinlanders Social Club.

Silbert at Arizona Department of Public Safety in Phoenix; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Silbert at Arizona Department of Public Safety in Phoenix; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

The squad was the brainchild of Heston Silbert, at the time a Phoenix police lieutenant. A giant of a man at nearly 7 feet tall with an expertise in and a fascination with street and prison gangs, Silbert saw a need for Phoenix police to form a squad of detectives who would seek out the most prolific criminals in the Valley. “We knew the minute these hard-core career criminals came out of prison, they were going to go right back into a criminal lifestyle,” Silbert, now 52, explains over a breakfast of avocado toast at First Watch in Mesa.

“And if they were a high enough level prisoner within the gang culture, we also knew it just took one of them to drive crime in a neighborhood,” Silbert adds. “Because they had so much power.”

Silbert has worked street gangs on and off since the beginning of his career, with stints in the Phoenix PD’s gang unit and then the FBI’s Violent Gang Task Force, in which local law enforcement agencies partner with federal and state agencies to fight gang violence. His vision for a small group of highly motivated crime fighters also included targeting skinheads and white supremacist gangs. As the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia, he was sensitive to the needs of minorities, and acutely aware of the insidious threat posed by unchecked racial enmity.

Most street gangs commit acts of mayhem while “going after each other,” Silbert says. By contrast, white supremacist gangs often were “victimizing victims,” e.g., the Latina house-cleaner taking a late bus home or the African-American man minding his own business on the light rail. “They are targeted for nothing more than being born a certain ethnicity, religion or orientation,” Silbert notes. “Not because they signed up to be a part of any gang warfare. I found that deplorable, and I felt we were not giving it enough attention in law enforcement.”

An early influence on the squad was Michele Lefkowith of the Anti-Defamation League, whom Silbert befriended prior to the squad’s formation. An ex-hippie who once lived on an ashram in India, Lefkowith had been monitoring extremist groups for decades as the ADL’s Southwest regional investigator. She regularly collaborated with law enforcement, and often trained cops in the peculiar subculture of racist skinheads.

The former flower child bonded with the detectives over their mutual objective of putting the boot to violent racists, despite the fact that she and her police pals came from two different worlds: Lefkowith from the social-justice realm, and the detectives from the land of law and order. “I was simply about walking the line and getting the bad guys,” remembers Lefkowith, who retired from the ADL last year. “And that’s why we worked so well together.”

With Lefkowith as their mentor, Silbert’s new squad would morph into an anti-racist A-Team, tackling prison-based white supremacist gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, as well as a variety of skinhead organizations large and small. But first, Silbert had to sell the concept to the PPD brass. He approached his boss, Frank Milstead, then commander of the PPD’s major offender bureau, of which the career criminal squad would become a part.

A gregarious individual with an intimate knowledge of the serpentine politics of police work, Milstead would take Silbert with him to the Mesa Police Department as his second in command, after Milstead became police chief there in 2010. Five years later, Silbert followed Milstead to DPS, when Governor Doug Ducey appointed Milstead to lead the department. Silbert created criminal squads at both agencies.

In 2008, Milstead said grace over Silbert’s Phoenix squad, and Silbert began to assemble a crew of cops, who had the ability to work undercover and simultaneously conduct complex investigations into various criminal enterprises. The squad initially consisted of five men: four officers and a sergeant by the name of Bill Long, a veteran undercover cop with experience working everything from motorcycle gangs to Asian organized crime. Long was the perfect lead, willing and able to jump in to do a drug or gun buy, work a source or ride along as backup if needed.

Long, now deputy director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, recalls the squad as being composed of “all Type A personalities” guaranteed to rub the upper echelon the wrong way. However, Long commanded the squad’s respect as a fellow cop, one who had been involved in several high-profile undercover operations over the years.

Interestingly, the functioning of the squad resembled the classic “mission command” doctrine of warfare, wherein subordinates are given an objective and the freedom of action necessary to achieve that goal. “Frank and Heston, their policy was, if you’ve got to buy a car, buy a car,” Long explains. “If you’ve got to buy a gun, buy a gun… whatever we had to do to get into these [career criminals] we would do.”

Neo-Nazi Chad Kerns; Photo Courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections
Neo-Nazi Chad Kerns; Photo Courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections

According to Silbert and Long, they never had to prompt the men to work, though they might have to rein them in occasionally.

One of their first recruits was Ray Egea, the squad’s stealthy maestro of mixed martial arts. Now retired, Egea is happy to recall some of the squad’s exploits. Over a stir-fry lunch at Pei Wei Asian Kitchen, he describes how the squad once got a tip that an AB member, suspected of stabbing a security guard at Arrowhead Towne Center, was holed up in a trailer park located at Union Hills Drive and Seventh Street.

Egea alerted other members of the squad and headed for the AB member’s address. Upon arriving, he decided to take the suspect into custody on his own, rather than wait for backup. Egea cornered the man outside his trailer, grabbing his shirt, but the man tore away. The chase was on. Egea didn’t have his radio, but a police helicopter sputtered overhead, and he could hear fellow squad member John Justus behind him, yelling out for him in the darkness.

The suspect jumped a fence and Egea followed, only to discover that it was a dead end. Egea, a thin, muscular man of Latino-Asian descent, began duking it out with the AB member. “I get one handcuff on him, and I hear John say, ‘Ray, where are you?’” Egea remembers. “All of a sudden, John has basically pushed the fence down, and come through the fence.”

From that day forward, Egea tagged Justus with the nickname, “Kool-Aid,” because his partner reminded him of how the Kool-Aid Man busted through walls in old television commercials.

Asked why he hadn’t waited for backup that night before apprehending a dangerous perpetrator, Egea shrugs and admits that it might have been better to stay put until help arrived, but it had never crossed his mind to do so.

If the CCS was a Nazi-collaring A-Team of badasses, then Ed Warner was its Templeton Peck, aka “Face,” who could charm an informant with the ease of an urbane con man buttering up a mark. Warner and Long had been undercover partners previously, working on a long-term sting operation targeting traffickers in stolen property. Warner’s trick while working undercover was getting suspects to like him. “I made these guys my friends,” Warner explains. “They really thought I was their friend. And in the end, when they go to prison, they look at you, like, ‘You were my friend, man. You fucked me [over]!’”

Interviewing witnesses was like seduction, Warner claims. “Sometimes you have to make them feel like you’re attracted to them. So you convince them they’re that hot chick.”

Ayala and Egea, 2012; Photo courtesy Ray Egea
Ayala and Egea, 2012; Photo courtesy Ray Egea

Saul Ayala was the squad’s Serpico, having served on the PPD since the early 1980s, much of it undercover. In 1994, he survived a sawed-off shotgun blast to the face after he and other officers responded to a hostage situation where a man had handcuffed his ex-girlfriend and was threatening to kill her. The suspect wounded two other officers before being killed in the ensuing gun battle.

Then there was the group’s junior member, Justus, whose last name is true to his single-minded pursuit of bullies, thugs and murderers. An ex-Army Ranger with an Archie Bradley beard and a love of country music and high-proof bourbon, Justus was a hunter of deer, wild turkey, bull elk and Nazis. And like the men serving under Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine in the Tarantino flick, he had a glint in his eye that would set a white supremacist’s hair on end.

Justus was often partnered with Egea, who describes Justus as unstoppable. “If your kid is ever missing, and their face put on a milk carton, and you want someone to find them, that would be John,” Egea says.

Yet Justus, who has been shot three times in the line of duty, enjoys a boisterous and un-PC sense of humor. Of hunting wild turkeys, for instance, he describes them as “very smart birds” whom you have to lure in with turkey calling sounds in order to shoot them. “A fat turkey is a dead turkey,” he says. “Love calling those birds in. [It’s] the most fun a man can have with his pants on.”

He delights in tracking more dangerous game as well – neo-Nazis in particular. There are similarities between wild animals and the likes of the Vinlanders. In both cases, Justus says, you have to “have an understanding of the behavior you’re after.” And, he adds, “[You] can’t be a pussy if you’re gonna hunt killers, or things that may kill you.”

It was Egea, working with disarming undercover man Warner and, later, Justus, who cracked the case of Walgreens beating villain Kerns. In December 2008, 18 months after the crime, they picked up the case from a different Phoenix PD unit and approached Lefkowith, their trusted source at the Anti-Defamation League.

Did Lefkowith know of a local skinhead with a red cast? the detectives asked.

Vinlander Travis Ricci (left) and fellow skinhead Aaron Levi Schmidt; Photo courtesy Phoenix Police Department
Vinlander Travis Ricci (left) and fellow skinhead Aaron Levi Schmidt; Photo courtesy Phoenix Police Department

She scoured her voluminous files on skinheads, anti-Semites and assorted haters, drawn from social media, court records and old-fashioned street intelligence. “Myspace was big at the time,” Lefkowith remembers. “And the red cast rang a bell.”

She turned up a photo of Kerns from Myspace, his arms around an unidentified girl, a crimson cast on his right forearm. With this piece of the puzzle and some help from confidential informants, Phoenix police arrested Kerns and three of his henchmen, charging them with multiple counts of aggravated assault and assisting a criminal street gang.

In 2009, Kerns pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated assault, and Superior Court Judge Kristin Hoffman sentenced Kerns to 10 years in prison. An aspiring tattoo artist, Kerns began his decade in the state pen with a swastika and the word “skinhead” inked on his brow. As this issue went to press, he was scheduled to be released in late May. Nearly every centimeter of his face and neck is now tattooed with white power symbols and ghoulish designs.

Another of Kerns’ crew caught five years in the slammer for his part in the attacks. The others got off with probation. For the Career Criminal Squad, it was the first of several successful cases collaborating with Lefkowith in busting up white power street gangs – a private-public partnership of sorts, rare in the insular, siloed world of law enforcement.

It was their test case, and it worked. But a bigger test was yet to come.

The Career Criminal Squad had excellent timing. Just as squad members Egea and Justus were honing their expertise in white supremacist gangs – both prison-based gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood, and garden-variety skinheads – one of the most dangerous specimens of this emerging subculture was gaining purchase in the Valley: the Vinlanders Social Club.

The Aryan Brotherhood and skinhead gangs both affiliate with white solidarity, but each has a distinct raison d’etre.

In a 2013 article for The Guardian, Leonard Zeskind, the author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, categorized the Aryan Brotherhood as a “sprawling criminal enterprise” committed to drug dealing, murder for hire and other crimes of profit.

Though the AB recruits members from skinhead ranks, skinheads and other white nationalist groups stand apart from the AB, Zeskind explains. AB members use the same symbolism and some of the same language, but are far less ideological than their less powerful cousins, the skinheads, who are more focused on hatred of nonwhites.

Founded in 2003, the Vinlanders Social Club, which once had chapters in several states, is of the skinhead variety of white nationalist. Their identifying patch is a shield bearing a gold laurel wreath on a background of red, white and blue stripes. Their hand sign is a three-finger salute called “the shocker,” which has a lewd sexual meaning.

The Vinlanders’ penchant for explosive violence even frightened fellow skins, who sometimes caught beatdowns for perceived insults or just being slow with a Hitler salute. It was Lefkowith who put the Vinlanders on the Career Criminal Squad’s front burner, alerting Justus and Egea to a cold case out of Mesa, where neo-Nazi Cory Simpson had been stabbed to death at a skinhead party on Christmas Eve in 2005.

Simpson, 31, had been a leader of the Canyon State Skinheads, the group that would be absorbed into the national Vinlander organization. Speculation is that Simpson got too big for his britches, and his fellows saw him as a low-rent Caesar who had to be given the Brutus treatment.

After Simpson’s death, David Fecke-Stoudt became the VSC’s Arizona leader. In 2006, corpulent skinhead Chris Gromberg, who had taken Simpson to the hospital the night of Simpson’s murder, was found shot to death, execution style, in Lake Havasu. Other skinheads had suspected Gromberg of snitching. Court records indicate that they likely were mistaken, but it didn’t save Gromberg from two bullets to the back of the skull.

Fecke-Stoudt was present at both the Gromberg and Simpson killings, but it was his tangential involvement with a skinhead murder that he didn’t actually witness – that of a Sunnyslope woman named Kelley Jaeger – that would eventually lead to the Vinlanders’ unraveling.

Jaeger, a 39-year-old Caucasian , was walking through Sunnyslope’s Palma Park on a moonlit night in October 2009 with her black boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker, when she crossed paths with a shirtless, inebriated Travis Ricci, a probate member of the Vinlander Social Club, who had been partying with fellow skins at a nearby home when he decided to take a stroll.

Spotting the interracial couple, the 29-year-old bird-dogged them, yelling, “Hey, n****r, what are you doing with that white woman?” according to the Phoenix PD report and Wellmaker’s eventual testimony at Ricci’s trial. Wellmaker testified that he wanted to throw down, but Jaeger pulled her boyfriend along, telling him not to fight. Ricci stalked them for several blocks, taunting Wellmaker with racial epithets, and shouting, “This is white power!”

At some point Ricci abandoned the pair, returning to the party house – the residence of a fellow skinhead named Ryan Maltba – where, according to witnesses present, Ricci told his neo-Nazi confreres he’d encountered a white woman being menaced by black toughs, enlisting the skinheads in her rescue.

A skinny, heavily tatted ex-con with the ironically Jewish-sounding name of Aaron Levi Schmidt offered to drive as Ricci grabbed a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun with a pistol grip that Schmidt had brought with him to the party. They caught up with Wellmaker and Jaeger near East Puget Avenue and Seventh Street. Schmidt slowed down and Ricci fired two rounds from the passenger side, gunning for Wellmaker, but felling Jaeger. One shot hit Jaeger in the stomach, the other went wild. Wellmaker was unharmed.

Wellmaker called 911 from a nearby payphone. Police were in the area and arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting. Officers found Wellmaker crouched near an unconscious Jaeger, crying for her to “Wake up!” The Phoenix Fire Department transported Jaeger to nearby John C. Lincoln Hospital, located just a few blocks from the scene of the shooting. She was dead on arrival.

High school yearbook portrait of Kelley Jaeger, victim of Vinlander Travis Ricci; Photo Courtesy 1987 yearbook for Division Avenue High School in Levittown, NY
High school yearbook portrait of Kelley Jaeger, victim of Vinlander Travis Ricci; Photo Courtesy 1987 yearbook for Division Avenue High School in Levittown, NY

As with the Kerns case, the Jaeger homicide stalled, with investigators first thinking it might be the byproduct of a drug deal gone bad. Jaeger and Wellmaker were homeless, living from hotel room to hotel room and sometimes on the street. Both had done time for low-level felonies, and Wellmaker would eventually admit that he had been dealing crack cocaine on the night of the homicide.

Details of the crime soon found their way to ADL investigator Lefkowith. Based on Wellmaker’s account to the police, she was convinced that Jaeger’s killing was a hate crime, so she kept after the Career Criminal Squad to pursue the investigation. In keeping tabs on skinheads, Justus had placed a “file stop” on ex-con William Sherrill, a Vinlander and prohibited possessor. A file stop flags an individual, so if they are detained by law enforcement, the detective who placed the file stop is alerted.

In December 2009, Sherrill was pulled over by Phoenix police, who discovered guns, drugs, knives, a credit card machine, a bulletproof vest and ammo in his truck. Sherrill was arrested, Justus was notified. Looking at returning to prison for what he had in his vehicle, Sherrill decided to cooperate. He informed Justus of several crimes he and others were involved in. He would testify at the Ricci trial, telling the jury that Ricci had copped to killing Jaeger.

Sherrill had also been present outside the 1800s Saloon on Cave Creek Road in Phoenix on July 28, 2009, when Vinlander Charlie Mullen, on a whim, took out a knife and stabbed a man he’d just met, Andrew Paech, multiple times in the torso, killing him.

Fecke-Stoudt, the Arizona Vinlander president, was also at the 1800s Saloon when Paech was killed, making him a witness to three murders: that of Paech, Simpson and Gromberg. Working on a tip, Justus and the CCS picked Fecke-Stoudt up on suspicion of threatening Maltba to keep him quiet about the murder of Jaeger – an act tantamount to hindering prosecution and assisting a criminal street gang that would send the paroled felon back to prison. Rather than do another stretch in the hoosegow, Fecke-Stoudt flipped on his Vinlander mates.

From left: William Sherrill, David Bounds, Charlie Mullen and Aaron Levi Schmidt; Photos Courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections; Phoenix Police Department
From left: William Sherrill, David Bounds, Charlie Mullen and Aaron Levi Schmidt; Photos Courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections; Phoenix Police Department

He fingered skinhead David Bounds for the Gromberg murder, and Vinlander Toby Ray Gaspard for Simpson’s knifing. Justus took the case against Bounds to the Arizona attorney general’s office, which indicted Bounds for first-degree murder. Bounds pleaded guilty in 2016 and is currently serving a life sentence.

In 2012, Gaspard was indicted for the Simpson slaying. He later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Working from Fecke-Stoudt’s statements, police would later find out that Mullen and another man, AB member Craig Michael Devine, had earlier murdered two men at a warehouse in Tempe owned by one of the victims. In 2015, Mullen pleaded no contest to three counts of first-degree murder for the killings at the 1800s Saloon and in Tempe. He’s currently serving three life sentences and, according to Justus, has become a leader of the Arizona Aryan Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Fecke-Stoudt and his fellow skinhead turncoats put the police onto Ricci for the Jaeger homicide. Ricci, already in jail on other charges, was indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury for Jaeger’s murder in 2010.

Ricci would not go to trial for the Jaeger slaying until 2018. An all-white jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on January 9, 2019, but in the penalty phase, jurors bought the defense’s tales of Ricci’s childhood abuse, including a lachrymose account of how his mother’s boyfriend killed his puppy when he was a tot. He pulled natural life behind bars instead.

Like French actress Jeanne Moreau once said, “Nothing lasts.”

Though the CCS won numerous awards, including honors from the ADL and from the 100 Club of Arizona, it was not long for this Earth. Specialty squads are more likely to fall to the budgetary axe than other police initiatives, according to Silbert. “The targeting of career criminals or predatory criminals is much more narrow than the vast needs of the community for the radio call,” he explains. “So when manpower becomes a premium, some of these specialty units will suffer.”

The PPD considered disbanding the squad in 2010, but relented in the face of public outcry. Media, community leaders and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), the PPD’s union for rank-and-file cops, joined forces in persuading city hall from cutting the CCS. But once Silbert and Milstead left for Mesa, the squad lost its protectors within the department. It would continue for several more years, but never quite in the same form as when Silbert was in charge.

Another blow: The squad’s go-to prosecutor, Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Vince Goddard, would soon be hired away by Pinal County.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stepped in after Silbert decamped, helping the CCS with funding. An ATF special agent, Chris Livingstone, aka, “Cricket,” worked so closely with the squad, that detectives saw him as the CCS’ “fifth Beatle,” so to speak.

But the brass began to put more and more strictures on the crime fighters. They no longer had the same flexibility and freedom that they once had. Long believes that, to some extent, the CCS was a victim of its own success. It became a target of envy, and the unit “scared people at upper management who had never done that kind of work.”

Justus retired from the PPD in 2015, though he attended most of the Ricci trial and was one of prosecutor Ryan Green’s star witnesses. Asked if he was disappointed that the jury gave Ricci natural life, without the possibility of parole, instead of capital punishment, he says, “Yeah, but what are you going to do about that? Some people just don’t want to put someone to death.”

He still hunts, but just wild game these days, not Nazis. Does he miss being a cop? “I miss some things,” he grumbles. “I don’t miss the politics. I shouldn’t have to fight to do my job.”

Warner and Ayala are still at the PPD. Long moved on to the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, and Egea, like Justus, retired.

Asked what made the CCS so successful, Silbert says it was the men. “They were the ones who put it on paper,” he says. “They were the ones that were out there working undercover. They were the ones who were putting those cases together. They were the ones staying up 24-48 hours without sleeping in the name of the mission that they believed in.”

He pauses for a moment, then adds, “The guys who were on the squad, they were just a different breed. They’re fierce guys. There’s not one of those guys to be trifled with, whether alone or in a group.”