The Brotherhood, Part 2: The Rise of N.H.’s Homegrown Prison Gang
BOWW spread after violence in Berlin -- where the group was founded -- led officials to disperse members to the state prison in Concord (shown). (Concord Monitor - John Tully)
Theresa Gilman, 74, of Brentwood, visits the grave of her son, Anthony Renzzulla on Tuesday morning, November 26, 2013, exactly two years after his death in 2011. An inmate at Concord prison serving time for forging a $400 check and possessing drugs, Renzzulla's beaten body was found "lying on an exterior corridor outside pod 2B...on the second level of the housing facility," according to a state police affidavit. On July 26, 2011, he was a month away from being paroled when he was allegedly attacked by two BOWW members who learned, according to court records, Renzzulla had been snitching on them. Following the attack, he spent three weeks in a coma and another 16 weeks on life support at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield.
(Concord Monitor - John Tully)
Made with a pen, a fan motor, a toothbrush, dental floss and using a paperclip as the needle, tattoo guns and tattoos are sometimes associated with prison gangs. It was confiscated at the Merrimack County House of Corrections in Boscawen, N.H. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)
Drugs including tobacco and pills are often wrapped up and smuggled through an incoming inmate's anal cavity, some of which is seized through searches and confiscated at the Merrimack County House of Corrections in Boscawen, N.H. (Concord - Monitor - John Tully)
Concord — Within months of forming in late 2005, the Brotherhood of White Warriors had spread its roots inside the New Hampshire correctional system. By 2008, it was the state’s fastest-growing prison gang, according to estimates from officials. Three years on, in 2011, the FBI added BOWW to a list of known criminal groups that posed a threat in the state.
As the group expanded, prison authorities struggled to keep pace. They devoted more resources to tracking BOWW and other known gangs, acquiring new technology, providing enhanced training for security staff and improving communication with prison and law enforcement officials in neighboring states.
Eradicating gang activity was never the goal, said Tim Coulombe, a state prison investigator and gang expert. Managing it was.
But with BOWW in play, that was becoming increasingly difficult. Not only was the group growing in stature, it was also beginning to distance itself from its original focus around protection and personal growth, officials said.
As founders were either paroled or shipped to facilities out of state, younger, more profit-seeking inmates with street gang experience stepped in. Drug use among members became more rampant, as did extortion, officials said.
Violence was at times severe and targeted. By 2011, a feeble 44-year-old inmate who BOWW leaders allegedly believed to be a snitch was dead, more than a year after being brutally beaten by two suspected members.
In effect, Coulombe said, BOWW was walking the path that so many prison gangs before it had traveled: evolving into the very entity it had been created to stop.
“They turn into and start doing those actions that they had been protecting themselves from,” he said. “Which spurs up other groups. It’s a revolving door.”
Created by white inmates in the Berlin prison, BOWW grew early on through a combination of targeted recruitment, rising clout and opportune conditions. When it was founded, New Hampshire prisons were dominated by Hispanic gang members, Coulombe said. White prisoners, by contrast, lacked a sizable, organized presence.
The group built its reputation in part through daily routine. It established rigid workout schedules, Coulombe said, and members exercised publicly and in unison, conveying a message of strength, discipline and preparation. Members were directed to study, avoid drugs and respect the corrections staff.
Many of the recruiting methods remain in place today and are similar to those used by other gangs, Coulombe said. Prospective members are screened: sex offenders and anyone suspected of cooperating with law enforcement are barred from the group.
“The general consensus is (sex offenses are) not … I don’t want to say an ‘honorable crime,’ but it’s a crime that’s looked down upon in the inmate population,” Coulombe said.
The shakedown process is common in the state’s prisons and jails, Coulombe said, and is not tied to gangs. When a new inmate arrives, he is often approached by one or more established inmates and ordered to show his records. Those are then used to determine whether the newcomers can be recruited as gang members or extorted for money, goods or drug smuggling.
Gangs wield particular influence because of their size, Coulombe said, and their leaders often use that to promise protection to those extorted.
Coulombe and Lt. Lenny O’Keefe, the training coordinator at Merrimack County jail, said extortion is hard to monitor because it’s so subtle. A vulnerable inmate may “pay rent” to the other inmates in his housing unit with money or with more mundane items such as the potato chips or cake that come with meals, O’Keefe said. Nearly everything has increased value in prison.
Money exchanges are done indirectly and are therefore next to impossible to track, Coulombe and O’Keefe said. Inmates who pay rent or money for smuggled drugs do it by asking family members to transfer funds to the gang members’ contacts on the outside.
“A lot of stuff happens through family members and associates on the outside,” Coulombe said. “ ‘Have your brother give it to my brother.’ ”
The money comes back to the gang through various channels. Contacts can put the money on gang members’ phone cards or in their inmate accounts. They may use the money to buy drugs and smuggle it into the prison, or hold it until a member’s release.
Exchanges commonly involve drugs, Coulombe said. A prescription pill that sells on the street for $80 can be quartered and sold for four times that in prison, O’Keefe said. Tobacco is similarly valuable.
Drugs and other contraband often arrive by mail or in body cavities, or it’s picked up at a drop-off site and transported in by a work-release prisoner, Coulombe said. Last year in Berlin, a former inmate was caught tossing drugs and a hunting knife over a fence and into the prison yard, just two weeks after his release. He was convicted and has since returned to prison.
Efforts to Keep Up
By 2008, the state Corrections Department had begun to catch up with BOWW and other gangs it was tracking. It sent Coulombe to Berlin and focused his attention on gang activity alone. Correctional officers were taught new techniques to detect and track suspected members, such as monitoring tattoos and routinely updating an online database.
At the center of the campaign was a new tagging system, which remains in place today, Coulombe said. Adopted from Rockingham County, it assigns points to inmates for interactions they have with known gang members. When a prisoner reaches 10 points, he becomes a labeled gang member.
The Merrimack County jail, in Boscawen, uses a similar model. Inmates earn one point for having contact with a known gang member and two points if a law enforcement source outside the jail identifies them as gang members. A gang tattoo brings eight points; possessing membership paperwork carries nine.
No one activity is enough to validate an inmate as a member, O’Keefe said, including self-identification.
At the jail, officials photograph new inmates’ tattoos and compare them with a chart of known gang symbols, including BOWW’s, an Iron Cross with the group’s initials down the center and prison bars on the sides. Arrivals are also given a gang questionnaire, on which many confirm their membership, O’Keefe said.
A photograph taken at the jail of Matthew Peters, one of the two suspects in what the police describe as a gang-related armed robbery in Concord earlier this year, shows a slightly altered version of the BOWW tattoo — “NH” is added to the design — on his forearm. The words “White Warrior” are inked across his stomach. The other suspect, Daniel Boothby, a former Charlestown resident, bears the BOWW tattoo on his chest, next to an Iron Eagle. The word “Warrior” spans his upper back.
Inmates who don’t come in with a tattoo often get one inside, in violation of facility rules, using makeshift ink guns built from motors inside cassette players and other electronics, Coulombe said.
Online advances have also helped prison officials monitor gang activity, giving them easy access to information from law enforcement and prison officials in other states. Since the Concord robbery in February, prison and jail officials have begun routinely sharing names and details about BOWW with the Concord Police Department and officials in Sullivan County, from where many leaders and members hail.
But technology has also played into gang members’ hands, Coulombe said. Contacts on the outside can easily pull up details about new and existing inmates by searching their names on the Internet, through either the prison’s inmate locater or a search engine.
“Law enforcement has really changed in the last few years,” Coulombe said. “These non-law-abiding citizens are doing the same, and they’ve been doing it a lot longer than law enforcement has.”
Putting BOWW ‘On the Map’
Extorting rent and forcing vulnerable inmates to smuggle drugs are among the most prevalent problems for corrections officials. But assaults by and between gangs are a threat, too.
Prison officials try to protect vulnerable inmates by relocating them to a different unit, but it’s not a guarantee. And it’s impossible to separate all gang members from others or to keep them under 24-hour surveillance. The only maximum security facility is in Concord, called the secure housing unit, or SHU.
“We don’t put somebody in SHU just because they’re a gang member,” Coulombe said. “Our SHU would be full.”
BOWW’s violent behavior peaked July 26, 2010, according to the police, when two members living in the same medium-security housing unit in Concord fatally beat fellow inmate Anthony Renzzulla.
Leaders believed Renzzulla was snitching on them, according to a police affidavit.
The case is still pending trial. But records suggest gang allegiance played a significant role in the attack. Randall Chapman, then a BOWW member, had tried to defend Renzzulla before the attack but followed an order from a superior, Frank Philbrook, of Newport, to clean the bloodied scene, the affidavit said. One of the alleged attackers, William Edic, apologized to Chapman about Renzzulla but said he too had to follow orders.
Renzzulla spent three months in a coma and an additional 16 months on life support at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, before succumbing to his injuries Nov. 26, 2011.
Neither Edic, Chapman nor Philbrook returned requests for comment.
BOWW leaders later issued a hit, known as a TOS or “terminate on sight,” on Chapman because they believed he was cooperating with investigators, according to a police affidavit.
Following orders is inscribed in BOWW’s “bylaws,” a copy of which was recovered by jail officials and provided to the Concord Monitor by O’Keefe.
“Aid and assist all comrades, right or wrong,” it reads. “BOWW comes before all.” The rules aren’t unique, Coulombe said. Most gangs have some sort of paramilitary-style structure and require that members follow orders and keep quiet. According to a police detective, BOWW’s pecking order begins with Council, Commission of the Council and BOWW lord, and descends from there to general, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, warrior, patch holder and prospect.
The authorities believe Renzzulla’s death, if not ordered outright by BOWW, was at least viewed as an opportunity by some members to publicize their brand.
After stomping and beating Renzzulla to death, according to the affidavit, Edic and Thomas Milton, the other alleged BOWW member charged in the homicide, told Chapman the attack would “put BOWW on the map.”
A Life Lost
Renzzulla had a troubled history of his own. His 74-year-old mother, Theresa Gilman, said he’d been in and out of prison most of his life, usually for violating his parole or probation. She said Renzzulla suffered from back pain and walked with a cane, and had been a month away from parole when he was assaulted. He was serving time for a forged $400 check, which he had swiped from a friend’s daughter, and for possessing drugs.
“He wasn’t an angel by any means, because if he was, he wouldn’t have been in prison,” Gilman said. “But he had a lot of good things about him that people loved.”
The attack on Renzzulla had been set as a trap, according to the police affidavit. He was lured to a room under the guise that another inmate using intravenous drugs needed help finding a vein.
Gilman learned of the beating in a telephone call from a prison employee. Renzzulla was in a coma for three months and then on life support until his death. She spent the months in between at his bedside, combing his hair, playing him music on the radio, praying. “There was no response,” she said.
Gilman considered having Renzzulla removed from life support but couldn’t work up the courage. On Nov. 26, 2011, a staff member called and told her his organs were failing on their own. She and her husband rushed to the hospital. Renzzulla was dead by the time they arrived.
“This is what (Renzzulla’s assailants) did to me. They ruined me,” said Gilman, who visits her son’s grave site often. “Not only him but me, too. My heart goes out to him all the time. I don’t think it would be as bad if he hadn’t died that way. It’s very hard to forget.”
Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 603-369-3319 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 603-369-3323 or email@example.com.