Hitler's Henchmen: Out-of-state prisons breed Vermont's supremacist gang
BENNINGTON -- Timothy Dufresne said he has always been "race-oriented." But the Bennington-native's views trended more and more radical with each day served in various out-of-state prisons.
In Dufresne's eyes, whites are an oppressed majority soon to become a minority. Immigrants are taking jobs that rightly belong to Aryans. And once a white man is behind bars, African Americans are a distinct threat to life and limb.
It is precisely those beliefs that led Dufresne to help create Hitler's Henchmen, a white supremacist gang with ambitions to spread throughout Vermont. Its members number somewhere between a handful and several hundred, depending upon who is asked. But regardless of the gang's size, Dufresne's commitment to his cause is evident.
A swastika spreads across his back. Another adorns his fist. The lightning symbol of the elite Nazi SSunit responsible for annihilating European Jews is inked in several places, including his head. And the image of a black man hanging from a noose climbs his right arm.
"I live by guidelines. There's rules, as far as I'm concerned. I don't believe in blacks and whites being together. I just don't think it should be. I believe in keeping my race pure and keeping my race going," said Dufresne, who agreed to a recent interview at his Bennington apartment after initially declining a request.
Dufresne's experience is not atypical among offenders in Vermont, according to officials.
Vermont has a long, proud history of embracing progressive social views. It was the first state to prohibit slavery in its constitution, the first state to allow civil unions, and, in 2009, became the first state to pass legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.
So, it seems ironic that state policy could be one of the driving forces behind the radicalization of racial, ethnic and religious beliefs of some -- not all -- Vermont convicts.
The transformation of Vermont inmates into white supremacists seems to materialize from their contact with inmates in out-of-state prisons. Vermont currently holds contracts with Corrections Corporation of America to house many of its long-term inmates in Kentucky and Tennessee, although previous contracts have sent inmates to facilities in Alabama, Virginia, Texas and other states.
"There are certainly pros and cons to sending offenders out-of-state," Vermont Agency of Human Services Secretary Robert Hofmann said. "In the con category would be the opportunity to meet offenders out-of-state who would have a negative influence on them."
Hofmann, whose agency oversees the Vermont Department of Corrections, said inmates housed in out-of-state facilities require time at the back end of their sentences to be "reintegrated" into Vermont because of the disparate cultures.
Despite those negative consequences, however, there are positive financial impacts that Vermont officials simply cannot ignore, Hofmann said. Namely, it costs the state about $54,000 to house an inmate in Vermont and about $24,000 to send the same inmate to a CCA facility.
"I readily acknowledge the pros and cons in any public discussion," Hofmann said. "I think 49 other states would trade their problems with Vermont in a heartbeat."
Bennington County State Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said sending inmates to out-of-state prisons is "a recipe" for bringing back white supremacist views. The problem seems to have eased a bit, however, since inmates are no longer sent to Virginia and Alabama, he said.
Sears said he and other lawmakers would prefer inmates to remain in Vermont, but the state has no place to put them. There are about 2,200 inmates and only 1,500 beds.
"I haven't found a community yet that's willing to build a 700-bed facility," he said.
Meanwhile, Steve Owen, a spokesman for CCA, which operates 65 prisons in 20 states, said the company exerts considerable effort at its facilities to stifle gang activity. CCA prisons are not incubators for radical views, he said, adding, "I don't think that's been our experience, to be honest with you."
Rather, the racially charged views some Vermont inmates have embraced often arrive with them, he said. "Inmates bring those with them, and can take them back, obviously. I don't think we've seen the trend really one way or the other," Owen said.
Dufresne is just one example of an inmate predisposed to fully embrace a racist ideology in prison. He said his interest in joining a gang was borne out of self-preservation, but he seems to have fully adopted white supremacist and white separatist ideals. He casually interjects racial epithets in conversation, and blames foreigners for taking "white jobs" from people like his grandfather and himself, who have both had trouble finding work.
Dufresne said he's taken so strongly to white supremacist and separatist beliefs because of a number of personal experiences, which he declined to publicly elaborate. "Throughout my life things have happened that just instilled more and more in me that I need to be mindful of my own race," he said.
Having spent 11 of his 29 years either in prison or under other state supervision, the soft-spoken and bespectacled Dufresne is familiar with the unseemly underbelly of prison. The grouping of like-minded inmates is a natural phenomenon, as is violence, according to Dufresne, who said his experience has not been the exception.
"If you don't stand beside your friends, you're going to get beat up every day," he said.
Dufresne, who has served time in most Vermont facilities and a handful of out-of-state ones, said he is now doing more than just standing with his Aryan friends. In fact, he is helping to recruit and organize them.
He said he is second in command of Hitler's Henchmen, a relatively new white supremacist prison gang he helped establish. He claims to have personally recruited about 100 members, but state officials say he and others have dramatically overstated their membership.
The fledgling group is an offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood, the largest white supremacist prison group in the country, which was formed at San Quentin State Prison in California in the 1960s, according to Dufresne. Hitler's Henchmen was formed with an Aryan Brotherhood member who offered his blessing to the new group, Dufresne said.
"It's a respect thing," he said. "As a courtesy to my brothers, I went to them and presented the idea, and another friend of mine, we started our own thing."
Like most white supremacist groups, the neo-Nazi Hitler's Henchmen uses the "14 Words" as a motto. Coined by white separatist David Lane, the 14-word slogan calls for the preservation of the white race and "a future for white children." The group uses Lane's 88 precepts, a manifesto about securing a white society, as an "informal constitution," according to its leader.
"There's laws and there's rules for everything that we do. It's not like we just walk around calling people (racial epithet), and if I see a black guy on the street I'm not going to pound him for no reason. It's not like that," Dufresne said.
Despite his devotion to his gang and his beliefs, Dufresne said he is free of hatred.
"I don't hate anybody. I don't have hate for black people or any other race. I have my own feelings and beliefs," he said.
The leader of Hitler's Henchmen is also from Bennington. He is currently incarcerated at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, but is likely to soon be moved to an out-of-state facility.
Several requests to interview him in person at the prison were denied by the Department of Corrections, which cited security risks. But the inmate, who requested anonymity or the use of his street name, Superman, responded to written questions from the Banner.
In his handwritten response, the inmate said Hitler's Henchman was created "as an alliance of all the hard-core, solid, white, racist convicts" who were already "real loyal to one another."
The group is intended to be a Vermont-based movement for like-minded prisoners, he said. It was formed to share similar views, not to provide each other with protection from violence in Vermont prisons. The inmate said he had "no comment and never will" about the role that violence plays in the movement.
The racist prism through which he sees the world did not develop in prison, but was the result of being "a child growing up with a very racist, strict dad," according to the inmate. "As I continued to grow up, I developed and accepted that way of life," he wrote.
Members of Hitler's Henchmen consider themselves to be allies of other white supremacist or white separatist groups, the leader said. However, information about any specific alliance "is and always shall be secret to us and them," he wrote.
Robert Kupec, the Vermont Department of Corrections' facilities executive and head of security, said an in-person interview would not be allowed because the inmate has threatened to create "a disturbance" at the facility, and "has threatened the well-being of facility staff." The notoriety an in-person interview would bring to him could jeopardize safety at the facility, according to Kupec.
"We are not willing to participate in any way that will allow him to recruit through the media," Kupec said.
The inmate, who is in "administrative segregation," better known as solitary confinement, was informed by others of this article and sent a letter to the Banner indicating his willingness to be interviewed. Corrections officials allowed him to answer the written questions.
There are currently between 600 and 800 members of Hitler's Henchmen, most of them hailing from Vermont, Dufresne said. "There's people in Kentucky right now ... because we've spread to whatever jail we go to," he said.
Vermont Department of Corrections officials said they are aware of the group's presence within the Vermont prison system. However, Dominic Damato, the Vermont Department of Corrections' security and compliance auditor, said Dufresne's membership estimate is vastly overstated.
"I would have to say that's an exaggeration," he said. "We have information that it exists, but we're not even sure if it's completely affiliated with Aryan Brotherhood nationally."
Kupec said officials have been able to verify just a handful of members in the Vermont prison system. "To the best of my knowledge (the group) has only five members," Kupec said. "These are five that were in close proximity to (the leader) and friends of his in prison."
The department is constantly working to gather intelligence -- from department staff, outside law enforcement, community members and even inmates -- on gang activity, but much remains unknown about Hitler's Henchmen, according to Damato. The members are making an "attempt" to organize, he said, but do not appear to be as established as prison gangs in other states.
"I wouldn't necessarily say serious, but they're making an attempt," Damato said of the group's organization and membership.
Nonetheless, the department classifies Hitler's Henchmen as a "security threat group," which is the vernacular among corrections officials for a gang, and is doing its best to undermine its reach.
Heather Simons, principal assistant to Department of Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito, said groups like Hitler's Henchmen are difficult to track because they quickly evolve.
"I think what's important to remember with the gang problem is that we don't totally have a handle on it because it's completely changing," Simons said.
But intelligence gathering operations are providing more information about gang activity taking place in prison, and officials are working to make sense of the dynamic landscape, Simons said. Officials are more knowledgeable than ever before, she said, and are learning more each day.
"I think part of that is education and part of that is urban myth and part of it is true. We've got to get a handle on which is which," she said.
Dufresne certainly does not appear to be myth. His body is tattooed with symbols that most people find offensive -- swastikas, Nazi SS symbols, and perhaps most shocking, the lynching of a black man. With the help of his girlfriend, Dufresne proudly displayed them on the front porch of the couple's apartment.
For many, the symbols carry deep-seated emotional wounds, whether from personal experiences or the collective burden of history. Yet, Dufresne claims adverse reactions to his provocative tattoos are rare.
"Most of the time people shake my hand and say it's good to see somebody that is that race-oriented. Truthfully," he said. "I don't have anybody saying anything negative about them usually. Old people, sometimes they say something about it. A lot of the reason why the reactions are bad is just because it's not really (understood)."
The tattoos, Dufresne said, were done in prison with a makeshift ink gun made from a CD player motor, a pen and a needle.
"A lot of inmates are very creative," Damato said. "Unfortunately, it's not for good use."
Dufresne's experience with the legal system began early, at age 9. "I was a chronic runaway. I got in trouble in school because I was just wild. I was a wild kid," he said.
Dufresne served time in a juvenile detention facility before being charged as an adult following a physical altercation with his father. By 16, he was serving time in prison with adults. Around 18, he was shipped to a prison in Virginia. "They do, like, a couple executions a year there. It's a max security jail, you know?" Dufresne said.
Having served his previous time at Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland, the Greensville Correctional Facility in Virginia was an entirely new experience, Dufresne said.
"Vermonters are predominantly white, you know what I mean? Down there it was completely opposite," he said. "They have their gangs and they'll kill you. So, you've got to kind of stick to your own race and be a part of something that's your own or you're not gonna survive, really. It's just the way you gotta do it."
Prison changed Dufresne's personality, according to his girlfriend. "He's completely different -- his temper, his patience," she said. "In there all you have to do is defend yourself; there's no talking things over or saying, ‘All right, let's agree on this.'"
And there is no question, Dufresne said, that his time in Virginia, as well as Arizona and Kentucky, led to his gang membership. Had he stayed in Vermont his experience would have been much different, he said.
"I wouldn't have had to (join). I still would have had the same beliefs, as far as I'm concerned. But it wouldn't have gone to the extreme, I guess, that it did," Dufresne said.
Lonny Campbell, another Bennington-native serving time at the Lee Adjustment Facility, a CCA prison in Beattyville, Ky., said his out-of-state prison experience was also eye-opening.
"I came to prison really unaware of how much more prevalent race is a part of jail and prison systems," Campbell wrote in response to questions from the Banner. "In Vermont, prison is totally different time."
Campbell said he has been recruited by white supremacists, but is not a member of Hitler's Henchmen or affiliated with any groups. The "White Pride" tattoos on his arms, as well as the iron cross on his chest, represent separatist rather than supremacist beliefs, he said.
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups, said he has never heard of Hitler's Henchman. However, inmates who serve time in maximum security prisons like those run by CCA often become radicalized, he said.
"This is a phenomenon we see quite a lot of. Very often, people go to prison for crimes that really have nothing to do with race, but they find themselves very often in extremely racialized prisons. For their own safety they seem to join race-based gangs," Potok said. "This is a very common situation and it's a fairly predictable track that you see."
Many inmates espouse racist views "long enough to survive prison," Potok said, and leave those thoughts at the prison gates when they complete their time. Others, however, become more indoctrinated and carry those views beyond prison. "People who are not very racial when they go in can come out quite ideologically driven," he said.
Members of white supremacist or white separatist groups heavily recruit unaffiliated inmates, Potok said. An inmate will often receive letters promising a lucrative lifestyle if they affiliate themselves with various racist groups, he said. For many inmates, it's difficult to resist.
"All of the sudden the formerly hapless and friendless prisoner is being wooed by these people, and there are friends and women when you get out," he said. "It's all very attractive. There's women, there are often drugs, all kinds of other support that comes with getting into this world."
Despite the state's overwhelmingly white population, Potok said Vermont inmates are not seen by recruiters as being more susceptible to racist beliefs. In fact, it may be just the opposite, he said.
"I think the vast majority [of recruiters] see Vermont as more liberal and that they don't have a chance," he said.
Hitler's Henchmen may be a fledgling gang, Potok said, but "it does pose something of a danger." Similar groups are nearly always involved in criminal activity, he said.
"I think the reality really is that most of the race-based gangs are primarily criminal syndicates that are engaged in race-based crimes," he said. "It's not that they merely sit around ... talking about how great white people are.
"A lot of these really begin as really racially based, self-defense groups," Potok added. "They pretty much have all developed into mainly criminal enterprises."
Bennington Police Detective Sgt. David S. Rowland said his department is concerned with gang activity, including Hitler's Henchmen, and what it could lead to. Police are taking steps to monitor the activities of suspected white supremacists, he said.
"For us, it was an education process to understand what they are, who they are, what they mean," Rowland said.
Dufresne, meanwhile, maintains that Hitler's Henchmen is not an aggressive gang and does not seek violent encounters. But "violence brings violence," he said.
"If somebody disrespects me or any of my family, I'm going to do what I have to do against that person, but I'm not going to go looking for trouble," he said.
Dufresne said he does not consider himself to be a threat to anyone.
"I don't believe I am. I'm just trying to raise my family and do the best that I can for them. That's it. I'm not vandalizing ... and breaking into places. I do the family thing," he said. "I have my beliefs and (expletive), but I'm just trying to be the best father and best husband that I can be, just like everybody else."
The concerns raised by Rowland and others appear to have been warranted, however. Just days after his interview, Dufresne is said to have seriously wounded a neighbor in a fight.
According to court records, Dufresne beat the man with a broom stick he snapped in half over his knee, then stabbed the jagged shaft into the man's eye, leaving behind a splinter. The documents offer no indication the attack was motivated by Dufresne's white supremacist or separatist beliefs, however.
Dufresne fled the scene, but was apprehended by police several days later after he was found hiding under clothing and blankets in his mother's vehicle, according to police affidavits. He denied the charge and is now being held without bail in Rutland. He faces a lengthy prison sentence as a habitual offender.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org
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