Editor's note: The story was originally produced by WBIR in 2016. We are republishing now because a suspected member of the Aryan Nation gang is wanted for the shooting of a Knoxville police officer on January 12, 2018.
(May 10, 2016) The biggest gang in the area is one that hardly makes headlines. With more than 230 members, the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group, is the largest gang that has found a home in Knox County.
There are a total of 1,500 gang members in the area, with more than 50 different groups. But as the largest gang, the Aryan Nation manages to keep fairly quiet.
“The white supremacist groups commit the same crimes that the Bloods and Crips commit,” said Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen. “It seems for some reason a lot of the cases we have with the white supremacist groups - they tend to plead their cases or admit their guilt or then to go away more quietly.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups in the United States, and found there were 892 total in the country in 2015. That was up 14 percent from the year before, when there were 784.
Detective Tom Walker with the Knox County Sheriff’s Department has spent years tracking the Aryan Nation.
“We've seen them do bank robberies, home invasions and straight-up armed robberies. Meth dealing is a big issue for them,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of meth sales out in the street and also into the prison system.”
Walker said prison doesn’t keep members of white supremacist gangs from conducting their business. They operate almost like the military in prison – manned with soldiers, captains, generals, all the way up to the president of each Tennessee prison. Orders come from within, and are carried out on the streets.
As members rise in the ranks of the Aryan Nation gang, they will get more tattoos, explained Walker.
“It’s kind of a way to advertise who they are, it’s kind of a status symbol,” said Walker. “So when they go out into the exercise yard, they take off their shirt, then it’s readily apparent who they belong to, what their rank is in the gang, and then that status that they’re looking for.”
Walker expects to see the number of white supremacist gang members rise in our region as they are released from prison.
“It’s because we have the probation system for the federal and state,” he said. “They have to come here to report to their parole officer.”
Allen said the goal is to keep them from going back to their old ways once they have been released, but more importantly, to keep people from heading in that direction in the first place.
“A person turns to a gang for a reason, something is missing,” she explained. “Once you get into a gang, it is somewhat of a family, but it’s a family that is out there wreaking havoc.”
Allen said she thinks it is up to the community to find ways to fill the void, but Walker added he thinks it’s up to law enforcement to protect that same community.
“You gotta have both aspects,” he said. “Education to give the kids a way off it, or send them to prison. That’s the only way to really combat it.”
Walker said jails and prisons offer programs to help people leave the gang life behind. There is also a “gang enhancement law” on the books, which sentences members to more time behind bars.