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SALT LAKE CITY — Three white supremacist gangs, including one started in the Utah State Prison, have less street presence after federal and local police took down 21 purported members and associates for allegedly selling drugs and guns.
A 16-month, multi-agency investigation of Soldiers of Aryan Culture, Silent Aryan Nation and Noble Elect Thugs — a group authorities say is new to them — ended in 15 criminal indictments that were filed Friday in U.S. District Court.
"There are cynics who would say, 'Oh, this is just a response to the political debate that's going on this election season.' No," said U.S. Attorney John Huber.
President Donald Trump came under fire in the first presidential debate for not clearly denouncing white supremacy and telling the right-wing Proud Boys group, which is often tied to white supremacy, to "stand back and stand by."
In an NBC town hall on Thursday, the president repeatedly said he denounces white supremacy.
Huber said he was concerned that there might be the perception that the Department of Justice directed local jurisdictions to crack down on white supremacists to show the Trump administration is serious about rooting them out.
"But I don't know how it can be when we've been working on this since June of 2019," he said. "I think that's interesting in the political season where you have this debate going or at least accusations being made, but here you have the result of investigations that are a year plus old."
Huber said this is the second time law enforcers have gone after Soldiers of Aryan Culture, which traces it origin to the Utah State Prison in the 1990s. It has since spread to prison systems across the country. Among the 19 men and two women arrested in the latest investigation is the brother of the man who started the gang.
"It's one of ours. We own it and we're not proud of it," Huber said, calling the gang a "very unfortunate export of Utah."
Mike Schoenfeld, director of the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, said Soldiers of Aryan Culture and Silent Aryan Nation are "highly volatile and dangerous" criminal enterprises, committing crimes from identity theft to murder. They have strong ties to other white supremacy groups in the country, he said.
White supremacists deal in drugs and guns because it's lucrative, and they buy and sell from anyone, he said.
Schoenfeld said the gangs in prison hold tight to racial lines.
"But out on the street, they work with everybody. They don't care about race, color, creed, religion. They don't care," he said. "On the streets it's about making money, so out here they don't hold tight to that racial line, that white supremacy."
The 21 people arrested in the investigation face federal distribution of drugs and firearms charges, mostly in the Salt Lake City and Ogden areas. Police seized 1.6 pounds of methamphetamine and 15 guns during the operation. Authorities say those arrested have long criminal histories.
Huber said the joint investigations target groups rather than individuals. In the past five years, authorities have gone after more than 35 criminal organizations in Utah and convicted nearly 300 people in federal court.
"We have not waited for the criminals do something before we do something," he said. "We have taken the game to them. It's on our terms, not theirs."
In addition to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Ogden police, Unified police, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Salt Lake Area Metro Gang Unit, the Ogden Metro Gang Unit, the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, West Valley police and the State Bureau of Investigation were involved in the investigation.
The 21 people charged in 15 separate indictments are:
Jordan Anderson, 26, of West Valley City; Justin William Austin, 34, residence unknown; James William Broadhead, 43, of Salt Lake City; Jared Loren Brown, 31, of West Jordan; Michael Byrd, 44, of Sandy; Jerrad Luis Colvin, 35, residence unknown; Timothy Cox, 40, of Ogden; Amanda Lee Graham, 37, of Salt Lake City; Jesse Harris, 34, of Roy; Heather Brooke Hebdon, 45, of Clearfield; Brian Christopher Jenson, 29, of Garland; Timothy Daniel Jepsen, 34, of Riverdale; Bret Miller, 41, of Ogden; Johnathan Dale Miller, 35, of Plain City; Thomas James Radford, 45, of Salt Lake City; Tyler William Riding, 27, of Ogden; Chance Robinson, 39, of Provo; Richard Francis Ryan, 53, of Salt Lake City; Clinton Dean Spencer. 42, of Cedar Hills; Steven Mack Swena, 43, of West Valley City; and Cody Kelly Wright, 34, residence unknown.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly quoted Trump as saying "stand down and stand by" in the first debate when he actually said "stand back and stand by."