Meth sent Bryan Childers to prison.
Joining a gang, he thought, would help him survive.
But his decision to become a member of the Aryan Circle, a white supremacy gang, was one that his family didn’t support and one he would come to regret.
A fight years later with a rival Aryan Brotherhood member had left Childers certain of one thing — he was going to be killed.
“I was trying to get him out and get him into a different life,” said Carrie Childers. Bryan’s sister. “He kept saying, there was no way he could get out. They were going to kill him. He kept saying this over and over and over. Terrified. I’ve never seen my brother scared, ever, in my life.”
Inside the garage of a northside Fort Worth home where he had been staying, Childers premonition would come true on April 17, 2014.
In a vicious attack by his rival and three other Aryan Brotherhood members, he was beaten, strangled and bound with an extension cord, and stabbed.
Days later, his body was dismembered with a reciprocating saw inside a Hurst dog grooming business; his body parts tucked inside cement-filled buckets and later tossed into the Trinity River.
“My son did not deserve to die like that,” said June Smallwood, Childers’ mother. “He was not a great person but the man had a heart.”
Although Childers’ remains have never been recovered, seven Aryan Brotherhood members and associates were charged in connection with the case on charges ranging from murder to tampering with evidence.
In late August, the last of the cases drew to a close.
Five members received prison sentences ranging from 50 to 10 years, three in plea deals reached with prosecutors. One had his case dismissed after cooperating with investigators. The only female defendant received two-years deferred adjudication probation.
“I felt like they did the best they could,” Carrie Childers said. “I wasn’t satisfied with a lot of the sentencing but it’s something I’ll have to live with and I’ll always have to worry about because they’re always going to be out there.”
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Bryan Childers was a Keller High School graduate, a carpenter who could build anything with his hands, and a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan.
Eventually, he would add meth addict and father to his titles.
In August 2002, just months after the birth of his daughter, Ronni, Childers was sentenced to two years in prison for a possession of meth conviction out of Southlake.
In letters to his mom and sister, Childers never mentioned he was joining the Aryan Circle, though with hindsight the signs were there.
There were the drawings of lightning bolts — symbols embraced by white supremacist groups. And the time he wrote about being banned from contact visits after being placed in solitary confinement for fighting — a fight his mother now believes stemmed form his initiation into the gang.
“I read these letters all the time. They’re my lifeline to him,” Smallwood said. “It’s as plain as day. The way he talks about things, and getting in trouble. I just didn’t see it then because I didn’t know anything about gangs.”
An offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, the Aryan Circle was formed in the mid 80s by white supremacist Mark “Cowboy” Gaspardin.
“A lot of them were former ABT members that just didn’t like the direction of how the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was operating so they decided to form their own prison gang,” said Steve Lair, a task force offcier with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s national gang unit.
Both gangs have constitutions - or rules of conduct - in place and operate under a para-military structure.
Lair said like other prison gangs that have formed made up of other races, “it’s all based on protection in the beginning.”
“Later it expands inside the state and federal prisons to the outside and it becomes for-profit, a criminal organization,” he said. “What skill sets do you have that can benefit, as they call it, the family?”
And while groups like the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads are focused mainly racial hatred, Lair said often it’s the all-mighty dollar that drives both the ABT and AC gangs.
“They use that fear factor that’s associated with Nazi area symbology. They sell that because they know that scares people and that’s a good recruiting tool for disenfranchised white kids,” Lair said. “But while they’ll use it to their benefit, a lot of times their main motivation is criminal profit.”
In the free world, ABT and AC members pad their eager blue-collar jobs with crimes ranging from identity theft to burglary and robberies.
But their main bread and butter typically comes from making and selling meth.
Many will even do business with other races, he said.
“A lot of them are like white separatists,” Lair said. “We don’t want race-mixing but we will deal with whatever color as long as it makes us money.”
When Childers returned from prison, he told his sister and mother about his new gang, even showing his mother the tattoos he’d acquired to prove it.
Carrie Childers told her brother it was a “stupid” move and refused to talk about it. His mother told him she didn’t want to hear about it unless it was about him getting out of the gang.
“We all blew it off,” Carrie Childers said.
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But it would become a topic of discussion again, years later, after Childers told his mother and sister he had been jumped by seven Aryan Brotherhood members.
“He said, ‘Mama, I whipped four of them but I was too tired. I couldn’t whip the other three,” Smallwood said.
The rumors for what sparked the attack were rampant and varied, but police say whatever the reason, the encounter left bad blood between Childers and one of the AB members, Nicholas Acree.
At a game room, the two men would eventually cross paths again.
This time, Childers apparently got the upper hand, throwing the chain from his wallet around Acree’s neck and dragging him from the game room.
By most accounts, Childers won that fight. But he soon realized he would likely pay for that victory with his life.
“I was like what are we going to do about this? Let me give them some money. Whatever we need to do. Let me call a friend that can go down to prison and talk to one of the members and have this called off. I know I can help,” Carrie Childers recalled telling her brother.
“He was like, ‘Sis, there’s nothing you can do.... They’re going to kill me.”
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Carrie Childers had last talked to her brother in April 2014.
When rumors reached her that her brother had been killed by AB members, she was hell bent on finding out what happened to him.
Gun in hand, she and her husband visited the north Fort Worth house in the 7400 block of Crosswicks Circle, where Childers had been staying in exchange for helping out the bedridden, paraplegic owner.
Two Aryan Brotherhood members emerged from the house — Charles “C.G.” Garrett and Justin Hunsaker.
“We asked where Bryan was. They said they didn’t know who he was at first,” Carrie Childers recalled. “I was like, ‘No. Where’s Bryan?’ Then they said, well he was here but he left.”
Hunsaker asked if Carrie Childers wanted to come inside to talk to the owner.
“My husband forbade me to go in there because of the rumors we’d already heard and we knew this was a pretty serious gang,” Carrie Childers.
The next day, on May 29, 2014, Carrie Childers reported her brother missing, telling Fort Worth police that she suspected foul play.
Smallwood, however, clung to the belief that her son was still alive.
“I was holding out hope that Bryan had finally decided to go underground and get away so he would live,” Smallwood said. “I thought he had decided to go get a new life somewhere and knew if he did that, he wouldn’t be able to contact us or it could get him killed. I was holding on for dear life to hope for that.”
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It would be more than two months after the police report was made that a tip from a jail informant would take the case from the missing persons unit into the hands of homicide Detective W.D. Paine.
Detectives would have their work cut out for them.
The investigation would ultimately span nearly two years, with almost every detective in the homicide unit playing a part.
Witnesses were oftentimes reluctant to talk. But with each new interview, the bizarre puzzle of what happened to Childers slowly came together,
“In the end, we looked back at the case and could only describe it as a story line for Sons of Anarchy,” Paine said.
In an Aug. 9, 2014 interview, the informant told Paine that he’d heard Childers was killed at the Fort Worth home on Crosswicks and that Garrett was behind it.
Paine and Detective Kyle Sullivan paid a visit to the Crosswicks residence and met with the owner, who confirmed that Childers had been living with him.
The owner told police that he “was thankful that Bryan was there because he kept all the riff raff out. He wouldn’t let people come over and mooch,” Paine said.
But a few months prior, the owner told the detectives that Childers suddenly vanished without a word.
He told investigators that Robin Hughes, a woman who had also been staying at the house, told him that Childers had left in the middle of the night with an unknown woman.
He tried repeatedly to call Childers but could never reach him.
Hughes was reluctant to talk to detectives. When they finally got her in, her dirty blonde hair had been shaved short.
When asked about her haircut, Hughes claimed she had shaved it in a sign of support for a friend battling cancer.
“I said, ‘That’s funny because I heard the Aryan Brotherhood shaved your head for potentially being a snitch,” Paine said.
Hughes dropped her act and admitted that was true, Paine said.
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According to their investigation:
AB members and some associates had been celebrating a birthday, smoking meth and hanging out inside Hughes’ bedroom in the early morning hours of April 17, 2014.
Inside the home’s hallway, Acree found himself face to face with Childers. Officials believe it was a chance encounter, though family members suspect Childers was set up.
Acree returned to Hughes room, slamming his phone into his hand so hard that he cracked the screen.
“I’m going to kill that mother f-----,” Acree reportedly shouted.
Garrett, who at the time was serving as a defacto Major for the AB after the incarceration of two higher-ups, quickly took control of the room.
He ordered everyone to put their wallets and cell phones in a hat — collateral to make sure nobody took off and that there’d be no photographic evidence.
One of the women present, Candace Whitten, was then ordered to put the filled hat in a parked car outside.
“S---- about to go down AB style,” Garrett announced to the room.
Childers was sitting on a bucket in the home’s open garage, waiting for a ride to work with his lunch pail by his side, when he was confronted.
Whitten would later tell detectives that she saw Garrett, Acree, Hunsaker and Nelson Borders enter the garage as she walked back toward the house.
“She hears the confrontation between them... Childers tries to break and run. They grab him by his hoodie and drag him back into the garage and shut the garage door,” Paine said. “She hears arguing, things getting knocked over and slammed around and screaming. Then nothing.”
Nelson Borders, Acree and Hunsaker would also confess to detectives they were present when Childers was attacked. Garrett refused to talk with investigators.
Borders admitted he threw Acree an extension cord, which was then used to strangle and bound Childers.
Acree confessed he pointed and struck Childers with a gun and stabbed the man in the back as he lay facedown on the garage floor.
After the slaying, police say all but Garrett fled from the garage.
Clean up and cover up
Garrett immediately set about covering up Childer’s death.
Worried that Robin Hughes would crack under the pressure and snitch, he tossed around the idea of killing Hughes and the home’s owner and making the three deaths look like a home invasion.
Whitten convinced him that wasn’t necessary.
In the end, Garrett instructed everyone to say Childers had simply left the house with a woman and that no one had seen him since.
He ordered Whitten to pick up other AB members and to try to find latex gloves.
When she returned, he instructed the former nurse to go inside the garage, where she saw Childers’ body laying face down in a pool of blood; an extension cord still wrapped around his neck and wrists.
He asked Whitten if she could look at Childers’ stab wound to see if she could sew it up so there wouldn’t be so much blood. She lifted Childers’ shirt, who by then felt stiff and cold to the touch, and told Garrett she could not do it.
Whitten told police throughout the ordeal, Garrett repeatedly told her “she would be next” if she did not cooperate.
Garrett and Terry Corbin, another AB member brought to the scene after the slaying, set about removing Childers’ body.
They wrapped Childers’ body inside blankets, then placed it onto a large piece of cardboard and loaded it into the back of Whitten’s Dodge Durango.
Whitten was then made to clean up the crime scene.
As Whitten worked cleaning up the blood with bleach and a scrub brush, Corbin — his hands spotted with Childers’ blood — opened up Childers’ lunch and helped himself to half of the pork chop he found inside.
Disposal of body
The rumors of what had happened to Childers’ body were vast.
Whitten told police she was directed to drive Garrett’s car to the Haltom City home where she had been living at the time while Garrett and Corbin followed her in her Durango.
After unloading her belongings from the Durgano, said she said the two men drove off in it with Childers’ body.
The next day, the Durango was impounded by Haltom City police after Corbin was pulled over on a traffic stop and found not to have a driver’s license or insurance. By then, Childers’ body was gone.
Whitten told police she later heard that Childers’ body was taken to a dog grooming business, where it was dismembered by three people, including a woman named “Flee”, then placed in a barrel with concrete and tossed into a lake or pond.
Police would identify Flee as Felicia Brown, an Oklahoma woman who had a child with Hunsaker, one of the AB members present when Childers was attacked.
At the time Childers was killed, Brown and Hunsaker had been living together at Hunsaker’s mother’s business, Susie’s Grooming at 441 W. Pipeline Road in Hurst.
Brown told homicide detectives Tom O’Brien and Kyle Sullivan that she had called Garrett after spotting a large barrel behind the business on April 20, 2014, that was emitting a foul odor.
She said Garrett instructed her to “clean the mess”, which she knew meant disposing of the body inside the barrel.
To police, Brown claimed to have undergone the gruesome task on her own:
She said she used a dolly to bring the barrel inside and into the dog grooming shop’s shower area. She placed plastic on the floor before dumping the body.
Inside the barrel, she said she also found a reciprocating saw with extra blades.
She then vividly described for police how she dismembered the body — cutting first the body’s legs, then arms, then the head and torso.
“She told me it was just like dressing a deer,” said Allenna Bangs, one of # prosecutors involved in the prosecution of the cases.
Brown told detectives that the job took her from six to seven hours to complete.
“To me, I’m a strange person so I made myself cool with the situation,” she explained to investigators.
Brown stated she then placed the body parts into buckets and poured dry concrete into each. She placed the buckets outside the business, cleaned the shop, and would later find the buckets had been removed.
Police suspected Brown didn’t act alone.
Hunsaker, her boyfriend, and Robert Bruce Cypert, an AB prospect, were among those rumored to have helped dismember Childers’ body.
When detectives interviewed Hunsaker, by then in state jail on an auto theft conviction, he acknowledged that he had been present when Childers was killed but abruptly ended the interview when talk turned to Childers’ dismemberment.
Cypert denied taking part but did admit to being at the dog grooming place on the day five buckets of concrete were loaded into the back of Hunsaker’s pickup.
Cypert told detectives he followed Hunsaker to Randol Mill and Loop 820, and then watched as Hunsaker pulled down a dirt path that ran under the bridge to the Trinity River.
He told police Hunsaker later called him and indicated everything was done.
In all, officials conducted nine searches in Fort Worth, Wise County and Horeshoe Bend for Childer’s remain based on Cypert’s claim and other tips. They enlisted the help of a private search company and divers with the Fort Worth Fire Department , who twice searched the Trinity River as well as a ski park.
Both Paine and prosecutors believe the buckets were tossed in the Trinity River but say it is likely the concrete had not yet set.
“That was the year of the huge flooding, where like the river was all the way up almost to the highway,” Bangs said. “I believe that it probably broke apart pretty quickly and those buckets are gone. I don’t think there’s ever going to be any trace.”
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Prosecuting a murder case without a body had only been done once before in Tarrant County.
In 2008, a jury convicted Rodney Owens of murder and sentenced him to life in prison for the death of Glenda Gail Furch, a 51-year-old Fort Worth woman last seen leaving work at the General Motors plant in Arlington and whose body has never been found.
Without a body, prosecutors could not definitively say the cause of Childers’ death or even that Childers was dead.
“We had one blood swab and the fact that no one had seen him,” Bangs said. “There’s always a chance that a juror could think he’s going to pop up later.”
The only two witnesses willing to testify to having seen Childers dead — Whitten and Brown — would do so wearing jail jumpsuits, always a potential credibility issue among jurors.
But in the end, only two of the defendants — Garrett and Hunsaker — would even go to trial.
Acree, the man whose beef with Childers started it all, plead guilty in January to engaging in organized crime/murder and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Borders, who threw Acree the extension cord used to strangle and bind Childers arms, plead guilty to aggravated assault with dead weapon in exchange for 10 years in prison.
Corbin, who helped with moving Childers’ body after the slaying, plead guilty to tampering with evidence and also received 10 years in prison.
The case against Cypert was dismissed in April in exchange for his cooperation in the case.
Brown, the only woman charged in the case, entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors that garnered the lightest sentence in the case — two years deferred adjudication probation.
Smallwood was not pleased.
“Two years for cutting up a body? How can you give someone two years probation for doing something so gruesome?” Smallwood remarks incredulously. “That girl has got to be messed up in the head. She's got to be. All of them are messed up.”
Under the plea deal, Brown agreed to testify in Garrett’s trial but would not have to testify against Hunsaker, the father of her child. (Both Brown and Hunsaker agreed to severe their parental rights to their child while in custody.)
Bangs said Brown’s testimony was vital in Garrett’s case because it proved that although he was not present with Childers’ body was dismembered, it was done so at his orders.
“We needed her,” Bangs said.
But by the time of Garrett’s trial, Brown’s story had changed some.
She now said it was Hunsaker to whom Garrett gave the order about dismembering Childers’ body. He also no longer claimed that she did the dismemberment on her own, testifying she had lied to cover up for Hunsaker.
She testified she helped Hunsaker pull the buckets containing Childers’ body inside the grooming business, then acted as a look-out.
“She heard the saw. She smelt the dead body. She was part of mixing up the Quikcrete and laying out the trash bags and stuff,” Bangs said. “When she went back in there, there were chunks of what looked like red clay all over and in the sink. She knew that was what happened but she didn’t really do the chopping up.”
A jury found Garrett guilty of murder and engaging in criminal activity/murder. He was sentenced by State District Judge Scott Wisch to 50 years in prison.
“I think CJ is truly a psychopath,” Bangs said. “...Most of these people are in this lifestyle because they have drug addictions, they went to the pin, they have no option, because they don’t have a job, they have no family support. He is in it, in my opinion, because he likes it.
“He liked the power. He liked the violence. He liked the rank.”
Hunsaker would be the last to go to trial.
Ironically, during his trial, another piece of evidence in the case would surface in the case.
It had been the summer of 2015 when one of the new owners of the building that had housed Susie’s Dog Grooming stumbled upon something hidden away above the ceiling tiles while gutting the building.
One of the owners said his colleague was removing ceiling tiles when he called the others over, asking if an AC unit might be housed above one of the tiles.
“He was pushing on it and and it seemed a lot heavier than all the other tiles,” the owner said.
The colleague hit the tile with a shovel and a black trash bag came crashing to the ground. They opened it to find a reciprocating saw and a big of extra blades inside.
The bizarre location of where the saw had been hidden was puzzling to the new owners.
“It was a head scratcher. What is this saw doing above the ceiling grid in a trash bag?,” said a second owner. “...We were joking, calling it the murder saw.”
The owners asked not to be identified for fear of their safety.
Unaware of what had taken place in the building, the owners used the saw in their demolition.
They would not realize its potential significance until this past April, when two Hurst officers responded to a false alarm call at their business.
The second owner said the officers mentioned that the building had been connected to a murder case and asked if they’d found anything suspicious inside.
The second owner said he showed the officer the saw they’d found not long after moving it.
“She’s like, I don’t know at this point how good of evidence it would be because y’all have been using it,” the second owner said. “They just left it.”
Bangs said Hurst police contacted Homeland Security about the saw, who in turn alerted Fort Worth police. That message however, never got to investigators working the Childers’ case, she said.
Five months later, while reading about the dismemberment of Childers’ body in a Star-Telegram article about Hunsaker’s trial, one of the Hurst police officers contacted Homeland Security again in October to see if anybody had ever checked out the saw.
Homeland Security contacted Bangs, who immediately notified Paine. As the jury began deliberating Hunsaker’s fate, Paine and crime scene officer Tim Lee went to the Hurst business and retrieved the saw.
Though it would be too late to use the saw in Hunsaker’s trial, Paine said he asked Lee to disassemble the tool to see if there could still be biological evidence inside, perhaps even from someone other than Childers.
“Rumors were that this wasn’t the first time they had dismembered a body at that location,” Paine explained. “Yes, they cleaned up on the outside of it but unless they took it apart, they didn’t get any of the blood that goes up into the housing.”
Lee opened the saw up and then sprayed Blue Star inside it — a chemical that illuminates blood not visible to the naked eye.
“It lit up like a Christmas tree,” Bangs said.
DNA tests on the saw remain pending.
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Without Brown’s testimony in Hunsaker’s trial, prosecutors had only Corbin’s testimony to tie Hunsaker to disposing of Childers’ remains.
It apparently wasn’t enough to convince jurors, who found Hunsaker not guilty of tampering with evidence and murder, but still guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity/murder.
The jury sentenced him to 37 years in prison.
Brown’s behavior did not garner brownie points with prosecutors.
From the stand at Garrett’s trial, the -- year-old woman blew Garrett a kiss. Within days of being released from jail, she was back on Facebook, posing photos of herself flashing AB hand signs. And she would later show up at Hunsaker’s trial, accompanied by another AB member.
Now, prosecutors say they will seek to revoke Brown’s probation after she was recently charged in Oklahoma with unlawful possession of a controlled with intent to distribute and trafficking in illegal drugs.
If revoked, she faces up to 20 years in prison.
“I did not feel bad for her,” said Bill Vassar, another prosecutor who worked the case. “I did feel bad for Candace.”
Though several of the AB members had confessed their roles in Childers’ slaying to police, prosecutor believe none carried more credibility than Whitten.
Because she was forced under duress to help clean up the crime scene, Whitten was not charged in connection with the case.
“I think she always thought she would be next,” Bangs said. “I think to this day, she’d tell you she felt like she would die behind this, for being there.”
But her cooperation with police and prosecutors would put her at an even greater risk.
“This is the first time that I am genuinely concerned for somebody’s safety who cooperated with us,” Vassar said.
Bangs said she, too, usually brushed off witness’s concerns that they’d be harmed for cooperating.
“I have always told witnesses, ‘That is what you see in the movies. That is not going to happen to you,’” Bangs said. “Until this case.”
So concerned, Vassar took the unusual step of testifying on Whitten’s behalf in her federal sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor in September. She had plead guilty in May to a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Vassar pointed out the judge that other Aryan Brotherhood members, and members’ family members, had been attending each hearing, and that he believed by the time Whitten made it to federal custody, everyone would know what happened in court that day.
“I said that in no way, shape or form am I trying to justify what she did; that these were her decisions and she put herself in this situation, ” Vassar recalled. “But, because of her cooperation, we took a lot of Aryan Brotherhood members off the streets and I believed that should be taken into consideration in her sentencing.”
O’Connor sentenced Whitten, who had faced up to 40 years in federal prison, to 10 years behind bars.
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Beyond the prison sentences, Childers’ death would have another resounding effect.
Under the white supremacy gang rules, a rival gang member should not be killed without first receiving permission from both gangs’ chain of command.
No such permission was sought in Childers’ slaying and repercussions were quickly evident.
In the Parker County Jail, jailers had to separately house the two factions after fights broke out, according to Sgt. R. Montgomery with the Parker County Sheriff’s Department.
But the biggest battlefield between the two rival groups has been at the federal prison level, said Detective Steve Lair, a task force officer with Homeland Secuirty Investigations National Gang Unit.
While state prisons separate confirmed gang members — placing them in isolation for 23 hours a day — there is no such segregation in federal prisons, Lair said.
“You’re in a confined area and you’re not segged out. So now everybody is having to walk the yard,” Lair said.
The feuding that followed Childers’ slaying prompted a high-ranking board member of the Aryan Circle to try to squash the war by posting in the group’s Facebook newsletter.
Norman “Pyscho” Smith wrote he had been studying the issue with the Aryan’s Circles “cousins” and concluded that Childers “was not our friend when the incident happened.”
Smith claimed Childers had flaked on another AC member who had given him a job and that “the things he was doing would have resulted in the same outcome with the legitimate structure.”
“This whole sorry issue leaves a bad taste in our mouth, but what are we to do? Go hard over a fraud that had no love or loyalty? I think not and the majority of the UB agrees with me so this issues with this Other group IS OVER AND DONE WITH.”
But internal communication among the group is not a strength, Lair said.
He said intelligence gathered by law enforcement shows the war —whether started over Childers’ death or not — continues on.
Carrie Childers said she hopes others will learn from her brother’s story.
“I hope that the younger generation realizes how horrible this is. Even if you get sent to prison for a year or two like my brother, you don’t join a gang. If you do, you disassociate with it completely.
“If not, you may have just signed your death sentence.”