A miscue that still troubles
Klan leader almost hired as prison guard
By Mike Ward
Sunday, April 23, 2006
HUNTSVILLE — Five years later, they're still wondering how James Lee Roesch slipped in.
Roesch, then 20, was an aspiring Texas prison guard. He'd passed his background checks and was within weeks of graduation from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's spring training academy. He'd even volunteered to work on the tougher-than-nails East Texas prison that houses death row.
Then, he opened his mouth.
According to internal prison system documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, Roesch seemed to know too much about the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a notorious prison gang, during a presentation to his trainee class by a gang-enforcement officer.
He even bragged that "he had friends who were members of ABT and who had been in prison."
Prison investigators decided to dig deeper into Roesch's background.
What they found was a story that never has been publicly told: Roesch was the national Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, whose white separatist views had earned him national headlines and a rap sheet with Ohio authorities, two years before the prison system hired him.
Somehow, that hadn't turned up in prison officials' previous background checks, which included a search of state criminal history files with the Department of Public Safety. If it had, officials insist, Roesch would never have been hired in March 2001.
Before the prison system hired him, Roesch had been interviewed dozens of times by reporters, chronicling his fast rise to become head the Klan's old-school, hard-line Knights of the White Kamellia faction. His photo in Klan regalia had appeared in national magazines.
Police in Ohio — where he lived before moving to Jasper in 1999, just after the racially motivated dragging death there of James Byrd — had arrested him as a teenager for menacing another teenager with a handgun and for plastering posters to a tree that demanded: "Deport Niggers."
In one magazine interview in April 2000, Roesch even acknowledged pasting stickers on Byrd's gravestone in Jasper: "A Ku Klux Klansman Was Here."
On his application to become a prison guard, Roesch acknowledged the Ohio arrests for misdemeanor crimes — menacing and mutilation of a public tree. But apparently no one delved further, officials now privately concede, since misdemeanors do not automatically keep someone from being hired as a prison guard in Texas.
"It is my belief that Trainee Roesch may be associated with or have ties to Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and that he needs to be monitored for ABT activity," gang-enforcement officer Irma Fernandez wrote in a memo after meeting Roesch at a training session a few weeks after he was hired. "Trainee Roesch was informed that correctional officers are not to associate with ex-convicts. Roesch then corrected himself and said that he has not associated with them."
Roesch was interviewed by internal affairs investigators on April 12 and gave a written statement detailing his rise to power in the Klan, beginning at age 15 when he and a friend "started a little group called NWO (New White Order)." Ohio state police quickly filled in other details.
Roesch was let go four days later, officials said.
Roesch, who lived in the Woodville area at the time he was hired, could not be reached for comment last week.
Though investigators were unsettled that Roesch was even hired, another fact left them even more unsettled.
Just after he started his training, Roesch submitted a handwritten request to work in Livingston, where the prison that houses death row is located. There, two of the three men convicted of killing Byrd awaited execution.
Did he want to work on death row? And to what end?