Thomas Engelmann, 35, was a longtime member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Mississippi. He is now an active member of Life After Hate, helping other formers successfully leave behind hate groups.
WHAT FIRST DREW YOU INTO THE ARYAN BROTHERHOOD?
Growing up, the Aryan Brotherhood had legendary status within the circles I was raised. With a criminal set of ethics, the Aryan Brotherhood seemed to be the most elite group. A few years after being incarcerated, I decided to join the Brotherhood out of a need for family.
WHEN DID YOU START QUESTIONING YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH THE GROUP?
It was around 2015 that I had finally had enough. I realized that no matter how hard I tried none of the brothers wanted to change their lives for the better. I realized at this point, that I needed to break away at any cost. I knew the only outcome to the type of life I had was either prison or death. I chose to leave that life forever.
WAS THERE A BREAKING POINT?
No, I can’t say that there was just one. For me, everything snowballed until I couldn’t stand a single section of my life. I had left myself no other way out, other than to completely disappear. At the rate I was going, I would have ended up in prison, doing a life sentence.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE ANY SELF-DOUBT?
I remember how content I am in my life today. Before fully breaking away and getting clean, my life was nothing but constant chaos. My newfound peace is what keeps me going.
WHAT CONTINUES TO MOTIVATE YOU TODAY?
I really want to help people. The fact that I survived getting shot in the face with a .45-caliber handgun at point-blank range and lived is my motivation. I am doing my best to dedicate the rest of my life to becoming the person I should have been all along. I consider every day a gift and I will share that gift with the ones who need it.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING PEOPLE SHOULD UNDERSTAND ABOUT HATE GROUPS BUT MOST LIKELY DON’T?
Most people seem to think that everyone in a hate group is in it to hate another person. It usually doesn’t start out that way. A lot of people that are involved are doing so because they want the community and belonging that comes with being part of selective groups. The groups teach hate by playing on the members’ fear of losing that community structure.
WHAT’S CHANGED IN HOW HATE GROUPS OPERATE OR STRATEGIZE FROM THE TIME YOU WERE INVOLVED TO TODAY?
Everything has shifted to more internet recruiting and internet training. The movement has said for years that it wanted its members to become major players in government, military, and police while avoiding tattoos. Unfortunately, we must now contend with the effects of that campaign.
WHAT SHOULD COMMUNITIES DO WHEN THEY SEE A LOCAL CHAPTER OF THE ARYAN BROTHERHOOD OR OTHER HATE GROUP BEGIN TO FORM LOCALLY?
I would suggest that the public become properly educated as to the different groups and their methods. Always use caution when around them. If you know someone in the group, you may be able to show them that there is another way to live. Remember, some people may not see another path in life until we show them.