Thomas Engelmann is a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Mississippi and when he decided he wanted out, he knew his life would be in jeopardy.
In an interview with The Clarion Ledger, Engelmann detailed his life as a high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood and his struggle to get out.
"It takes a willingness to say, 'OK, I'm ready to die,'" said Engelmann. "It takes that person saying, 'OK, I don't care if I lose my life tomorrow, I want out.'
He noted that if a member of the AB wants out, "they might as well just go hang themselves." He was trying to figure out a way out when prospective members Brett Davis and Andrew Walters began following him. In June 2016, they pulled up next to him on I-20 and shot him in the face. He'd noticed the two men circling his neighborhood, got behind their truck and took photos of them and the tag.
He knew he'd been shot, though he didn't know who did it.
"I knew I was blind, but I didn't know why. My brain wouldn't let me put it together," he described. "I was like, 'Why can't I see?' And I'm trying to wipe whatever's in my eyes out, and I didn't realize my face is blown up."
He drove off the road and into overgrown grass where he slammed on the breaks. Engelmann heard a man's voice telling him to turn off the car. He wasn't sure if it was the shooter or someone else but trusted the voice. He gave the man the unlock code to his phone that gave the man access to the photos of the shooters.
The man asked if he was praying and Engelmann said he was.
"He told me, 'Good, you need to. It's bad,'" he recalled. But he wasn't praying to live, he was praying for forgiveness "for not making it out of the criminal lifestyle that had shaped so much of my life."
"I don't know who that person was, even to this day," he continued. "That person, no matter what, is an angel in my book."
It all began when Engelmann was taken into custody in the Mississippi Department of Corrections for armed robbery. He said he joined because most of his family was dead, he came from a broken home and he wanted a family.
"Everyone in prison is already attacking everyone," he explained. "So, it's good to have someone who has your back, who can say, 'I know what you're going through, bro.'"
To be considered for the ABM, an applicant needs a sponsor and is on probation for at least six months. They sign a "prospect compact" where an oath of secrecy and declare a lifetime allegiance. Engelmann expected to only join the gang for 15 years thinking he could simply leave after. It wasn't the case.
"I did my 15 years, and they did not let me out," he said. "I knew too much, and I was a source of income. Remember the Brotherhood is organized crime. Why wouldn't they keep me? That's what that boils down to. It's all about power, drugs and, of course, murder is in there. It's just like racism is on the butt end of it."
Once he was out of prison he learned the authorities were watching ABM members, so he "went underground" for four years.
"You realize it's a bunch of power plays between power-hungry people inside [prison], and it's an internal struggle, so you hope you don't get caught up in their things that get everyone RICO charges and state charges and stuff," he said. "The ones that can't get out are trying to lay low and hope nobody notices them until they can move on, and that's the only way to do that safely."
As a former addict, the ABM saw Engelmann as a possible source for selling drugs, but he told them he's trying to get away from it and avoid relapsing.
One week he was forced to miss an ABM meeting after his aunt died. He didn't attend the meeting that followed, either and neither did many other members, following his lead. They removed his leadership position and not long after the ABM was raided. They blamed Engelmann. He explained to those that confronted him that given what he knew the police would have raided much more than simply a meeting.
One of the three main members then passed an SOS or "smash on sight" for Engelmann, though it wasn't a kill order. Still Walters and Davis decided to shoot instead.
All involved were arrested and plead guilty. Walters and Davis are currently serving 30 and 25 years. Engelmann was blinded by the shot. He has since left Mississippi, leaving everything he owned behind, trying to start over.
"I want people to understand that to dehumanize the people that are in the gangs, it's no better than the white supremacists dehumanizing other races, or the Nazis dehumanizing Jews. We don't need to exclude the gang members or the ex-cons coming out," he closed. "We are all human beings in this together and we need to remember that. These are people. These are human beings. I'm a human being, I'm not just the guy that was shot in the face."