Michael Thompson has a European and Native American background. He stands almost 6 feet, 4 inches (192 cm) tall and has a massive figure. He was a former high school football star. Contrary to some reports, Thompson was never a troubled teenager, but his mother's boyfriend didn't want all seven of her children. The two systematically started to place the children elsewhere, and Thompson put in a boys' home. His sister was sent to an orphanage, and later put up for adoption. His older sisters were pregnant and married by the time they were 16, and his older brother was forced to enlist in the military by his mother, who had forged his birth date.
Michael Lynne Thompson was born to Jacqueline (nee Sinnett) and Lynne Thompson. He is the middle child of seven. According to his mother and maternal grandmother, Thompson’s lineage includes French, Irish and Native American ancestors. Thompson's Native American heritage on his maternal side is Anishinabe (“the First People”) of Canada. Thompson’s grandparents on his maternal side emigrated from Canada to Louisiana and Massachusetts and became naturalized citizens.
Thompson’s paternal lineage is also Irish and Native American. A great aunt of Thompson is Lucy Che-Na-Wah Weitch-Ah-Wah Thompson, a Yurok woman from the Klamath River area whose White/Native husband was Milton Joseph Thompson. Lucy Thompson wrote To the American Indian, Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman, published in 1916.
Due to the economic hardship of raising seven children on a limited income, Mrs. Thompson placed some of her dependent children with relatives. Much of Thompson's pre-adolescent years were spent on the Paiute reservation at Big Pine, California. At the age of 12, Thompson was placed at Joplin Boys Ranch so that his mother could move to Oregon with her new husband and two youngest daughters. At Joplin Boys Ranch, Thompson's physical strength and work ethic was noticed by Jack Martin, a part-white, part Nez Perce rancher who raised Arabian horses in the Cleveland National Forest of Southern California. Jack Martin invited the boy to live and work on his ranch, which Thompson did from 12–18 years of age. According to Thompson, Martin was a “traditional Native American medicine man” who “knew his ways.” Martin passed on his Native values and traditions, including songs, stories, spirituality and cultural practices to his foster son.
A World War II veteran, Martin also mentored his foster son in his unique style of hand-to-hand combat; knife fighting; stalking and hunting game with a bow and arrow; caring for, riding and breeding horses; rodeo bull riding and general ranch labor. Under Martin’s tutelage, Thompson became accomplished in both bull riding and dressage at an early age. Martin also traveled to visit elders at various reservations and ranches in the U.S. and Mexico, and took Thompson with him. This practice introduced Thompson to elders in different tribes and gave the boy a broader exposure to Native culture.
Throughout his high school years at Villa Park High School Thompson, who was dyslexic, was not able to read and write at more than an elementary school level. Due to Thompson’s athletic ability, however, his teachers routinely passed him so that he could play on his high school’s sports teams. Thompson played football as a defensive end and fullback, as well as basketball, wrestling and track and field. He obtained his high school degree in 1968. Thompson was offered athletic scholarships but failed to meet the colleges’ academic standards. Instead he attended Orange Coast Jr. College, with plans to transfer to Fullerton State College. Once again, Thompson was faced with coursework he could not perform due to his limited reading and writing skills and he discontinued his enrollment after a semester.
Post-high school, Thompson continued to engage in the ranch work, spiritual practices and recreational activities he had learned from Jack Martin. He followed the rodeo circuit and entered bull-riding contests; brought in hay at local farms; and visited Native American elders to whom he had been introduced in his travels with Martin. He did carpentry and construction work and transported gold and bonds across the country for the California Gun and Coin Exchange. He also continued to visit and perform ranch chores for Martin who, due to advancing age and injury, had growing difficulty with the physical maintenance of his ranch. Thompson’s pre-incarceration criminal record is limited to a physical altercation. According to Thompson, the intoxicated man had ridiculed the native-style clothing worn by some of his female relatives who had attended his father’s funeral.
Michael Thompson is a spiritual teacher and Native American Elder who was a former leader of the Aryan Brotherhood Prison Gang (the “Brand”) that began in the California prison system in the 1970s. He is known for being the highest-ranking leader of the Aryan Brotherhood to defect from the AB. Thompson, a former football star and rodeo rider, was convicted for the murder of two drug dealers in 1973 and was given a 7-years-to-life sentence. Thompson was a “Brand” leader from 1978 to 1983. Since his defection, he has testified at numerous trials and assisted law enforcement in combatting prison gangs and violence.
In 1971, at the age of 19, Thompson married Berdell Roberts, a bartender four years his senior. During the marriage, Thompson continued to travel for work, went to Oregon to visit his mother and siblings, performed ranch chores for Jack Martin, and lived sporadically with Berdell and her son in Tustin, California. In 1973, Berdell was introduced to a drug dealer, John Solis, through her cousin Louis Gasatis. Gasatis had just paroled after nine years in San Quentin State Prison. Berdell had made plans to rent property in a rural area and Solis offered to pay Berdell to allow him to store his marijuana on the property. When Thompson was present in Tustin, he performed odd jobs for Solis including carpentry and, on one occasion, serving as a courier to collect money owed to Solis. Solis testified under oath that Thompson was not an employee of Solis’ drug cartel.
In the early 1970s, two small time drug dealers and former associates of John Solis, “Butch” Nunley and Rue Steele, had been released from jail on bail, pending charges on drug trafficking. Once released, Nunley and Steele hatched a plan to kidnap the Solis children for ransom and abscond to Canada with the money. Thompson learned about the kidnap plot from Gasatis and reported it to Solis. At some point — the exact date is unknown — Nunley and Steele were both murdered. According to Thompson, he was ignorant of the murders until Robert Sesma, an employee of Solis, stopped him as he was tearing down a dilapidated shed on the rented property. Sesma told him that there were “two bodies buried” under the shed.
According to Thompson, when questioned by Solis, he replied that he did not intend to report the murders and intended to leave for Oregon. However, Thompson overheard Solis telling Sesma that he might have to “tie up a loose end.” That comment referred to Nunley’s wife, who had been calling Solis to locate her husband. Nunley had previously abandoned his wife and their two small children, after taking the money from their checking account. Thompson located Mrs. Nunley and offered to take her with him to Oregon. Thompson fled with the Nunley family to Oregon, where he placed the Nunleys with his mother and later secreted them in a cabin on Ten Mile Lake.
Upon being told by Mrs. Nunley that she was ill with cancer, Thompson offered to marry her, then legally adopt and raise her children after her death. Thompson obtained a Mexican divorce from Berdell Thompson on the advice of his attorney, Gary Gunderman, so that he could quickly marry Nunley. Thompson was in the process of finalizing the adoption process when the murders were discovered.
One month after marrying Nunley, news of the murders reached the authorities, and John Solis, Robert Sesma and Michael Thompson were arrested. The men were prosecuted by D.A. Robert Chatterton in the most sensationalized murder trial in Orange County up to that time. Chatterton, a colorful prosecutor, used dramatic tactics such as ordering Thompson to remove his shirt in court to demonstrate his size and strength, ostensibly to cast him as a brute to the jury. Chatteron later left the DA’s office, and became a defense attorney for a series of notorious criminal defendants, including gang members against whom Thompson testified. Until his death in 2005, Chatterton attended each of Thompson’s parole hearings to oppose his release.
Thompson was the only one of the three defendants who claimed innocence in the case. His motion for a severed trial was denied. Thompson’s attorney, Gary Gunderman, had previously never argued a criminal case. Gunderman’s opposition consisted of the Orange County DA Robert Chatterton and the attorneys of Sesma, Solis and Berdell Thompson. At the urging of Chatterton, Thompson took two lie detector tests conducted by Ted Ponticilli of the FBI and Paul Ryan with the DOJ. Thompson passed both lie detector tests with high “truthful” scores. Chatterton subsequently argued that “lie detectors are not reliable” and successfully prevented the test results from being revealed to the jury. Thompson was sentenced to seven years to life and was eligible for parole in 1979.
Berdell Thompson received immunity from prosecution for testifying against her former husband. She later recanted her previous testimony in a notarized declaration, stating that she was intimidated into cooperating with the D.A. Sesma, the state’s main witness against Thompson, testified that Thompson was present at the murders and killed one of the victims. However, at his parole hearing in 2012, Sesma admitted that he killed both men. He also confirmed the existence of the kidnapping plot, stating that Nunley and Steele had approached him about their plan.
Thompson has appeared before the parole authority 15 times since he was eligible for parole and has been denied. He continues to face strong opposition from the Orange County District Attorney’s office. On October 9, 2012, he was denied for the 15th time, the Parole Board citing “confidential information” to which Thompson and his attorney was denied access.
Michael Thompson's Prison life began after he was sentenced in 1975, Thompson was sent to his first prison, Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) at Tracy. Thompson was incarcerated at Tracy for two years. He was assigned the job of clerk to the Protestant chaplain who allowed Thompson access to the garden near the chapel to engage privately in his Native spiritual practices. At this time, the U.S. Congress had not yet passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), which formally permitted Native Americans to practice their beliefs without fear of prosecution.
Members of the Nuestra Familia (NF), a prison gang, whose members were largely Catholic, concluded that Thompson’s practice of Native rituals was a form of devil worship. One day seven of them were surreptitiously allowed access to Thompson as he danced in the chapel garden, and they attacked him there. Thompson defeated his attackers using techniques of martial arts taught to him by his foster-father, Jack Martin. After defeating these men, Thompson engaged in combat with other members of the NF, which precipitated his transfer from Tracy to Folsom State Prison.
At Folsom State Prison Thompson was thrown into the midst of other gangs that were gaining power in California prisons at the time—the Black Panthers, Black Guerilla Family (BGF), Mexican Mafia (Eme), the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Aryan Brotherhood (AB). This began a violent period as members of these gangs sought to either bring Thompson into their fold or kill him outright as a potential threat. According to Thompson, the first recruitment offer he received and turned down was from the BGF, whose members espoused Communist ideologies. Anti-establishment rhetoric was common in the social unrest of the 1970s.
When Thompson came to Folsom in 1977 the membership of the AB was still largely secret. Inclusion in the elite group was offered to few. Nevertheless, when first approached at Folsom State Prison, Thompson refused to affiliate with the AB, stating that he was “neither a drug user nor a racist.” Unknown to Thompson, the AB at Folsom Prison included not only white Protestants, but also Jews, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. Some Native American AB members approached Thompson and convinced him that the AB consisted of a racially eclectic membership with no particular ideology except that of dominating other prison gangs. After joining, Thompson built a reputation as an accomplished hand-to-hand combatant and knife fighter. As a result of his exceptional physical prowess and intelligence, he rose to leadership within his first year.
By his fourth year, Thompson had become instrumental in restructuring the gang along more orderly lines, and was elected to a national six-man commission responsible for the oversight of the organization’s enterprises in state and federal prisons. During 1982, in one of The Brand’s first decisions as a commission, its leaders voted to retaliate against family members of any informant or defector who was otherwise unreachable due to the witness protection protocols of law enforcement. Thompson spoke against this policy and cast the sole dissenting vote. After the AB carried out the assassination of a defector’s (Steve Barnes) elderly father, Thompson also defected from the AB. The alleged assassin, Curtis Price, was later charged and convicted for the murder of Richard Barnes and Elizabeth Hickey, who had supplied Price with the gun used to kill Barnes.
Although one media source reported that Thompson “admitted” to killing “22 people,” that statement is not based on fact. Rather, “22” is the number of total killings attributed to the Aryan Brotherhood as a whole. Thompson engaged in mutual combat with his enemies approximately 25 times. None of his battles resulted in the death of his fellow combatants.
In 1986, while Thompson was being housed at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, California under the protection of the L.A. Sheriff’s Office, he met a tattoo artist, Patricia Pavlik. They were married confidentially in 1988 under assumed names provided by the L.A. Sheriff’s Office. Ms. Pavlik died in February, 2012 from pulmonary disease. During their marriage, Thompson and Pavlik developed several businesses including tattoo studios, a pigment import business, and a professional organization for the industry, the National Cosmetic Tattooing Association (NCTA).
Under the alias of E. Michael O’Brien, Thompson also wrote articles on the subject of intradermal cosmetics — the use of tattooing for medical purposes such as disguising the hypo-pigmentation characteristic of vitiligo or creating the appearance of a “nipple” after breast reconstruction. His chapter, “The History of Cosmetic Tattooing” appears in the still in-print book Micropigmentation, edited by Charles Zwerling (1993). Thompson — as E. Michael O’Brien — also developed and wrote the first industry standards for hygienic practices in tattooing.
After defecting from the AB, Thompson began taking college courses by correspondence from U.C. Berkeley and The Ohio State University. With the help of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office, he obtained several degrees under the alias of E. Michael O’Brien, which was necessary to maintain his status as a protected witness. Thompson holds a Bachelor of Science and Master's degree in Biology as well as two Doctorates, one in Biological Sciences and one in Business Administration, from Pacific Western University.
In 1993, Thompson came close to being released under a CDCR-initiated provision of the California Penal Code Section 1170(d), which is a “recall of a commitment offense” because the continued incarceration of an inmate “no longer serves the interest of justice.” The process was halted when Thompson became at loggerheads with a handful of staff members who were exerting power at California State Prison at Corcoran. This was occurring at the same time as the highly publicized “gladiator fights” at Corcoran. These staff members attempted to dissuade Thompson from testifying at a trial implicating the Hells Angels in the gang-initiated “hit” of Margo Compton, her twin six-year-old daughters and Compton’s boyfriend. Compton had become a target because she had previously testified against the Hells Angels and was hiding from gang retaliation in Oregon. Thompson knew intimate details of the crime, hitherto unknown to the public, because the alleged killer had bragged to him about it.
Thompson was held for 30 months in isolation and beaten during a period between the 1993 trial and conviction of Compton’s alleged assassin Robert McClure and the 1996 trial of Hell’s Angels leader Buck Garrett. Thompson was released through the intervention of David Tristan, a CDCR administrator who investigated the staff’s actions against Thompson and ordered him released. An investigation conducted by the F.B.I. and the Oregon Dept. of Justice confirmed the staff members’ ongoing retaliation against Thompson. Despite the loss of his commitment offense recall and physical retaliation by staff, Thompson testified in both Oregon trials. Newspaper articles that covered the sensational trial reported that Hells Angels members filled the courtroom. Sheriffs spotted snipers on rooftops and removed a bomb planted under his transportation vehicle. Due to ongoing attempts on his life, Thompson was surreptitiously moved into the courthouse inside a hollowed-out vending machine.
In the three decades since leaving the AB, Thompson has helped federal and state law enforcement agencies, as well as the California Dept. of Corrections, in its fight against gangs. His lectures have been recorded on film and in the form of written training manuscripts. He has also provided immunized court testimony for the state against members of various gangs.
In recent years, Thompson has continued to assist law enforcement by speaking with CDCR academy personnel and groups of visiting college students majoring in criminology. He has appeared in documentary films on gangs in Germany, England and in the U.S.A. In the U.S. Thompson has been featured in films made by the History Channel, National Geographic and In-Court Television. In 2012 the California Department of Corrections Office of Correctional Safety, Special Services Unit, engaged Thompson’s understanding of gangs to produce two gang intervention films.
Thompson has developed numerous programs for the benefit of prisoners, including a substance abuse and domestic violence program utilizing Native teachings. While Thompson’s Anglo-Saxon heritage dominates his bloodline, Thompson’s Native ancestry has been confirmed and documented by several sources, including Isidro Gali, the first Native American Spiritual Leader permitted by the CDCR to conduct spiritual ceremonies in prison after the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Thompson is recognized by the CDCR as a Native American Spiritual Elder authorized to conduct formal services and to teach.