LOOK HOMEWARD ANGELCYCLE ICON SONNY BARGER KICK-STARTS LIFE AS A FREE MAN BY VIOLATING PAROLE
As the Hell's Angels back their bikes against the curb at Oakland International Airport, the squares do double takes. Their conspiratory smiles telegraph envy and empathy, like if they could, they, too, would grow their hair and ride with American steel trembling between their legs. Other bystanders, more sensible, push their children ahead of them as they flee from what every instinct tells them is an ugly, violent tribe capable of brutalizing anyone who gives offense.
The Angels betray no interest in the citizens. Nor do they seem to care about the TV crews or scribbling reporters. They thread quietly through the airport and, leather creaking, tramp down to Gate 10. They are here to meet Sonny Barger's plane.
Barger, of course, is possibly the world's most famous motorcyclist and the archetypical Hell's Angel. He didn't found the motorcycle club--don't call it a gang--but he constructed the myth. He's 54 years old, and just hours ago he was released from the medium-security Phoenix Federal Correctional Institute. Now he's walking up the ramp from an America West jet, with his wife, Sharon, a half-step behind him and his godson, a beautiful, blond 2-year-old, balanced on his hip.
As he's welcomed with bear hugs and hoots, Barger is technically violating his parole. Many of these men are convicted felons, people Barger has been ordered to avoid. And if one believes the FBI's interpretation of the Angels' insignia, then some of them--the ones who wear the "Filthy Few" patch on the left breast of their colors--are killers.
Barger has such a patch.
One Angel says it's kind of an all-around merit badge, bestowed for service above and beyond the call of duty. Originally, he said, the Few were simply the hardest partiers, the advance team that went out before a run to hack campsites out of the brush. The cops, this Angel says, constructed their own meaning for the patch, the same way they have slandered and vilified the club for decades. All the Hell's Angels are about, he says, are owning and riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
That is the club party line to which all Angels scrupulously adhere. Whatever an Angel does on his own time, when he dons the colors, it's only to enjoy the wind in his hair and the road humming beneath his oily boots.
But Sonny Barger has just spent the last three and a half years in prison. He was convicted of conspiring to violate federal explosives, firearms and arson laws, and using stolen law enforcement intelligence reports on rival clubs. Barger's 1989 conviction capped more than a decade of sustained legal trouble, during which the government described him as the leader of a "Mafia on wheels."
The government says Barger conspired with other Angels to kill several members of the Detroit-based Outlaws. Then-attorney general Ed Meese claimed Barger's arrest averted five murders.
According to the FBI, during the 1980s, the Angels and the Outlaws were engaged in a bloody struggle to control the methamphetamine trade in the United States and Canada. In 1985, 133 Angels in 11 states were arrested in the culmination of the three-year undercover "Operation Roughrider." According to the FBI, the sting established that the Angels, "through liaisons with other traditional organized-crime families," were involved in a multimillion-dollar drug-trafficking business. The FBI still claims as much as 75 percent of the methamphetamine trade in this country is controlled by biker gangs. Speed and crank, the feds say, pay for those $30,000 motorcycles.
Barger, croaking through a hole in his throat--his cancerous larynx was removed in 1983--begs to differ. The authorities have a hard-on for the Angels, he says. They've harassed his club for decades.
"I'm sure there are some individual Angels who've sold methamphetamines," Barger tells New Times. "Just like I'm sure some cops have sold methamphetamines. I'm sure some of our members own guns, whether legal or not. And I'm sure the government makes a living off of us."
Barger insists he was set up by overzealous federal agents frustrated by their inability to nail the Angels.
"There never was a crime thought up by the Hell's Angels," he says. "It was thought up by the FBI. It was paid for by the FBI. And I went to jail for it. That's the way it goes."
If not for his colors and Angels belt buckle, Barger might pass for any burgher back from two weeks at Club Med. The child on his hip lends him an aura of domesticity.
Barger is decidedly less scruffy than his welcoming party, his chest is tight and his biceps pneumatic beneath his Western-style shirt. He started running at Phoenix FCI, and he can go ten miles at a ten-minute-per-mile pace. (I'm slow, but I can go on forever," he says.) His face is ruddy from the sun, and, unlike some of the other Angels, his eyes are clean.
Dave Feldman, a Phoenix FCI inmate who befriended Barger, says the arch-Angel kept himself fit and focused while in prison. Barger quit smoking (after developing cancer) and spent most of his time in Phoenix tuning his body and reading.
Because his voice is damaged, Barger's friends must lean in close to hear him. To speak he presses a white patch covering the "blowhole" in his throat, a gesture that resembles a blessing. The airport scene seems intimate and superstitious, these burly men bending tenderly to their chief.
An Oakland police officer watches, unstirred. He thinks the Angels are scum, though not as bad as crack criminals. Bikers, he says, are mainly loudmouths and bullies whose crimes are most likely to harm other lowlifes. He's been to Angel funerals where hundreds of bikes roll. In public it's all flash and filigree. No one is going to cause trouble for the TV cameras.
Barger genuflects to accept the welcome of his Rottweilers, Heidi and Ubar. The dogs lick their prodigal master's face. Outside, traffic cops are scrawling tickets and leaving them on the seats of the illegally parked Harleys. A gray Lincoln limousine pulls up to take Sonny--whose driver's license has expired--anywhere he wants to go." The party moves through the automatic glass doors.
Outside the terminal, the Angels kick their bikes to life. Like the rack of a pump shotgun or the leaden buzz of a bass guitar, the throb of a big motorcycle is a convincing sound. It is more felt than heard, a fibrillating sensation deep in the chest. A quarter-turn of a Harley's throttle shreds the peace. Riding together, their colors flying, they are equal parts freak show and crank-case cavalry, a band that clearly enjoys the awe and dread it produces merely by showing up.
"They're just punks," the talkative cop shrugs. "I don't know why people bother with them."
From the airport, Barger went straight to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a fresh driver's license. The next day, he planned to lead the Angels on a run from their Oakland clubhouse to the site of his homecoming party, the Mountain House, a little bar outside Livermore. The Bargers know the town well; Sharon won the Maid of Livermore Beauty Pageant when she was 19. That same year, not far from Livermore, the Rolling Stones played a free concert at Dick Carter's Altamont Speedway.
@body:When I learned eight months ago that Barger was doing time at Phoenix FCI, I began sending him copies of New Times and books. His prison counselor told me Barger received dozens of requests for interviews every month. He said Barger was collaborating with a screenwriter and was unlikely to do anything to undercut the commercial viability of the project. Still, it was worth a try.
On June 8, Barger called me from prison. He said he wasn't currently giving interviews, but that we might get together after his release. The next time he contacted me, it was through Steve Brown--vice president of the Angels' Oakland chapter--who called to invite me to Barger's welcome home party.
@body:Interstate 580 snaps east through dun hills, past recessed subdivisions and upscale strip malls. Off the freeway in the California countryside, Alameda County deputies are running a video camera. Farther on, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms snap photos. The Mountain House is on the corner where Altamont Pass Road terminates.
The party hasn't started, but already there are a few jewel-toned Harley-Davidsons in the parking lot. Across the road, a California Highway Patrol officer leans against his cruiser, talking to a plainclothes guy. And the gate to Altamont Speedway lies less than two miles south.
It's not open now, though current owner Bernard Kavage says there were four stock-car races there last year. Kavage is trying to reopen the speedway, but he's run into "political problems getting permits" and "partner problems."
There isn't much to see. A tower, an oval dirt track, a grandstand, surrounded by sloping hills. In the cool sunshine of a California November, it feels ordinary and comfortable.
But this is where the Sixties dead-ended, on December 6, 1969. This is where the Rolling Stones got their human sacrifice and the Hell's Angels got $500 worth of beer for "providing security."
This is where, as the Stones stumbled through a distracted version of "Under My Thumb," 18-year-old Meredith "Murdock" Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death by several Angels. An Alameda County grand jury refused to indict anyone in the killing.
Patricia Bredehoft, a Berkeley High School student who attended the concert with Hunter, told the grand jury she and her date were caught up in the crush near the stage when things turned ugly. Stanley Booth, a journalist who was at Altamont with the Stones, recounted Bredehoft's grand jury testimony in his 1984 book, Dance With the Devil:
". . . this Hell's Angel . . . pushed [Hunter] or knocked him back. It didn't knock him down, but knocked him back over the stage, and as he started to come back forward toward the Hell's Angel, another Hell's Angel who was on the stage grabbed him around the neck. They were scuffling around.
". . . Murdock came around by my side and pulled a gun out. Then they came toward--well, a group of Hell's Angels--I'm not sure they were all Hell's Angels, but I know most of them were--they came toward him and they reached for his arm and they were all kicking and fighting and stuff.
" . . . I couldn't really tell what was going on underneath the scaffold and the Hell's Angel--I thought he was a Hell's Angel but . . . I couldn't see the back to see if it had colors on. He was holding the gun in his hand, laying in the palm of his hand, to show it to me and he said something like, 'This is what we took from him. He was going to kill innocent people, so he deserved to be dead.'"
During the opening moments of Gimme Shelter, the extraordinary documentary of the Stones' 1969 American tour, the Stones hear a tape of Sonny Barger's angry call to a San Francisco radio station in the days after the concert. Barger, then 31 and--as always--president of the Oakland chapter, had been onstage throughout the Stones' performance.
Barger claimed the chaos began when some of the "flower children. . . . startin' messin' over [Angel] bikes." Barger was incensed by Jagger's refusal to support the Angels in the controversy that followed the concert.
"I didn't go there to police nothing, man," Barger told the station. "I ain't no cop. . . . And this Mick Jagger, like, put it all on us. He used us for dupes. . . . They told me that if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, that I could drink beer until the show was over. And that's what I went to do."
Twenty-three years later, Altamont sticks in the American mind like a tumor, as the place where the naive optimism of Woodstock Nation was beaten into a coma by Angels swinging pool cues. Murdock Hunter wasn't the only casualty, and Hell's Angels weren't the only batterers. But in the aftermath of Altamont, the Angels--who had been lionized by Allen Ginsberg and embraced by the Merry Pranksters--were portrayed as thugs.
Altamont's shadow lingers.
In March 1983, Addie Crouch, a founder and former vice president of the Angels' Cleveland chapter, told the Senate Judiciary Committee the club had an "open contract" to kill Jagger and other members of the band. Crouch described two attempts on the Stones' lives in the Seventies. He claimed the club once sent a member armed with a .22-caliber pistol and a silencer to stalk a New York City hotel. The Stones, however, never checked in.
The second attempt, also in New York, involved a hit squad of Angels, a pontoon boat and a stash of plastic explosives. According to Crouch, the Angels assigned to do the hit lost a lot of the "plastic" and were severely reprimanded. Still, he told the committee, the club was determined to get the band.
Crouch disappeared into the federal witness protection program. Nothing much ever came of his testimony.
Barger denies the club ever tried to kill Jagger or any of the Stones. He's tired of the question, though his answer hints at the dark potential.
"I personally don't like the guy, but that doesn't mean I want him dead," Barger tells New Times. "There are seven [Angel] chapters in England and he comes over here a lot. If there was a contract out on him, then he'd be dead. It's that simple, he wouldn't still be singing."
@body:The Hell's Angels are indivisible from popular culture. They were born of it.
In 1927, a 22-year-old Howard Hughes bought 87 airplanes to film a spectacular World War I aerial epic. Released in 1930, Hell's Angels is also memorable as the movie that launched Jean Harlow's career. In the key scene, she keens to leading man Ben Lyon: "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"
Several American fighter squadrons adopted the name Hell's Angels during World War II. After the war, many pilots traded their wings for wheels, and in 1947, a former pilot named Otto Friedli formed the group that would become the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club in San Bernardino, California. A year later, on March 17, 1948, the group sewed a winged skull in a leather aviator's cap to the back of its jackets.
Outlaw bikers penetrated the national consciousness in 1947 when more than 4,000 motorcycle enthusiasts descended on Hollister, California, for an Independence Day race and hill-climbing event. For three days, the cyclists occupied the town, throttling their bikes down the main drag. When a drunken biker was arrested, his buddies demanded his release.
Hollister's seven cops were overwhelmed and called in the state police. When the dust settled, nearly 100 bikers had been arrested and more than 50 people injured. Two months later, the debacle was repeated in Riverside, California, when more than 6,000 bikers gathered for an American Motorcycle Association race.
In 1954, director Stanley Kramer converted a Harper's magazine piece on the Hollister riot into The Wild One, the seminal biker flick. With Marlon Brando as a cool rebel biker and Lee Marvin as a cruel, nihilistic biker, the film defines biker mythology, cribbing its existential edge from the North Beach Beats. The crucial scene involves Mary Murphy, as the simultaneously appalled and fascinated townie chick, approaching Brando. She asks him: "What are you rebelling against?"
He peers up from under his leather cap. "Whaddaya got?"
@body:Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. wasn't part of this first generation of bikers. Born in 1938 in a working-class neighborhood of Modesto, Barger was abandoned by his mother and raised by his father and grandmother. He dropped out of the tenth grade and enlisted in the Army. After basic and advanced infantry training, he was about to ship out to South Korea when his superiors discovered he was only 16. He was given an honorable discharge and a "pat on the head."
"I liked the motto, 'Death before dishonor,'" he says. "That's always stuck with me."
On April Fools' Day 1957, a date memorialized in bronze on the clubhouse door and in a tattoo on his right arm, Barger established the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels. In 1958, with Otto Friedli in jail, Barger was proclaimed national president. One of his first actions was to move the club's "mother chapter--the de facto national headquarters--from San Bernardino to Oakland. Later that year, Barger made his public debut as president when Oakland police cracked his skull in a fight.
In those days, Barger says, cops considered bikers more a nuisance than a threat and didn't hesitate to harass them. Motorcycle clubs spent most of their time feuding among themselves. Barger understood the need of people of common philosophy to unite.
In his 1978 book, A Wayward Angel, George "Baby Huey" Werthern, a former vice president of the Oakland chapter, describes a particularly poignant moment in club history. According to Werthern, in 1960 Barger convened a meeting of the leaders of the Angels and other California biker gangs.
"It was a historic gathering, sort of like the Yalta Conference," Werthern writes. "Clubs that had traded stompings and chain whippings for years were parleying over a mutual problem--police harassment. . . . And we kicked around a statement from the American Motorcycle Association, the Elks Club of biking. To draw a distinction between its members and us renegades, the AMA had characterized 99 percent of the country's motorcyclists as clean-living folks enjoying pure sport. But it condemned the other 1 percent of us as antisocial barbarians who'd be scum riding horses or surfboards, too."
Rather than taking offense, the clubs voted to ally under a "one percenter" patch to be worn on their respective colors. As it reminded bikers of their common enemy, the patch would deter infighting.
"Everyone knew the patch was a deliberately provocative gesture, but we wanted to draw deep lines between ourselves and the pretenders and weekenders who only played with motorcycles," Werthern writes.
Still, Barger, the hardest Angel, wasn't satisfied with a patch. He and Werthern had the new one percenter insignia tattooed on their arms.
"Soon our Oakland brothers were lining up for theirs," Werthern writes. "We were beginning to believe our own mystique. As we stacked a few rules and rituals on the simple foundation of motorcycle riding, we thought we were building a little army. But in fact, it was a rough blueprint for a secret society."
@body:By 10:30 a.m., the Angels have restricted parking in the Mountain House's lot. It is reserved for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Chumps in rented tomato-red Ford Tempos have to string it out along the highway and hike back.
There is a camera crew and several guys with open notepads in the parking lot, herded into a tight circle behind plastic tape. Guinea, a tall, lean Angel of about 50, is gesturing at them with more impatience than menace. Anyone can pay money and walk inside. But none of these reporters dares approach the glaring Guinea. They loiter in the parking lot, waiting for their chance to stick a microphone in Barger's face.
Just inside the Moutain House's gate is a large sign, defining the rules. This, it says, is a family place. If you didn't buy it here, don't drink it here. No hard liquor, wine or wine coolers. No dogs, except for Seeing Eye animals. No drugs.
Steve Brown, the Oakland vice president, is in a motor home near the back of the park that will serve as Barger's headquarters. Brown is a charming man. He has a quick smile and his speech veers unnervingly close to surfer patois in its rhythm and inflection. Getting ready to ride to Oakland to join the rest of the club on its ritual run, he slips on his pie plate-thin helmet, a concession to California's recent helmet law.
There are probably more than 200 people already at Mountain House, and many of them are wearing, beneath their jackets and colors, red tee shirts emblazoned with Barger's likeness circled by the legend "Welcome Home, Sonny." The tee shirts cost $15, sweat shirts $25, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Angels' legal defense fund. A couple of other tables are set up outside the gate, selling biker garb. A sign above the table indicates that $5 of every purchase goes to the Angels.
Hell's Angels is more than a motorcycle club; it's a nonprofit corporation. Barger realized the club's potential early on. After a spate of publicity in 1965, he took precautions to protect the club's name. In 1966, the club incorporated and issued 500 shares of stock. In 1972, the club's emblem was granted U.S. patent number 926-590. While the Angels allow authorized paraphernalia, such as shirts that read "Support Your Local Hell's Angel" or "Sonny Barger, An American Legend," they've never allowed their emblem to be used in advertising or on gear available to nonmembers. Barger says he's fielded offers from haute couture houses and tobacco companies that would have paid the club millions.
"I'm glad that people like us," he says. "I'm happy that they like us enough to want to wear our emblems and use our name. But we've fought for it, we died for it, and they don't have a right to it."
During the Sixties, sales of counterfeit tee shirts were stopped overnight by a rumor that the Angels would attack anyone caught wearing one. Similarly, there are stories about Angels cutting signifying tattoos off ersatz members.
The Angels have also taken legal steps to dissuade unauthorized use of their logo. In 1990, they sued B-movie director Roger Corman for infringing on their registered trademarks in his film Nam Angels. The suit, which was settled out of court, alleged that the film depicted club members as "thugs, mercenaries . . . disloyal to each other and the organization."
Around the Mountain House, there are murmurs that actor Mickey Rourke, a friend of New York Angel Chuck Zito, may show up at Barger's party. If so, there are some bikers--not Angels--who want to stomp him for his conspicuous use of motorcycle leathers. These guys think Rourke is nothing more than a "pansy with a bad chemical peel" and resent his tough-guy posturing.
Posturing is not a good thing to engage in around genuine hoodlums. Conversely, if you accord these bikers--and their women--respect, there's no real problem. After about a half-hour of rubbing shoulders with men with scars and "Born to Rape" tattoos, the novelty wears off. Waiting for Barger and the Angels to show up is about as exciting as a GOP fund raiser; even the small talk sounds the same. Granted, you're not quite as likely to hear the Republicans reminiscing about jailhouse experiences, but after a while, it feels just like another family reunion. It's either drink or play volleyball.
Despite Mountain House rules, there is a little dope. But a lot less than at your average Paul McCartney concert. In context, the sweet smell seems quaint.
A majority of the folks here are in their 40s, but there are kids and grandparents, as well. Most of the men wear the colors of some motorcycle club--there are Angels from all over the world, and assorted bikers from all over the country. They clink along dripping chains and leather, sipping a canned Bud or Coors, looking for a shady spot to roost.
There's really not much to be outraged at, and it's difficult to see how outrage could help matters, anyway. While most of the Nazi paraphernalia adopted by bikers is worn simply to shock the squares, there is a small contingent of white supremacists walking the grounds today, including a crude, 50ish woman wearing a red tee shirt adorned with a large swastika.
About an hour before the Angels show up, a contingent of East Bay Dragons, a long-lived black motorcycle club known for weirdly customized bikes, blasts into the parking lot. Soon another predominantly black club, the Soul Brothers, arrives. They co-exist peaceably in the growing crowd, though the hard-core Aryans tend to move deeper into the park.
@body:Hunter S. Thompson's 1967 book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Motorcycle Outlaws, codified the myth of the Angels, and it still resonates. There is more than one copy floating around the Mountain House grounds; one geezer has a ratty first edition that he's asking various Angels to sign.
The gonzo journalist rode with the Angels for a year, producing a remarkable piece of sociology. His assessment of the Angels seems to hold up 25 years later--they seem like decent people with indecent appetites. They are dangerous to those who prejudge or slight them, but otherwise peaceable enough. Of course, it pays to be alert. In his last chapter, the Angels stomped Thompson, but then, as Angel treasurer Michael Malve says, "That's show biz."
Thompson described Sonny Barger thusly:
"In any gathering of Hell's Angels . . . there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, the Maximum leader, a six-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts. By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator. To the Oakland Angels, he is Ralph. Everybody else calls him Sonny. . . . Barger's word goes unquestioned."
For the most part, Thompson's description endures. Barger isn't quite six feet, he's more like five feet nine inches, but then who'd begrudge a legend a few inches? And, since the publication of Hell's Angels, the club's membership has skyrocketed, as the Angels have absorbed other clubs.
It is a little after 2 p.m. when Barger finally rolls in, followed by 150 Angel Harleys.
Even the most jaded biker molls crane their necks to watch the boys arrive. Children run to clutch the fence. Though you might expect some restraint, Barger is literally mobbed, lost in a crush of flesh and leather. Everyone wants a chance to shake his hand or have a photograph taken with him. A TV news crew buttonholes Sonny and Sharon almost as soon as they step off his bike. He supplies a sound bite, then answers another reporter's question. He is smiling, measured and butch. His hair and mustache are neatly trimmed and he wears a pristine white undershirt beneath his colors. He works his way through the crowd like royalty, Sharon at his side, with Angel bodyguards fore and aft.
Guinea is now at the edge of the scene, barking into a walkie-talkie. Then he turns to a youngster approaching with pen and paper extended.
"No, no autographs," Guinea pleads.
It takes more than 40 minutes for Sonny and Sharon to traverse the few yards from the bike to the motor home, and even after they're inside, little children bang on the door, hoping Barger will come out and play.
The 20ish lead singer of a band called the Pigs--one of three acts that will perform before headliner Johnny Paycheck takes the stage--turns to his band mates after Barger recedes into the trailer: "That man's a fuckin' legend, y'all."
@body:In the wake of Altamont, Barger set out both to expand his Hell's Angels and to clean up their image.
He stripped their colors of abusive patches--the Angels used to give out colored metal wings for various sexual adventures performed before other club members--and blatant Nazi paraphernalia. Layabout members and those of marginal mental abilities were weeded out. Hard drug users--people who use needles--were banned. Then the Angels hired public relations specialists and participated in charity fund drives. Between 1966 and 1973, most of Barger's personal income came from advising various film projects. He became a professional Hell's Angel, running the club as a business.
Police maintain much of the Angels' business was illegal. On December 29, 1972, Barger and three other Angels were acquitted in the murder of a cocaine courier, Servio Agero. Whoever killed Agero wasn't taking any chances--police say he was shot and dumped into a bathtub before his house was torched. They allege Agero was killed after he burned the Angels for $80,000 in a drug deal.
Barger had an alibi. He was in bed with future wife Sharon--the former Maid of Livermore--at the time of the murder.
Ultimately, the trial did more damage to the reputation of the Oakland Police Department than to the Angels. A deal between the cops and the Angels was exposed--for five years, the Angels had been buying up all the arms and explosives on the black market to keep them out of the hands of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. Sergeant Ted Hilliard testified that after the Angels secured the weapons, Barger would personally turn them over to the police.
Hilliard denied, however, that the authorities turned a blind eye to Angel crimes. And Barger maintains the Angels were--and are--anti-Communist patriots eager to thwart subversives.
A few months later, Barger was convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute, and possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to ten years in Folsom Prison, and for the first time since its inception, he was forced to relinquish the presidency of the Oakland chapter.
Barger was released from prison on November 3, 1977, however, after his lawyers argued before the California Supreme Court that his draconian sentence was a result of his link to the Hell's Angels. But his legal troubles were just beginning.
In June 1979, the government indicted 32 people, including Barger and his then-wife Marie, for violating the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute. United States v. Ralph Barger Jr., et al. alleged the Angels were murderous drug and arms dealers. Before the trial, cocky prosecutors and DEA officials promised the case was "airtight." Barger's bail was set at $1 million.
"I can tell you why they want to get rid of the Hell's Angels," Barger said from the jail cell he occupied for the 14-month duration of the trial. "We're a virtual army. We're all across the country, and now we're in foreign countries, too. And they have no idea how many of us there are. We have money, many allies. . . ."
On June 15, 1980, after eight months of testimony, the jury began deliberations. During the trial, Barger admitted that during the Sixties he used and sold drugs, but he maintained that his actions had nothing to do with the club. On July 2, a mistrial was declared when the jury failed to reach a verdict.
"They've been after us from the beginning," Barger tells New Times. "At first, they tried to say we were antisociety, thugs. Then in the Sixties, it changed to marijuana-smoking-crazed. . . . Then they tried drug dealers. They have to have someone to go after to justify their existence."
A second RICO trial ended in a mistrial in February 1981. Some of the jurors apparently had trouble with the quality of some government witnesses. One former Angel who testified was granted immunity for six murders and paid $54,000.
Barger says defending the RICO charges cost the club between $10 million and $20 million.
"I never said freedom was cheap," he says, quoting himself. The slogan hangs on a banner near the Mountain House bandstand.
@body:At the height of the party, there are more than 4,000 people crowded into the Mountain House yard, and a CHP helicopter chupping overhead. Sonny and Sharon emerge from the motor home for half-hours at a time. He pulls from a bottle of Crystal Geyser water, listens to a little music, signs a few autographs and retreats to the motor home.
Cisco Valderram, current president of the Oakland chapter, is the ranking Angel in charge of the party. Cisco is a nice guy who has sewn on the right breast of his colors a white patch with red stitching that spells "Deguello." It's a reference to the Moorish march that Santa Ana's regimental band played as his troops attacked the Alamo. In Angel lexicon, it means "no quarter," and according to the FBI, the patch is awarded to members who violently resist arrest. Police consider the Order of Deguello more dangerous than the Filthy Few hit men.
Cisco says he's willing to give up the presidency of the chapter if Barger wants to take it over again, but he's proud of the honor.
"I'm no different than any other member," he says. "The things I'm doing now, I'd be doing if I was just a regular member. They are 40 good guys in this chapter . . . It's an honor that the guys think enough of me, but we're all pretty equal. It's a lot different in the old days, now we've got to do stuff like this."
He gestures at the ongoing party.
Barger himself says he doesn't know what his plans are, if he'll resume leadership. "It's up to the club," he says. "I'll do what they want me to do."
"It's different now," he says. "I started out, I didn't have anything but my colors and my bike. Now I've got a house, a family--this is my family. The Angels are my family. And they're what's important.
"I imagine they'll violate my parole for this [party]; I'm sure they'll try to send me back to prison. But if I have to do three more years in Phoenix, then it's been worth it.
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