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.

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Philip Martin