Deceivingly demure for someone who has both defended and prosecuted the dregs of society, Phoenix attorney and author Kerrie Droban looks more like the poet she once aspired to be than a woman whose literary career is built upon documenting the lives of outlaw bikers.
That is, until she tells you about her time in Kenya quaffing milk mixed with cow's blood. Droban — whose true-crime book Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws was adapted for the A&E series Gangland Undercover, which begins its second season tonight — touched on this unusual means of sustenance during a recent interview with New Times at a local coffee shop.
Her parents, she explains, were in the U.S. Foreign Service and served overseas in countries such as Ghana, Morocco, Senegal, Kenya, and Poland. In Kenya, at age 16, she enrolled in a program where international students spend a couple of months immersing themselves in the culture of the Maasai people of East Africa. And that included a mainstay of the tribe's diet: fresh milk and blood from the Maasai's goats and cows.
"It was hideous," she recalls with a smile. "It went around in a goblet, and it was unpasteurized. So it smelled like the animal. I lost so much weight on this trip, it wasn't even funny."
One of her companions had smuggled in a backpack full of Snickers bars, but that only lasted so long. When the Maasai saw that their guests were looking a tad emaciated, they decided to reward them with a repast of goat meat simmered in a thick blood stew.
"So we had this coagulated goat stew," Droban says. "To this day, I can't eat any food with sauce on it. It makes me crazy. I can't eat Mexican food or anything that remotely resembles this blood stew that I had to eat."
The vittles weren't the only challenge. Droban and the other kids slept in outdoor lockers where the Maasai kept their meat. They learned to survive in the wild, where each teen was responsible for an important task. Droban's job was to identify the dung of the various animals they might encounter. Lions, leopards, and hyenas came out at night and steered clear of humans, she explains, but they were most wary of water buffalo, because the males were known to charge at tourists.
She shared a few photos of her trip, one of which shows her and her fellow teen adventurers washing their hair on the shoreline of Lake Turkana. Though it was 120 degrees out, they didn't dare swim, because the river was infested with crocodiles.
From crocodiles as a kid to biker gangs as an adult may not be that great a leap. Droban's first book, Running with the Devil, chronicled the Hells Angels' infiltration by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, led by ATF agent Jay Dobyns. (The famed Operation Black Biscuit is also the subject of Dobyns' memoir No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner-Circle of the Hells Angels.)
Running with the Devil opened the door to a number of other true-crime books, most of which deal with motorcycle clubs. The latest, due out early next year, is the memoir of Peter "Big Pete" James, the onetime boss of the Illinois-based Outlaws MC, a group that, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, has battled the Hells Angels in the Windy City, where HA keeps a clubhouse in the suburb of Harvey, while the Outlaws operate out of Chicago proper. The book is tentatively titled The Last Chicago Boss.
Droban co-authored the memoir with James, just as she did for the memoir of Charles Falco, the ATF informant who infiltrated three biker gangs that make up the book's title, Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws. The 2013 tome follows Falco — who, according to Droban, still has a price on his head — as he worms his way into each group's confidence.
A Canadian producer bought the rights to the book and filmed the series mostly in Canada and England with an all-Canadian cast. The History Channel aired the first season in the United States and both seasons in Canada. Droban says A&E purchased the second season to air in the U.S., starting Thursday, December 8 at 11 p.m. Arizona time. Droban said she only learned about the deal after the book's TV rights had been sold.
"You write a book and you kind of give it up," she says. "What happens in the next medium is completely out of my hands."
The filmmakers did shoot some scenes in 2015 at the abandoned Gillespie Dam, near Gila Bend, because it looks like stereotypical biker country. Droban drove out to the location to watch some of the shoot, which included the filming of certain scenes and various motorcycle tricks. She got to meet the cast and crew, including the handsome actor who plays Falco in the series, Damon Runyan (spelled with an "a," not an "o" like the legendary reporter whose work inspired the musical Guys and Dolls.)
Though Droban says she has ridden a motorcycle, she admits that she doesn't like to do so and does not own one. In fact, she had to read extensively about motorcycles in order to describe them accurately. Her interest in outlaw motorcycle gangs is purely anthropological, and she has never represented a club member in court. So she doesn't have to worry about getting in trouble with the state bar, as Kirk Numi, attorney for murderess Jodi Arias, did for breaking attorney-client confidentiality by writing a tell-all about the Arias case.
In fact, Droban likens what she does to journalism — save for the fact that according to the media lawyers she has spoken with, she's not covered by a shield law, which (sometimes) protects journalists from having to reveal their sources to a law enforcement agency or a court. As a result, she has had to advise the people she's writing about not to divulge anything to her that they wouldn't want to come out in public.
One of her most memorable interviews was with a Pagan warlord she identifies as "The Saint" in one of her books. He'd flown into Phoenix from Pennsylvania with another biker she was interviewing for a book, but she quickly saw that he was the real story. This "thoroughly scary-looking guy," as she describes him, sat in the room of a local Hampton Inn in his underwear, munching from box after box of his favorite cereal, Lucky Charms, and regaling her with tales of his exploits. The Saint, she says fondly, was "a phenomenal storyteller."
Droban says bikers seem to treat her as a neutral party, and that she has never received threats from a club member who was ticked at something she'd written. In the case of the Hells Angels, they despise the guy who infiltrated them (Dobyns), but not her for writing about it.
"Sonny Barger did email me [about Riding with the Devil]," she reveals. "Not threatening me, but basically saying everything [in the book] is fiction."
Of course, the Hells Angels weren't happy with Dobyns' account of Black Biscuit, either, as it paints the club as being involved in drug running and various other illegal activities, which club members insist is not true.
After she graduated from law school at the University of Arizona, Droban worked for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for four years, then did appellate work and worked as a defense attorney. This year, she served as a court-appointed advisory counsel for former Minuteman Chris Simcox. Simcox, who represented himself during his trial, was found guilty of molesting a nine year-old girl and sentenced to 19 and a half years in prison.
In her years as an attorney, Droban defended bank robbers, white supremacists, and murderers. Though she has been successful in law, she says she always wanted to be a writer. At age seven, she asked her parents for a typewriter, because many of the African countries where her family was living in didn't have much in the way of entertainment and she had to amuse herself (when she wasn't out identifying hyena droppings in the African bush).
As an undergrad at Emerson College, she started out studying to be an actress. But when she took a screenwriting course with the famed playwright Edward Albee, he told her that she "belonged behind the scenes," not in front of a camera. She aspired to be a poet, and she was on track to teach poetry when the economy tanked and she had to make money, so she took up the law.
"I returned to writing while I was doing appellate work," she explains. "I finally had time to write."
Still, she says she enjoys courtroom battles, which have their own inherent drama. So far, her work as a true-crime writer has not affected her legal practice — though she did have to turn down one case because it involved a motorcycle gang member. These days she has more work on both fronts than it sounds like she wants, having established herself as a sought-after talking head for documentaries and for cable news whenever there's a new round of biker bloodshed to be analyzed.
"I'm the one percent of true-crime writers that write about one-percenters," she says, referring to a famous quote indicating that only one percent of motorcycle enthusiasts are outlaws. The phrase is a mark of pride for those in that world.
And yet, these "mafia on wheels," popularized by shows such as Sons of Anarchy, remain a source of mystery to her. One contradiction Droban sees in members of motorcycle gangs is an obsession with reputation and how they are treated in the media, though they claim to be defiant of any conventional measure of normality.
"It's really intriguing to me that they are so concerned with their public/private image," she observes. "They want to be nonconformists, but they conform the most of anybody I've ever met."
Indeed, for groups that are supposed to be all about breaking society's rules, the clubs have plenty of their own.
"Big Pete's book really drives that home," she says of her forthcoming book. "They have more rules than any corporation. It got to the point of ridiculousness [in the Outlaws]. They've got 182 rules for one club or chapter."
And yet the appeal of their lifestyle remains. Like the mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs thrive on control and fear, Droban observes. But they also offer a fantasy for those in the "square world" (as they refer to it) — a fantasy wherein you can do almost anything and, at least in theory, get away with it.