Every year tens of thousands of Harley-Davidson riding, leather jacket clad bikers storm into South Dakota bombarding the state for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the largest biker gathering in the world. The town’s population explodes as groups of wild men on motorcycles boom down the highways and commence to drinking, drugging, and raising hell. The rally attracts its share of motorcycle enthusiasts and weekend warriors showing off their new Harley Davidson’s or latest biker accessories, but to thousands of Hells Angels members, the United State’s most notorious motorcycle club, it’s not a once a year vacation, it’s a way of life.
The Hells Angels are the rock stars of the motorcycle outlaw club circuit. Bold, brash and in equal terms reckless, they are the grand daddy of the bad boys.
Establishing a Legacy
Ever since World War II, California has been strangely plagued by a gang of, in Hunter S. Thompson’s words, “filthy, frenzied, boozed-up motorcycle hoodlums called the Hells Angels.” Formed in 1948 by the Bishop family and Otto Friedli, bikers who most likely ran amok at the Hollister biker riots which inspired the Marlon Brando’s 1954 film The Wild One, and taking their name from a World War II bomber squadron that adopted the nom de guer from Howard Hughes 1927 movie, Hells Angels, the motorcycle club embraced the “one percenter” label thrust onto them by the media after Hollister, where the American Motorcycle Association declared that “ninety-nine percent of motorcycle riders are law-abiding citizens and only one percent are outlaws.”
“I was introduced to the Hells Angels who were at the top of the food chain in the outlaw bike culture,” thirty-year Hells Angel veteran George Christie, who was President of the Los Angeles and Ventura chapter and wrote a book about his time with the club- Exile on Front Street, tells Real Crime. “To hang out with them and to be recognized by them was everything if you were trying to live in that culture, so it was like being on top of the world for me. A young man hanging out with the most recognized and notorious outlaw bike club in the world. It was like living a dream, like running away and joining the circus. I ran away and I joined the Hells Angels. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The emblem for the club is the Winged Death Head, an angry looking skull that wears a helmet with feathers streaming behind him. It screams “don’t fuck with the Angels or we’ll ear you alive.” These patches are “the colors” of the club, denote membership and are sewn on the back of denim or leather jackets. Another patch is adorned beneath the emblem with the local chapter name, which is usually the city or locale that the chapter has its home base in.
Law enforcement has long claimed that the most universal common denominator in identification of a Hell’s Angel is the way they appear- long hair, beards and lots of tattoos; denim and leather clad; like modern day Viking warriors come to life riding mechanical steeds that thunder down the highway in a disciplined formation, carrying an impending sense of chaotic revelry before them like heavy metal knights. Brimming with brazen confidence and a total lack of regard for anyone or anything that has the audacity to get in their way, including law enforcement. A typical member rides on average 20,000 miles on their bike a year.
Becoming an Biker Mafia
“People don’t wake up every day and go, gee, what kind of crimes can I commit today. It doesn’t work that way.” Christie tells Real Crime. But the MC has lived up to its lawless image over the years with tons of fully patched members, prospects, associates and hangers on catching cases and being arrested and convicted for crimes like drug trafficking, weapons possession, assault, bombings, arson and even murder. And remarkably in 1969 the Hells Angles allegedly planned to kill Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones after he criticized the MC for stabbing a spectator to death at the infamous California Altamont Speedway show, where the Hell’s Angels were hired to provide security.
Due to their rapid growth in California the Hells Angels became embroiled in a series of turf wars with different outlaw motorcycle groups. Since they were the granddaddy of all motorcycle gangs they were many pretenders to the crown. They battled the Mongols for years to control California. A running battle that is still going on today that’s claimed numerous lives through the bombings of enemy clubhouses, highway shootings and even attacks at biker funerals. Christie was in charge of the Los Angeles and Ventura chapters in Southern California when the beef erupted with the Mongols. A dispute that originally started over a woman and quickly escalated into a blood feud and has made the news most famously when three bikers were killed during a massive brawl at a Nevada casino in 2002 between the Hells Angels and Mongols.
“I realized in the early to mid 80s that these guys were in it for the long haul and we tried to take the position that we were going to run them out of existence and there was no way that I ever thought that was going to happen after the first couple of battles.” Christie tells Real Crime. “There was a sit down immediately after the first fight which I thought as a leader was a bad idea. I told them let’s let them stew on this a few days, let’s just don’t go sit down. The Monguls put the rocker on. They got machine guns on their bikes. I think it was kind of a wake call for them to see that they could challenge us. I think then and there the Monguls decided, hey, you know what, we’re going to dig in and we’re not going anywhere and that’s what they did. People got shot off their bikes. There were explosions. A 15 year old kid got blown up.”
The Hells Angels Go International
For years the Hells Angels remained a California thing, but in 1961 the first international chapter was founded in Auckland, New Zealand. The Justice Department reports that the Hells Angel’s have almost 2,500 patched members in 230 chapters around the world. More than 90 of those chapters exist in the US, but internationally the Hells Angels have been known to get very deadly, very quick. Handling their business as efficient as any Colombian sicario’s backed by that big time cartel money.
“It’s not like we were drug lords and we were fighting over control of this and control of that. It wasn’t about that at all.” Christie tells Real Crime. “That’s how a lot of the guys got themselves into trouble over the years, you know, they would become so intoxicated with the power they would make the rules up as they went along. And for an organization that’s supposed to be secret all of a sudden our business was out on the street.”
The Quebec Biker War erupted in 1994 and lasted until 2002. The war saw multiple outlaw motorcycle gangs in Quebec and Montreal, Canada battle for supremacy in the Northern winter land. It pitted the Hells Angel’s versus the Rock Machine and their allies. Law enforcement claims that 162 deaths can be attributed to this bloody battle royale waged to be king of the Canadian biker scene. The most notorious Canadian Hells Angels was Maurice “Mom” Boucher who served as president of the club and was found guilty in 1997 of murdering prison guards in his mad attempt to control the drug trade inside Canada’s prison system and destabilize the justice system as a whole.
The MC Becoming a Legit Entity
The Hells Angels have officially become a brand in the US, a trend that is spreading to its international chapters. The MC has cornered the market on being bad-asses and if someone misrepresents with the Winged Death Head emblem the organization isn’t above suing or filing suit. In the US the Hells Angels have 18 trademark registrations covering different variations of the death-head icon and additional trademark registrations in over a dozen more countries. Despite their free spirited and even criminal legacy the Hells Angels are now technically a business and a legal one at that.
The Hells Angles sued the Hollywood movie Wild Hogs for copyright infringement. Other defendants have included Amazon, Toys “R” Us, Walt Disney and Marvel Comics. Over the years the MC has translated their pop culture image of heavily muscled and tattooed men in leather vests on motorcycles into a brand that is emblazoned across t-shirts, sunglasses, liquor, coffee mugs, and more. With plenty of legitimate interests to protect the former biker outlaws must now call upon and trust the same system that they’ve profoundly distrusted since their inception.
The Hells Angels Today
With the club being a staple of pop culture today it’s a big target for law enforcement, who are attempting to rebrand the Hells Angels from a biker club to a biker mafia. Federal agents are always trying to infiltrate the organization. The MC has been infiltrated numerous times leading to more in depth background checks on prospects. References from prison are a plus. Private investigators are hired to fact check a new recruits background claims. Christie dealt with under covers trying to sneak into the club.
“The cops that come and their goal is to infiltrate, you know, become part of the situation,” Christie tells Real Crime. “To me that’s part of the game and you have to be aware of that. I was always really cautious about the people that came around the club and how I interacted with them. The thing is if I couldn’t trace somebody back to their childhood I really didn’t want to make a close acquaintance with them. One of the things in Ventura we pretty much could follow everybody back through a childhood friend and kind of know where they’ve been and what they’ve done.”
Running investigations on the Hells Angels and other MC’s has largely been the ATF’s domain. An agent said the Hells Angels “operate like a criminal organization with a global infrastructure and a lot of money they can generate from members worldwide. If you go up against the Hells Angels to prove they are a racketeering enterprise, they do have the resources to fight tooth and nail and all the way to the end. You do not usually see those dynamics in street gangs like the Crips and Bloods.”
“A lot of these federal agents move to a town and they make it an effort to come around an outlaw bike club,” Christie says. “The next thing you know they’re riding with them and I think it really falls back on the club members that they probably should have been more cautious and more prudent in what they were doing. I have much more disrespect for someone who betrays his friends by testifying against them then a cop that tried to infiltrate. I just kind of see that as their job and it may sound odd to a lot of people, but I have more problems with a club member that flips because he got himself in a jam than a police officer that infiltrated an organization. If you really stop and think about it – I’m not saying respect them or I want to be like them, I’m just saying it’s a pretty ballsy move.”
Public Enemy Number One
Five years ago the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security placed the Hells Angels and other MC’s on its criminal hot list which included criminal organizations like the Mafia, Triads and Yakuza. This move made it more difficult for foreign members to enter the states for bike rallies and MC events. Today’s Hells Angels range from 70-year-old career criminals to 30-year-old professionals. But the loyalty that brought the MC together in the first place is still there. Despite the infiltrations and targets on their backs.
“The way the system is set up nowadays if you’re making ends meet you’re lucky and you’re satisfied in your daily routine and regime just to make ends meet.” Christie tells Real Crime. “I don’t know maybe I’m paranoid, but to me that’s part of the system the way it is set up. You know, you’re so focused on making ends meet and feeding your family and putting a roof over their head you don’t have time to question people or raise your voice about things you don’t believe or don’t feel is right. I’m the same guy I always was. If it got right down to it and I had to take the law into my own hands I probably would. I still don’t feel comfortable calling 911 and I haven’t yet and I don’t think I ever will.”
Protecting the Patch
Only for the glory of the club.
To a Hells Angel their patch or their “colors” is the most important thing in their possession. Wearing the patch on the jacket or saying you’re a Hells Angel carries a lot of weight and some people take advantage of that for their own benefit and the club doesn’t tolerate that.
“There was a guy in Los Angeles selling drugs with a Hells Angels patch,” Christie tells Real Crime. “I waited for the guy in his car and I stuck a gun behind his ear. We took him out to the desert and he said he didn’t have a patch, but we knew he did. When he saw that if he didn’t take us back to get the patch he wasn’t going to come back, he told us where it was. The cops put the own spin on it. The newspapers put their own spin on it and the district attorneys put their own spin on it.”