82°F
weather icon Clear

Undercover agent one of few to get into Hells Angels

Hells Angel Jay Dobyns was at the Flamingo hotel in Laughlin with several members of the gang on April 27, 2002, the night of the River Run riot at nearby Harrah’s casino.

Two Hells Angels and one member of the Mongols, a rival motorcycle gang, were killed in a massive brawl on Harrah’s casino floor that night. Dozens of bikers on each side of the rivalry were arrested. Many more, including innocent bystanders, were injured.

Dobyns, an undercover federal agent and one of the few law enforcement officials to infiltrate the legendary motorcycle gang, remembers the mood of his “brothers” at the Flamingo, a little more than a mile from Harrah’s, immediately after the incident.

“You could sense the frigging impending doom hanging over the crowd that night. You could tell the anxiety and tension, and it was like you could cut it, touch it,” said Dobyns, 48. “That was the culmination of a 25-year feud with the Mongols coming to a head, man. You had fire with the Hells Angels there, gasoline with the Mongols there, and it was gonna go.”

INVESTIGATED AGAIN

In November and March, the Hells Angels became newsworthy in Nevada again when several Sin City clubhouses were raided by the Metropolitan Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Section.

The November raids concerned “documents, and images, which tend to show the organization, membership, and structure of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club,” according to warrants. Police said the investigation involved two Mongols stabbed at a downtown wedding chapel, possibly by members of the Hells Angels, in 2008.

In the March raids, search warrants were issued for items alleged to have been stolen from a local Salvation Army donation site, including handguns and vehicles, police said.

In both instances, no gang members were arrested and police kept specifics of the case to themselves. An attorney who represents Angels indicated in the November investigation said he would only comment after he spoke to his clients. He did not call back.

In November, some neighbors of the Hells Angels Sin City Chapter clubhouse on Torrey Pines Drive told Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith that the police made more of a disturbance than the Angels.

“They’ve been really great,” neighbor Geri O’Connor told Smith. “There hasn’t been any disturbance or anything.

“It gets a little loud,” she added. “But it’s nothing more than the average party.”

So why, despite the gang’s propensity for violence and constant investigations from police, are the Hells Angels not scrutinized in the same light as a street gang?

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

Criminal Intelligence Lt. Dave Logue said that, as far as police are concerned, motorcycle gangs operate in the same fashion as street gangs. The two Hells Angels chapters (they’re affiliated, but have different members and leaders) in Las Vegas fight rival gangs over turf or colors, they deal drugs and guns and intimidate local businesses.

The difference is organization and image, Logue said. The Hells Angels do not hide from the public, like members of the Crips and Bloods might.

They have Web sites for each chapter. They have clubhouses with logos on their door, and wear vests with the gang’s patch on the back. And they even sponsor charity events, he said.

“They would have you believe they’re good for the community, because they do toys for tot runs, charity runs,” Logue said. “But their criminal activity and violence far outweigh any good they do.”

Dobyns, who worked the Hells Angels undercover operation in Arizona for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from 2001 and 2003, said the gang’s propaganda machine is enormous.

The Angels began expansion in the late 1940s and early 1950s and have become a staple of “Americana,” Dobyns said, just as Al Capone, Jesse James and John Dillinger managed to do.

“They’re very good at putting themselves in the public eye as rebellious, patriotic guys who are full of good will but won’t conform to the rules,” he said.

But when you peel back the onion and draw closer to the core, you start to realize the truth, he said.

“I was on a toy run for kids, and the same guy who had a teddy bear strapped to his motorcycle was doing a meth deal in the bathroom,” he said.

In one of the more extreme examples, Dobyns said he remembers one Hells Angel joking with citizens at a charity event, spreading the “message of goodness” of the gang, a week after he killed a woman at a club and covered up the death.

“He’s shaking hands and kissing babies, when weeks before he brutally murdered an innocent girl,” Dobyns said.

A VIOLENT LIFE FOR ME

Dobyns said the ATF’s investigation resulted in dozens of arrests and many convictions (although “too many” members were given plea deals by prosecutors, which still irks Dobyns) of top members of the Hells Angels’ organizations in the southwest United States.

But many members he called “friends” while undercover continue to walk the streets and avoid prosecution, several of whom were active participants in the River Run riot and openly brag about their involvement, he said.

“When you live that life, you’re crossing paths with those kind of events all the time,” Dobyns said. “They (Hells Angels) form conclusions on violence and intimidation.”

It’s difficult for police to gather valuable information on the organization, he said, because of the strict guidelines for membership and an ironclad grip on information flow from the top members of the gang.

Dobyns was undercover more than a year before he was promoted to full member, he said — and that was only after he fabricated the death of a Mongol, photographing a homemade murder scene and taking a bloodstained biker jacket to leaders in order to prove his loyalty, he said.

“Most people, when you show ’em pictures of a butchered body and bring back a vest with bloodstains on it, like the things we did, a normal person runs the other way dialing 911 at the same time,” he said.

“I was getting kisses and hugs, the full embrace. They threw a vest on my back and said, ‘You’re a Hells Angel now, dude, you showed what it takes.'”

A few days after the fake murder, the case was closed, raids were executed, and arrests were made.

LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS

Dr. Tom Barker, a criminal justice and police studies professor at Eastern Kentucky University and a renowned researcher on motorcycle gangs, said the Hells Angels operate with the same level of secrecy as the mafia.

Like the mafia, Hells Angels members are required to earn money for the gang, and, also like the mafia, use “puppet clubs” and associates, instead of members, to do most of the gang’s dirty work.

This insulates the top members from potential prosecution, he said.

“If you have 30 made members of an organization, and each one has 10 associates that work for him and does his bidding, now you’re talking about a gang the size of 300 members,” Barker said.

Dobyns has personally witnessed this strategy, he said.

A Las Vegas Hells Angel introduced Dobyns to an associate of the club who had bombs, assault weapons and rocket launchers for sale, he said. The associate wasn’t a full-fledged member, but he often worked with the crew, he said.

Although his experience was limited in Las Vegas, Dobyns said he knew of prostitution, theft, weapons and drug operations taking place at Arizona’s next-door neighbor. Las Vegas has more than enough legal vice to cater to the biker lifestyle, he said.

“They’re some rough boys in Vegas,” he said. “They’re a no-nonsense crew, and they’re takers. If they can’t get something, whether they have to lie or steal, they’ll get it.”

THE FEDERAL FIGHT

Whether the pending investigations in Las Vegas will find success is unknown, but Barker said that local law enforcement has had mixed success nationally combatting motorcycle gangs.

Barker said the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which allows the government to prosecute an entire organization rather than a single person, is one of the few ways law enforcement has found success against the Hells Angels.

But with more than 200 chapters that cover the United States, Canada and even Europe, Barker said it will take more than a few cases to slow the Hells Angels expansion. There are an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 members in the world, he said.

“There are actually more chapters of the gang outside the U.S. than inside,” he said. “That’s something we hadn’t seen before recently.”

Hells Angels have argued that the RICO Act does not apply to their organization, as they aren’t a criminal enterprise; they’re just a bunch of guys around the world who share a love of riding motorcycles.

Dobyns doesn’t see it that way.

“The thing is, they wear that patch,” he said. “You can say you’re individually not involved in criminal activity, not selling drugs or running guns or prostitutes, or extorting people.

“But even if you aren’t into that, you still benefit from the reputation of violence and intimidation the club carries when they wear that patch. And that’s as big a problem as any we face.”

Contact reporter Mike Blasky
at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST