Cops & Angels

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Mention the Hells Angels to most people and up pops an image of big-bellied, leather-vested, tattooed hellions brawling their way from bar to bar on

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Cops & Angels

The Mounties think the bikers are at the center of British Columbia's billion-dollar drug trade. So how come they can't bust them?

  • Cops & Angels

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    Mention the Hells Angels to most people and up pops an image of big-bellied, leather-vested, tattooed hellions brawling their way from bar to bar on blisteringly loud Harley-Davidson hawgs. Mention the Angels to Corporal John Furac of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and he thinks "highly sophisticated organized crime network."

    Furac, who heads one of British Columbia's drug-busting "green teams," is convinced the Angels are behind 70 percent of the estimated $2 billion to $4 billion worth of high-grade marijuana grown in British Columbia every year. Police say three-quarters of that is exported to the states. "And there is so much we haven't investigated yet," Furac says. "Could the numbers be higher? Yes, they could." He likens the Angels' operations to those of the old-style Mafia: "They're not necessarily going to have their hands in it, but you need their approval to grow, and they get a cut."

    To show what he means, Furac offers to play guide on a crime tour of Langley and Surrey, two lush Vancouver suburbs known for their high-quality bud. He jams a magazine into his handgun, hops into the front seat of his team's unmarked Bronco, and whisks us out of the RCMP parking lot, voices jabbering on the police radio between the front seats. We head down long, winding road after long, winding road, past at least 12 current or past "grow ops," police slang for marijuana growing operations. Furac says there are a few thousand in BC; others put the number as high as 25,000.

    Furac points to a barn that, when busted a year ago, was packed to the rafters with plants more than 6 and a half feet tall. We pass cement warehouses, hydroponic growing supply shops, and regular-looking homes with blocked-off windows (including one former grow house that, Furac says, was right across the street from the RCMP station). We even pull up to a split-level he says is stocked with pot now. "The plants are in the double garage in back of the house," he explains as we peer through the bushes. So when are you going to bust it? I ask. "It's on the list," he says. "Right now my people are on holiday. It's bad timing."

    Finally we head for the nest, what Furac considers the drug world's local control center: the Hells Angels clubhouse. Down a quaint country road, just beyond the Hometown Hay & Feed, we creep past a building that looks to have once been a corner store; it's still got a sign above the door that reads "Harrington Grocery, Free Delivery." But now the building is painted white with red trim and, according to Furac, serves as a "booze can," an after-hours drinking joint, for the Angels. Red and white, the club's colors, are displayed on the backs of leather jackets everywhere. "If you see a red car with a white roof, that probably means they are a Hells Angel in this part of the country," explains Furac. There are flower boxes on the porch and some chairs. The curtains in the front windows are drawn and it doesn't look like anybody's inside. But as we get near, Furac reaches over and flips the passenger-side visor down to hide my face from the camera he says is mounted on the front porch.

    Just beyond the booze can, we come to the clubhouse. It looks like your basic farmhouse except that, again, it's painted red and white and surrounded by a fence with a gate announcing the chapter's name: Hells Angels' White Rock Chapter. How do the Angels get away with being so bold? The question can be answered in two ways, depending on whom you ask. The RCMP claims the Angels are uncowed because the police are too understaffed and underfunded to be much threat to such a closed and canny organization. The Angels, on the other hand, say they have nothing to hide—they're just a worldwide network of motorcycle enthusiasts. Sure, members get involved in a crime or two, leaders have said in the past, but that hardly makes their club a criminal organization.

    Furac points to homes on all sides of the Angels clubhouse and explains how the public doesn't take the Angels as a serious threat. He complains that the average Joe romanticizes them—the women, the open road—as the last free-wheelers in a society of conformists. And their neighbors love them: "Do you know that when they have parties, they pay for their neighbors to go away for the weekend? They pay for their holidays." Furac goes on and on, clearly frustrated at his department's ineffectuality. He talks about bugging the Angels in small ways, as with traffic violations. "I used to go out and park in front of the clubhouse and pretend to take pictures with a camera that didn't have any film in it," he snickers. "They'd throw rocks at me and threaten to take pictures of me."

    Boys just want to have fun

    The Hells Angels motorcycle club was born in the late 1940s, after WWII veterans returned home and found themselves bored silly with civilian life. Longing for the action and camaraderie of the battlefield, a small crew out of San Bernardino County, California, picked up surplus military motorcycles and began touring together. They made their public debut at a now-famous three-day biker rally in Hollister, California, sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association, which had no idea what the town was in for. According to the 1987 book Hells Angels: Taking Care of Business by journalist Yves Lavigne, more than 4,000 motorcycles tore into sleepy Hollister that weekend, brawling, drinking, and drag racing for days until the local police finally called in reinforcements from the highway patrol. Nearly 100 bikers were jailed, and 50 people injured.

    After a similar rally a few months later, according to Lavigne, the AMA barred "roving motorcycle gangs" from membership. But by then, the romanticism of outlaw bikers had taken hold. Inspired by magazine coverage of the Hollister takeover, Stanley Kramer made the 1954 movie The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin as the leaders of rival biker gangs who take over a small town. Lavigne writes that the movie hit so close to home, an Angels chapter president drove all the way to Hollywood to purchase the blue-and-yellow striped

    T-shirt Marvin wore in it.

    The group settled on the name Hells Angels (no apostrophe) in 1948 because some of the original members had belonged to a WWII bomber squadron of the same name. This picturesque brand only added to the biker cachet, and chapters soon popped up all over the country. In 1966, Hunter S. Thompson brought the American public up close and personal with the gang in Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. After traveling with the Angels for more than a year, Thompson described them as boozing, womanizing, law-breaking marauders, "like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter's leg with no quarter asked and none given; show the squares some class, give 'em a whiff of those kicks they'll never know. . . . "

    The Angels reveled in the attention. One member told Thompson: "We're the one-percenters, man—the 1 percent that don't fit and don't care. So don't talk to me about your doctor bills and your traffic warrants—I mean you get your woman and your bike and your banjo and I mean you're on your way. We've punched our way out of a hundred rumbles, stayed alive with our boots and our fists. We're royalty among motorcycle outlaws, baby." The Angels claim to belong to a different society, one that lives by its own rules. And they'll defend the country that spawned that society with fierce right-wing patriotism. They volunteered to go as a group to fight in Vietnam (apparently, the president didn't acknowledge their offer), for example, and started an organization during the Gulf War called BASH—Bikers Against Saddam Hussein.

    Rob Stutt, now a corporal with the RCMP's Serious Crimes Unit in Surrey, is considered something of an expert on the Angels; in the 1980s and early '90s, he was assigned full-time to tracking them. "I've been on over 50 rides" with the Angels, says Stutt, whose desk is surrounded by photos, patches, and other biker memorabilia. "I'd be Tail-end Charlie. I'd jump in my car and follow them."

    Stutt recounts the Angels' history in British Columbia, relaying names and anecdotes as if they were part of his own family tree. The group expanded from its stronghold in California into Canada in the late 1970s, beginning with Quebec. But it wasn't long before they were eyeing British Columbia, so close to their home state and the northern Pacific Coast. The problem, according to Stutt, was that the province already had a number of motorcycle organizations, most notably the fierce Satans Angels. He rattles off how the groups swallowed each other whole. Besides the Satans Angels, there were the 101 Knights, the Gypsy Wheelers, the Mercenaries, the Bounty Hunters, the Tribesmen, the Ghost Riders, the Highwaymen, and the Catwalkers. Through a process of

    "negotiation and give-and-take," each was co-opted until it came down to the Satans Angels, which were "patched over" by the Hells Angels in 1983.

    Today, the province belongs to the Hells Angels. (The Tribesmen still exist, says Stutt, but "aren't the sharpest pencils in the box.") "All of a sudden the Hells Angels were everywhere here," he says. "We have one of the bigger concentrations of Hells Angels per capita in the world."

    Police estimate that there are now more than 123 Angels chapters in 20 countries, with 240 prospects and full-fledged members in Canada alone. The Angels Web site (at www.hellsangelsmcworld.com) lists chapters from Denmark and Spain to South Africa and Australia. With each expansion, the group's power and influence grew. And, according to Stutt, so did its involvement in crime. "At one time they were just a bunch of guys who liked motorcycles," he says. "Back in the '50s. But you get any group of men together who aren't working and have nothing to do and no responsibility, and you'll get crime. I've always gone under the impression that the Hells Angels are organized crime. I still do. I've always considered them one of the bigger organized crime entities in North America."

    Going for the green

    The drug market in Canada started to bloom after the mid-1980s, when the United States declared a war on drugs that filled US prisons and drove the smart dealers north. Canada became a staging area, the safest and most convenient place to bring in heroin and cocaine and grow marijuana for the eager buyers in the states. As Marc Emery, Canada's self-proclaimed pot ambassador and publisher of the BC magazine Cannabis Culture, puts it: "America consumes all the drugs. Americans are insatiable. Everyone is on drugs."

    Constable Vince Arsenault, a member of Furac's Green Team, estimates that about 75 percent of BC's commercial indoor marijuana crops end up south of the border. He points to the disparity between staunch US policies and lax Canadian laws as the culprit. "For a commercial operation, one that has 150 plants with a set-up and no prior convictions, the person is looking at a period of probation ranging from one to three years, plus a $15,000 or $20,000 fine. The chance of getting time is less than 20 percent. And if they get any time at all, it would be around 60 days, which in Canada means about a weekend. It's not quite like the zero tolerance policy in the states." Police complain that their efforts aren't taken seriously by Canadian officials—though the Green Team accumulates an average of 15-25 new marijuana cases per week, it makes do with a small staff and secondhand equipment. Its "war wagon" is actually a retired cargo van from another department with electrical tape covering whatever name was once on the side.

    In British Columbia's perfect climate, growers have developed some of the best marijuana in the world. Police are fond of pointing out to reformed hippies that while 1960s weed may have been 3 percent to 4 percent THC (the main psychoactive compound in marijuana), today's lovingly tended BC marijuana is 15 percent to 20 percent THC. It's so powerful and plentiful because of the way it's grown—indoors, under perfectly controlled conditions. Most of it is grown hydroponically, which means the plants are raised without dirt, in special trays where water and nutrients are constantly surrounding the roots. "A pound goes for $2,800 or $3,000 Canadian," says Furac. "Across the border, it goes for $3,000 US And once it makes its way to California, it's worth $5,000$6,000 US. It's the most potent bud in the world."

    "Surrey bud" is in such high demand, it's considered one of the province's largest exports. "There is over $4 billion worth of pot being grown here," proclaims Cannabis Canada publisher Emery. "That's bigger than lumber or trade. All the industries here are damaged right now. There is no industry left here except marijuana. And with this, you can have money in three and a half months after you start."

    That's why, if you believe the police, the Angels got involved in such a big way—to make an easy fortune. "The Hells Angels will go after any venture that is highly profitable for them," charges Arsenault. "In this case, we have identified that there is large profit in the marijuana growth industry. I know they're involved in cocaine and heroin trafficking too. Now the big moneymaker is marijuana. The only ones still trafficking in cocaine are the ones that are too lazy to grow dope."

    Jean-Pierre Levesque, a staff sergeant with Canada's Criminal Intelligence Service, which targets organized crime, affirms Arsenault's estimation: "The Hells Angels are the top priority in Canada right now." Levesque claims that any slice of the drug trade the Angels don't control directly, they horn in on by providing muscle and intimidation. "They're trying to get a presence in all the provinces," says Levesque. "They're interested in controlling drug trafficking and escort agencies. Their goal is to make themselves indispensable to major organized crime families. They are at the point where when the major organized crime family brings in drugs, they have used the Hells Angels to distribute them. They are in the middle. They are everybody's thugs."

    Indeed, Canadian papers, like those in Europe, have been plastered with stories of drug dealing and violence, some of which sound straight out of a New York mobster's diary. A recent piece from the Toronto Star describes a Hells Angels hit man who was paid to testify in the trial of five "alleged" bikers charged with plotting the murder of a drug dealer from a rival gang. "I fired several shots at close range," Aim頓imard told the court. "I fired in his face." He later explained that he wasn't directed to simply kill his victims, he had to make a point. "Killing them isn't everything. It has to be sickening, disgusting; you have to cut up their faces."

    How come everybody's always picking on us?

    Contacted via an attorney in Vancouver and through their Web sites, the Hells Angels declined to be interviewed for this article. In public statements, however, they claim to be the victims of a giant police conspiracy dating back to the 1970s. They say police everywhere unfairly use isolated incidents of criminal activity to claim the existence of a supposed organized crime network.

    This is the view the Angels propounded in a mid-1980s documentary, Hells Angels Forever, which they released to tell their side of the story. The film, which was supposed to show the group as a network of good old boys, out to have fun, live by their own rules, and maybe kick a little ass, turns out to be a rather unflattering portrayal. Angels in the movie talk of bravery, honor, honesty, and the true friendships afforded by the organization. But much of the footage shows heavily tattooed men snorting cocaine, smoking pot, and drinking amazing amounts of liquor. It also makes embarrassingly clear the place of females in their society: One woman proudly states that she deserved the belt she got from her old man and the seven stitches that came along with it, and another speaks of being raped by an Angel multiple times.

    The film also reveals the Angels to be heavily armed; in various scenes, they're shown using guns, knives, and fists. But does this mean they're a criminal operation? Could roughnecks like this master the intricacies of organized crime?

    In 1979, US officials in California tried to prove just that. In one of the biggest Angels crackdowns ever, the government charged 32 individuals under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, but its case went awry. Though prosecutors spent millions of dollars to bring the Angels to court, they ended up with two hung juries. Lavigne reports that the judge presiding over one of the trials threatened to throw the matter out before it even made it to a jury, complaining, "It's a big waste of time to listen to witnesses like this. If this was solely the evidence, I would grant an acquittal."

    This case bolstered the group's claims that the government was out to get them. The prologue to Hells Angels Forever asserts that the cops are merely trying to squash a part of society they don't understand or approve of: "We are the warrior in you, and our message is dangerous to the existing order. Since our beginning, city, county, state, and federal governments with their law enforcement officers have united together in a conspiracy to eliminate us from existence. They have stereotyped us in the public's eye as socially unfit, dope-dealing, drug-crazed rapists and murderers. They branded us as outlaws. We know, as you, only outlaws can be free."

    To date, the police in British Columbia haven't been able to pin any major drug crimes on the Angels, despite targeting them for years—a fact the group is quick to note. Last fall, Angel Rick Ciarniello told The Vancouver Sun that although the police keep claiming his organization is involved in big-time crime, none of the more than 90 members of the club's five BC chapters were then in prison.

    The RCMP did score a small coup last month when a veteran Hells Angel was convicted for cocaine trafficking—a judge gave him 18 months, to be served at home. And the Vancouver city police made a prominent arrest in July, when three Angels were busted on drug charges at a party for club members from throughout the province. Ronaldo Lising, Francisco Pires, and George Pires, all members of the so-called East End Chapter, face charges ranging from cocaine trafficking and possession of methamphetamine for the purpose of trafficking to cultivating marijuana and possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking. According to the Sun, those arrests resulted from thousands of hours of work by a special biker gang unit as part of an investigation code-named "Project Nova." But they are hardly the kind of busts that bring down an organization. Cannabis Culture publisher Emery, who insists police claims are overblown, goes so far as to mock the arrests: "That's all they can pin on them? No mansions? No huge bank accounts? That's it?"

    Gibes like that rankle Furac. He says the reason the big guys aren't behind bars is because they insulate themselves so well, especially from marijuana growing: They'll hire one person to rent the building, another to put in the wiring, someone else to grow the plants, and someone else to harvest them. The only visible Angel connection will be so far down the line that it won't stand up in court. And, he says, police just aren't willing to spend up to five years in the organization or commit the acts of violence necessary to move up the well-structured ranks and gather evidence firsthand. Lastly, he says, witnesses are hard to come by: "If I come to you and strong-arm you for $100,000 and say I'll kill you and your family if you tell anybody, what do you do?" asks Furac. "It's just like trying to bust organized crime in the US. It's hard to get them."

    Crossing the line

    Furac drives along 0 Avenue, the two-lane road that serves as the border between Western Washington and British Columbia. It's wide open on both sides, lined with thick forest in some places and tidy farmhouses in others. He says the woods on the US side are full of trails that lead to a patchwork of roads where waiting cars pick up mules carrying backpacks of Surrey bud. US authorities have placed motion detectors among the wildflowers and pine trees, which send signals to an office from which the law can be dispatched. But most smugglers don't get caught. "There are lots of ways out of here," says Furac. "It's hard to catch people. From Delta to Chilliwack is 60 miles and it's all open." Some have taken to calling the strip "Canada's Ho Chi Minh Trail."

    The United States has been pressing the Canadians to stem the southward flow of drugs, especially marijuana. "We are recognized as the primary source of marijuana to the US-Canada in general, but BC is primarily responsible," says Arsenault. "We're not proud of it, but it's a reality."

    These scoldings were part of the impetus for establishing the first Green Team three years ago. They've also led to some stricter laws. Canada recently passed a RICO-type statute that targets organized crime and has already been used to seize the clubhouse of a motorcycle gang in Quebec. And it passed a tougher drug law in 1996 that places drug crimes in a hierarchy: Heroin and cocaine top the list and are considered the most dangerous substances. Marijuana comes next, in a class all by itself, and typically earns higher penalties than amphetamines, LSD, barbiturates, and steroids: up to seven years for growing and life for trafficking.

    "It's irrational from a scientific perspective," says Peter Durovic, an Abbotsford, BC, lawyer who specializes in defending marijuana cases. "But it's understandable on a political level. Living next door to a giant like America puts pressure on us. It has an effect on us. Our cultural imagery as Canadians is that we see ourselves as the mouse sleeping next to the elephant. If you scare the elephant you are going to get crushed, so you don't scare the elephant."

    "I think the new act is better for us," says the Green Team's Arsenault. "It allows us to seize certain assets we weren't able to in the past under the old Narcotics Control Act." It falls short of helping them net the guys at the top, however, though police sometimes come painfully close. Arsenault recounts a case where the name of an Angel appeared on a grow-house utility bill, but he didn't have the time or support to make more of it: "In order to get the top guys, we would have to employ every investigative method we know of, including wire taps and surveillance. But we can't devote that amount of time to investigating these grow operations. The upper echelon doesn't approve it."

    Cannabis Culture's Emery says stepped-up enforcement is having an effect—just not the one police intend: "The funny thing is, the police are accomplishing the opposite of their intention. Every time they bust someone the demand goes higher, the price goes higher, and the profit becomes better. They are simply creating more demand."

    Lately, police say, other gangs have moved into British Columbia for a piece of the action. Arsenault says members of the Vietnamese community are challenging the Angels' stronghold. "We're seeing more and more little turf wars. We get these files once in a while that an operation located at this property is going to be ripped off by a Vietnamese gang. So we go there and if we don't have a warrant, we knock on the door and say we're here to take your grow operation to protect you. All you can do in that case is take the product. We do that to prevent blood baths, basically."

    Arsenault says his office has seen three marijuana-related murders in the lower mainland in the last year alone. "A couple of those were in Surrey. One was clubbed with a golf club and his crop stolen after he was killed." Durovic claims that thieves make extra money when they call Crime Stoppers, tip cops off to the grow house they've just robbed, and collect a reward.

    Emery shrugs off talk of Hells Angels and other gangs, and insists most grow houses are still run by free agents. "I'm in contact with all the growers," he says. "Everywhere I go people invite me to look at their stuff. And none of them are Hells Angels. The Hells Angels are involved, sure, but only as much as 50 or 60 people can be who drive Harleys. Anyone can grow pot. You could put a sign on your doorstep spelled backwards and you could sell pot. You don't need any organized crime to sell pot here." Blaming is just a way for police to boost budgets and get in on some of the action American police departments have been enjoying for years: "They need the Hells Angels to support their military Gestapo police show," he says. "If police wanted to control the drug industry, they would legalize it. But then they would only need half as many cops and they wouldn't get to use all the boy toys."

    Corporal John Furac takes a chair in the Green Team's office in Surrey, which is lined with paraphernalia from various arrests: a knockoff of a Canadian flag that reads, "Oh Cannabis," a picture found at an abandoned grow op of a man peering through a Bart Simpson mask holding a budding plant in his rubber-gloved hand. He flips through a photo album showing the thousands of big green plants they've seized in raids recently. Members of his team stand around the booty, smiling, in almost every shot. In one photo, the team is posed in what looks to be a warehouse behind bags of marijuana on pallets. "That was a bust on the Hells Angels," he says proudly. "That was a rare one."

    The office is empty except for Furac, Rob Stutt, another officer, and myself. "We're not going to break the Angels' back," Stutt says. "It's going to take a lot of dedication and a lot of money. We're talking about millions of dollars. Traditionally, law enforcement people haven't done enough. We're too late. We're closing the barn door, but the horse is gone." Furac agrees, decrying the lack of public support for their efforts: "Some days you just want to throw your hands up. We should legalize everything for a month and see what kind of society we have." That might be the one way to put the dealers—Angels or not—out of business.

     
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