Starbucks Turf War?

Is coffee at the center of a motorcycle gang rivalry?

And now, the first and last time you'll ever read the words "motorcycle gangs," "turf war," and "Starbucks" all in the same story.

By everyone's account, the Hells Angels and Vagos motorcycle clubs are at war. In a clash between the two gangs last month at a casino in Nevada, the president of the Hells Angels' San Jose Chapter was shot and killed and a Vagos member wounded. A retaliatory drive-by the next day felled a Vagos member, and other skirmishes have spilled blood in California, Arizona, South Dakota, and states in between.

The ongoing conflict has even been dubbed "the biggest biker feud in nearly a decade." But is the lore really true? And did the fighting actually begin as a turf war over which gang could . . . hang out at their local Starbucks?

The story begins on the afternoon of January 27, 2010. Two Vagos were cruising through downtown Santa Cruz, Calif., with a third member, 37-year-old Thomas Froberg, following close behind in a Chevy van. The club had recently moved to establish a new chapter in the city in Hells Angels territory, which was conveniently located near a place where you can buy a $4 cup of coffee.

The local Hells Angels didn't take kindly to the encroachment. A group spotted the Vagos and took off after them, reportedly on foot. Froberg swerved across three lanes of traffic to cut them off, and jumped out to fight. The bikers wielded ball-peen hammers and crowbars in the melee that followed. At some point, the Hells Angels pinned Froberg to the pavement, ripped his green Vagos shirt, and stomped him.

Froberg's buddies eventually came to his rescue, and the group scattered before police arrived on the scene. Froberg was caught a few blocks away, however, and charged with gang participation and fighting in public. His mugshot shows a boot print on his forehead left over from the brawl.

"It was all about who would be allowed to hang out at the Starbucks downtown," said Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark, before dropping his own coffee joke. "The Vagos brazenly came in and tried to cement their presence. It was a pretty strong play on their part to establish themselves as the premiere club . . . Only in Santa Cruz would you have biker wars over who's going to control pumpkin-spice lattes."

The image of a fearsome pack of Hells Angels swinging crowbars to protect their free wi-fi and artisanal muffins, and unwittingly sparking a nationwide gang war in the process, is definitely amusing. But unfortunately for those of us who live vicariously through the actions of more rugged, felonious men, it may not be entirely accurate.

Jorge Gil-Blanco, a retired California cop who's now an outlaw motorcycle gang expert, has tracked the escalation of the Vagos/Hells Angels beef, and says the bad blood between the gangs can actually be traced to an earlier incident in Orange County that soured historically amicable relations between the clubs. "They had a major brawl at a swap meet and ended up fighting each other with motorcycle parts," Gil-Blanco tells Seattle Weekly. "Basically after that incident, the Vagos started to expand and said 'Why's everybody so afraid of the Hells Angels?' That was the real turning point."

"I seriously doubt this is all just because of Starbucks," he adds. "The Hells Angels saw the Vagos in downtown and assaulted them. They wanted to show 'We're the top dog and you guys aren't starting a chapter here.' In fact, the Vagos actually pulled out [of Santa Cruz] after that."

Santa Cruz police did not respond to messages inquiring about the city's caffeine-crazed bikers.

Founded in San Bernardino in the 1960s, the Vagos have since expanded to Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Mexico. Gil-Blanco says they don't currently have a presence in Washington. The gang is also known as "Green Nation" for their preferred color, and their mascot is Loki, the Norse god of mischief. But while the green matches the Starbucks cup, the devilish Loki bears little resemblance to the Norse "twin-tailed siren" logo of the Seattle coffee empire.

A Starbucks barista who answered the phone at the downtown Santa Cruz store but declined to give her name, says she's been working there for several years but can't recall any outlaw biker customers.

"There are motorcycle groups that hang out here," she says, directing further questions to Starbucks corporate headquarters, "but I've never seen any Hells Angels."

 
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