During an especially violent clash with a rival club, I began to wonder how long I’d last.
In the spring of 1977 I walked into a swap meet in Anaheim, California, with eight other Hells Angels. We were on guard right away as we realized we were in a sea of Mongols, a smaller, newer club in Southern California that had taken in Chester Green, a former Hells Angel from the Bay Area. Chester had left us in disgrace and, for months leading up to the swap meet, had been quietly filling the Mongols with ideas that the Hells Angels were vulnerable.
I was walking next to Kid Glenn, a six-foot-two, 230-pound Hells Angel from San Bernardino. Like the rest of us, he was wondering what we had walked into. Kid had a linebacker’s frame, muscular with no belly. He was quick with a bright smile and was smart for a biker, but had a reputation for toughness. It was the first time we had met. Like everyone else, he knew a bad scene when he was in one.
“What the fuck is going on with all these Mongols? Do we have a problem with them? Why are all these assholes here?” At a glance it looked like we were outnumbered at least five-to-one; law enforcement would later put their numbers at anywhere from forty to a hundred, to our nine.
“I don’t know, Kid,” I answered.
He turned to the other Angels. “We got to stay together, man. If the shit happens, we just hold our ground back-to-back.”
Everyone nodded and closed ranks. “Yeah, man.” Except for the one person who wasn’t hearing him, a Los Angeles Hells Angel.
A clot of Mongols walked toward us, the crowd parting as they came through. But we were Hells Angels. We gave way to nobody. Green was right in the middle of the Mongols. He and the L.A. Hells Angel locked eyes. No words, just a look. Then without so much as a “How do you do,” the Angel swung on him and connected. It was on.
Brawls are faster and messier than anything staged in a movie or on TV. Everyone was immediately pumped with adrenaline and just reacting, not thinking. It was absolute chaos. Fortunately, being outmanned in a close-quarters fight isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. Only so many guys can get to you at one time. If you can keep your cool, you can maneuver opponents so that they’re in one another’s way and don’t have a clear shot at you. In a place like a swap meet, there is also a lot of stuff lying around that you can use to your advantage. Tables and carts can slow enemies down and create a defensive barrier. Mostly, though, there are weapons everywhere. The first thing most of the Angels did was grab something lethal. Prospect Cliff Mowery – a confidential informant, as we would later find out – grabbed a beefy kickstand and started swinging it. Another Angel grabbed a piston-and-rod, which made for a deadly club.
Jesse, a stocky, sandy-haired young Angel, was beside me when he was bull-rushed by a Mongol tank. This guy was a barrel-chested monster of a man but not a smart fighter. Rather than grab ahold of Jesse or land a haymaker, he rammed Jesse in the chest and knocked him backward. I watched out of the corner of my eye as Jesse flew and landed across a vendor table. The table collapsed, and Jesse wound up on the floor surrounded by heavy, forged-iron sprockets. It was a lucky break. He grabbed the largest gear within reach, jumped up, and started swinging for all he was worth. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.
The teeth of a machined motorcycle gear have sharp edges. A gear is heavy as hell. The big Mongol was the first to learn how much Jesse loved to fight, as the gear cut open a savage gash in the big man’s face, eyebrow to chin. Jesse gave other Mongols more of the same. Chunks of flesh and trails of blood were flying everywhere as he took full swings at attacker after attacker. The Mongols around him were screaming, holding gruesome wounds, divots taken out of their faces.
The fight, like most, ended as fast as it started. The nine Hells Angels held their ground as the Mongols broke and ran, but in the end we were really the losers. We did look vulnerable; although we held our ground when hugely outnumbered, the Mongols had fought us in a public forum and had not only lived to tell their tale but were holding their ground in the aftermath.
* * *
Over the next few months the Mongols continued to test us. Our new leader, Ray, a heavy meth-user with a greasy ponytail and aspirations in the porn industry, not only didn’t know how to lead, he was a terrible negotiator. A few months after the fight, the Mongols decided they were ready to challenge us. Their leader informed us they too would soon be wearing the California state rocker – the patch we wore to show our preeminence in the state. The outlaw world is all about respect and territory; this was clearly a challenge that would have to be addressed.
After a long hot, quiet summer, on Labor Day weekend 1977 the Hells Angels broke their silence. A pack of Mongols displaying their bold new California rockers rode along one of Southern California’s winding freeways. In a hail of machine gun fire, they got their response.
Two people were killed, and the murders got everybody’s attention. If the Mongols mistook Ray’s poor leadership as a sign that the club wasn’t serious, they now knew otherwise. Local and federal law enforcement took notice as well. Those weren’t the kind of headlines police chiefs and federal agents liked to read. The killings got big play in the news. The public and every biker in the country were aware of them.
Those in the know expected Mongol retaliation, but the Hells Angels were just getting started.
Two days later, the bodies of Redbeard and Jingles, the two Mongols we killed during the Labor Day shooting, were on view at the Lemon Grove Mortuary. A member of our San Diego chapter, whose identity remains a point of debate to this day, drove up in a white Rambler and parked next to the building. He walked in and dropped a bouquet of red and white carnations on Jingles’ casket. The Hells Angels’ colors would have been obvious to anyone in the room. I’m guessing that the Mongols either thought it was a peace gesture or were too stunned at the ballsy move to react. The guy simply walked away untouched and unidentified. A couple minutes later, he remotely detonated a bomb concealed in the Rambler. He had parked the car in the wrong place; otherwise, the damage would have been much worse. Still, the explosion injured three people.
Bombs were a favorite weapon among outlaw bikers. It was easy to get your hands on explosives, it didn’t take a genius to wire a crude bomb, and they created real damage, and fear. Outlaw clubs also had plenty of military veterans among their members, guys with lots of experience wiring explosives. But I hated bombs. They were messy and cruel. People got maimed as often as they got killed. More than that, I hated the idea of civilian casualties. It seemed stupid to bring that much attention to the club and potentially hurt people who had nothing to do with the beef. Not to mention, you could blow yourself up with a single mistake. Explosives were just way too unpredictable for my tastes.
My opinion wasn’t popular. The bomb at the Mongols memorial had sent a message that everybody wanted sent: “We’re not done with you yet.” To most of the club, another bomb seemed like a really good idea. I walked into the clubhouse a couple days after the memorial bombing to find Ray meeting with a few other members and some of the guys from San Diego. It took me about thirty seconds to realize that they were talking about blowing more Mongols up.
“You guys ever hear of collateral damage?” I asked. “You keep setting up these bombs, this shit’s going to go wrong in a big way.”
I saw the looks I got. The easiest thing in the club was to make accusations: “Oh, this guy doesn’t want a bomb to go off in downtown Los Angeles? He must be an informant. Or a cop. Or he’s just fucking weak.”
I know that they were thinking all that and calling me a coward behind my back. But it was getting out of hand. I left before I heard any more. Days later, word went around the clubhouse that they had put a bomb down a roof vent in a Highland Park motorcycle shop called the Frame-Up. The shop was owned by two Mongols. Something went wrong with the detonator or the bomb. The bomb didn’t go off. Old Man John, a former Hells Angels leader and the man who brought me into the club, took me aside and told me I had to retrieve it.
“Are you kidding? Why not just leave it there?”
“George, you have to do this,” he said, the wrinkles on his seventy-year-old face like roadmaps. “People need to know that you’re going to take care of business no matter what you think about it. The club has to come first. There’s guys saying things right now, and you’ve got to prove them wrong. I already know what you’re about. Now you got to convince them.”
Belonging to the Hells Angels means doing dangerous things. Your participation becomes your credentials. Waver in any way and you become suspect. A lot of times in the outlaw culture, saying no just isn’t an option. This was one of them.
“Okay, John, I’ll get it done.”
“Take Jesse, get that thing out of the roof vent, and take it over to the garage. That’s all you got to do. One of the other guys will take it apart,” he said.
That’s all I had to do.
Jesse and I were coming up through the ranks together, both in our twenties with a lot left to prove to the established members. I knew that, in his own way, John was looking out for me. He wanted to show everyone that I was the stand-up guy he saw, that I would get the job done no matter what. It was important to make sure everyone understood who could hold their mud and who couldn’t.
So at ten that night, Jesse and I headed over to the Frame-Up. The shop was in a neighborhood of auto body repair places, metalworking shops, and junkyards. We backed Jesse’s oversized sedan down the alley alongside the building and checked that there were no guard dogs or people around. A pull-down roof ladder was attached to the back wall, and Jesse boosted me up so I could grab it and climb up. I found the vent hood easily enough, and the rope holding the bomb had been tied off to a rooftop vent pipe. I untied it and slowly begin pulling the bomb up. It was impossible to do without the bomb swinging side to side. It was like a game of Operation, and every time the bomb clanged into the sheet-metal vent wall I thought it would go off.
I got it out and carried it carefully to the roof edge, right above where Jesse was standing. I started to lower it by playing out the rope. When it was inches within his reach, the bomb started swinging, bumping into the wall.
“I know, I know.”
We were both freaked out. But I finally got the bomb down into Jesse’s hands. I climbed down and we carried it to the car.
“Where do you want to put it?”
It was a good question. I looked at Jesse and shook my head. I hadn’t thought beyond just getting the bomb down off the roof. We still had to take it for a thirty-minute drive.
“Shit, I don’t know. The trunk?”
“The trunk’s right over the gas tank, man,” he said. “It goes and we’re going to blow like the Fourth of July.”
“So where? The backseat?”
“I think it’s the best place.”
We found a blanket and nestled the bomb on it, as if that would somehow stop the thing from blowing up. We both straightened up and looked at this bundle of dynamite sticks held together with duct tape. It looked cartoonish, like a bad movie prop. We burst out laughing. The absurdity of the situation, along with sheer tension, had built up to the point that laughing was the only way to deal with it. It was hysterical, crazy laughter. We were bent over, tears running down our faces. We calmed down long enough to get settled in the car. I fired it up and moved out and down the street. A block later we went over a set of railroad tracks that was a much bigger double-bump than we expected. It really rattled the car. We looked over at each other and burst out laughing again. It took us the rest of the trip to stop.
We drove the bomb back to the garage and then dropped the car off at the clubhouse, where I picked up my black 1942 Harley Davidson flathead. When I finally pulled into my driveway, I took a moment to just breathe.
* * *
Give the club credit for persistence. Just three weeks after the Mongols’ memorial, Thomas Heath, a twenty-something, short, stubby career criminal and Hells Angel prospect, walked a flat motorcycle tire into the Frame-Up. Brett Eaton had rigged a bomb inside the tire, so that it would detonate when the tire valve was unscrewed. After an hour, Heath called the shop and asked if the tire was done. He talked to Mongol Henry Jimenez. They had a heated exchange, Heath pressing for the tire to be fixed so he could get it on his bike before nightfall. Jimenez finally told him he would get it done. Jimenez wasn’t alone. Raymond Hernandez, the fifteen-year-old brother of another Mongol, was hanging out in the shop.
A fifteen-year-old kid hasn’t even starting shaving yet. He was hanging out with this guy he must have looked up to. He was changing oil or helping out as best he could. Learning. Thinking about how, soon, he would have his own bike. This kid knew exactly what type of Harley he was going to have. Maybe a beat-up bobber he could trick out right there. Like every other teenage boy with a biker brother or father, he knew exactly how his own bike was going to look, and how cool he was going to look riding it.
But he never got a chance to build or ride a motorcycle. He would never even own a driver’s license. Henry Jimenez held the tire steady and began unscrewing the valve. The bomb contacts came together, and Mongol and teenager were instantly killed in a blast that blew the windows out of the buildings on either side of the shop. Heath called again, an hour later. Someone else answered. The sounds of sirens and chaos filled the background.
“Yeah, your tire’s ready, motherfucker. Come down and get it.”
Heath hung up and laughed. It was a joke to him. For days, he went on about the explosion: “You should have heard that fucking guy. I bet his ears were ringing.” He was almost doubled over with laughter as he said it. John finally had to tell him to shut up about it.
Justice would be served decades later when Heath was sentenced to 35-to-life for a domestic dispute beef that bought him a “third strike” conviction.
But to most of the club, it didn’t matter. War was war and collateral damage was to be expected. Days later, the president of the San Fernando Valley Mongol charter, Luis Gutierrez, went out to his driveway to get in his van. It blew up as he opened the door. He was luckier than the fifteen- year-old; he escaped with his life and his body intact.
The violence drew even more attention. Law enforcement doesn’t care when bikers kill bikers, but they don’t like innocent kids getting blown up. From that point on, you couldn’t wear your colors on a paved road in Southern California without getting pulled over and jacked up. Those of us who rode regularly were not having a lot of fun, and I couldn’t get that fifteen-year-old out of my head.
A few nights later, I got home before the kids were in bed. I had been gone for two days and they were overjoyed to see me. We had a little ritual. My place in the living room was a big old black easy chair with gigantic, rounded, thickly padded arms. I would sit one kid on each side and wrap my arms around them. Six-year-old Moriya had just taken a bath and she pressed in on me, reading a picture book, humming to herself. Her hair smelled sweetly of kids’ shampoo. I held the baby, Georgie, close on the other side as he played with a toy car. The TV was on but I wasn’t paying attention. I was just so glad to be home.
The moment was sanctuary. My wife, Cheryl, wasn’t giving me a hard time. Nobody was asking me to juggle dynamite or shoot someone or cover up a felony. There were no psychotic drug dealers here. I had always held a romantic view of the outlaw as hero, but that view was being put to the test. Sooner or later any reasonable person will ask himself what he’s gotten into, how it works with everything else in his life. It all started with the idea of having a simple good time. Partying with brothers, hanging out, building and riding bikes, and living our own version of the American dream. The club seemed to have gone a long way from that in the blink of an eye.
I sat in my little four-foot-by-four-foot square of contentment and wondered how I missed getting shipped out to Vietnam only to wind up at home in the middle of a war. I thought about a fifteen-year-old boy who had probably never enjoyed a stiff drink, a drag race, or sex – and never would. Eventually, I had to ask myself, “How long will I last?” I told myself to cherish the moment. A month and I could be in prison. I could be dead. Cheryl could come to the end of her rope and kick me out. I squeezed the kids closer. Georgie squirmed in my grasp.