Inside the biker gangs: the truth about guns, drugs and organised crime
The drive-by shooting of a motorcyclist on the M40 throws a chilling light on Britain's biker gangs. In a gripping extract from his best-selling book, Tony Thompson rides with the Hells Angels – and uncovers a violent criminal underworld
According to its one-time spokesman, the late Ian "Maz" Harris, PhD: "The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is a loosely based organisation of motorcycle enthusiasts who own bikes of 750cc or more. We are primarily and exclusively a motorcycle club. That is all."
The Memorandum of Association for Hells Angels Limited, registered at Companies House in October 1976, adds the following objectives: "To foster, encourage and advance the sport and recreation of motor-cycling and to promote the acceptance of the ethical code of morality of the Hells Angels club; to encourage, promote and hold race meetings, happenings, rallies, reliability trials, exhibitions and shows and give entertainments of all kinds related to motor-cycling."
Indeed, every year the club's 250-odd members, along with hundreds more associates, attend a number of exclusive rallies and conventions and stage huge, highly profitable shows where customised bikes are displayed – and they donate thousands of pounds to various charities. In June 2002, it was a Hells Angel named Alan "Snob" Fisher who led a cavalcade of fellow bikers in a jubilee procession past the Queen, raising money for the anti-child bullying charity Kidscape in the process.
However, according to the police, the Hells Angels are a major international criminal organisation, a "pure form of organised crime", who " have accomplished in 25 years what it took the Mafia over 200 years to do" . Interpol describes outlaw motorcycle gangs as "one of Europe's faster-growing criminal networks" and closely monitors their activities. Not surprisingly, the bikers disagree: they insist that the police are simply paranoid and that, because they live an alternative lifestyle yet remain highly visible, they are the ideal soft target.
"We're so prominent, it's untrue," Dr Harris told me. "We ride about on big bikes and wear patches on our backs to say who we are and where we're from. I mean, if you're hellbent on collective criminality, it's hardly the way to go about it. We'd have all been arrested years ago. We're not trying to claim that we're all perfect. Nobody ever is, but to suggest that we represent a significant threat to the peace and prosperity of Britain is taking things too far."
So if, as happens periodically, a Hells Angel is arrested, charged and convicted of crimes ranging from murder and mortgage fraud to drug-dealing and assault, the usual excuse is that their ranks may indeed contain a few bad apples but that doesn't make them the Mafia. "The club," said Harris, "cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual members."
But the Angels often go to war with rival gangs. And when they do, outsiders can be forgiven for thinking that it revolves around nothing more than club pride and maintaining the hedonistic fighting and drinking traditions of the biker lifestyle.
The truth is that the primary reasons the Angels do battle is to protect their business interests. And these days, almost exclusively, that means the drugs trade. Across the world, biker gangs are involved in drug-dealing and trafficking on a massive scale. Estimates from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suggest the Angels and the other biker gangs collectively earn up to £1bn a year from the drugs business.
"The Hells Angels particularly are very involved in the drug-dealing scene in the UK," says a spokesman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service. "Traditionally their commodities were cannabis and amphetamine, but they are moving more and more into Class A drugs."
Virtually every fight, every shooting, every stabbing and every bombing that has taken place between biker gangs in the UK and further afield in the past 25 years is ultimately connected to a desire to protect the highly lucrative drugs business – although they are also involved in prostitution, theft, extortion and other enterprises.
The Angels in particular are super-cautious, rarely carrying the product themselves. One amphetamine dealer supplied by the Angels complained to police how they regularly drove him half mad with his weekly delivery. When he had deposited the money earlier in the day at a "safe" drop site, they would call him in the early hours of the following morning and simply tell him: "It's in your garden." Neighbours reported how he could regularly be seen in his underpants at 4am, armed with a torch and a spade.
But even when caught red-handed, many Angels are bolshie enough to beat the rap. When one senior member was stopped in his car soon after leaving a rally and found to have a bag containing nine kilos of high-quality cannabis resin beside him, he didn't hesitate.
"What a coincidence," he told them. "I was just on my way to the police station to hand this in. I found it at the rally. I think it might be drugs." Fingerprints were found on the outside of the bag, but not on the packets of drugs inside. It was impossible to disprove his story – no matter how unlikely – and charges were dropped.
It was a similar story when another Angel was stopped with half a kilo of cocaine and a loaded handgun hidden behind a door panel of the vehicle. " You've got me bang to rights," he told the officers. "I stole the car." All those connected to the vehicle were later acquitted of all charges.
The legend that was to become the Hells Angels was born on 17 March 1948 when Second World War veteran Otto Friedli formed a new bike gang out of the remnants of two notorious fighting and drinking clubs.
Dozens of loose-knit biker groups had sprung up across America in the mid-1940s. Motorcycles were cheap, and appealed in particular to the hundreds of former soldiers and airmen who found it hard to cope with uneventful lives following the end of the war. They came together at weekends, riding hard and drinking even harder. For those who had nowhere to go when Monday came, the club turned into a surrogate family.
In 1947, at a drag-racing meeting organised by the American Motorcycle Association in the quiet town of Hollister, California, a gang called the Pissed-Off Bastards rode in drunk and created mayhem, fighting anyone and everyone and ripping the place to shreds. The local sheriff later described the scene as "just one hell of a mess".
In the months following Hollister, Bastard member Friedli broke away and took a few like-minded souls with him. Basing himself in San Bernadino, he adopted a name favoured by fighter pilots – Hell's Angels – structured the gang along military lines and continued the theme on the gang's crest: a grinning, winged death's head wearing a pilot's helmet. (Friedli's seamstress forgot to include the apostrophe and it has been officially omitted ever since.)
Their exploits reached a new level of public awareness with the 1953 Marlon Brando film The Wild One (based loosely on the Hollister incident). That same year, the original Hells Angels chapter merged with San Francisco's Market Street Commandos to spawn the club's second chapter, and soon more chapters popped up along the California coastline.
In 1964, four Angels were accused of rape in the oceanside town of Monterey. The high-profile case not only saw the first of many, many headlines demonising the biker gang, but also allegedly marked the beginning of the Angels' move into international drug-trafficking, to pay legal bills.
Infamy bred notoriety, and in the mid-1960s The Nation magazine sent a young Hunter S Thompson to write about the Hells Angels. Soon afterwards, Hollywood came calling again and Jack Nicholson starred in the 1967 release Hell's Angels on Wheels. Rock stars such as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead struck up friendships with the bikers, which Garcia admitted was a bit scary because they were, as he put it, "good in all the violent spaces" .
That was proved beyond doubt on 6 December 1969, when Angels were hired – for $500 worth of free beer – as security guards for a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco. Armed with pool cues, they attempted to keep order while drinking, smoking marijuana and dropping acid. At one point a black, 18-year-old Stones fan named Meredith Hunter rushed the stage, just as the band finished playing "Under My Thumb" , and was beaten back. He rushed again, was pushed back, pulled a gun, and shot a Hells Angel in the arm.
An eyewitness, Tony Sanchez, described the ensuing scene thus: "Five more Angels came crashing to the aid of their buddy, while Meredith tried to run off through the packed crowd. An Angel caught him by the arm and brought down a sheath knife hard in the black man's back... then the Angels were upon him like a pack of wolves. One tore the gun from his hand, another stabbed him in the face and still another stabbed him repeatedly, insanely, in the back until his knees buckled."
When the Angels finished with Hunter, several people tried to come to his aid, but an Angel stood guard over the motionless body. "Don't touch him," he said menacingly. "He's going to die anyway, so just let him die."
Now, with their bad-boy reputation squarely in place, the Hells Angels began to emerge as a more sophisticated outfit. They formed a corporation to protect their legitimate business interests, trademarked the infamous death's head logo and opened more chapters around the world.
The first British chapter was formed in London in mid-1969, and it took only three years to achieve the same kind of status as their American brothers. In late 1972, 18-year-old Ian Everest, along with two others, abducted a 14-year-old Girl Guide off the streets of Winchester and dragged her along to an Angels party, where he raped her in front of cheering clubmates. At the subsequent court case the girl told a horrified jury that Everest had laughed throughout the assault.
Sentencing him to nine years, Mr Justice Waller launched a thousand tabloid shock-horror headlines: "We have heard of Hells Angels as an utterly evil organisation, evil and corrosive of young people. I do not sentence you for being a Hells Angel, but no doubt the evil nature of that organisation has led you into this situation."
Every few years something new happened to keep the image alive, often helped by the media's inability to tell the Hells Angels apart from other biker gangs. And each summer, the Angels organise the Bulldog Bash, Europe's premier biking event, which now attracts around 40,000 bikers from all over the world for a non-stop, four-day party at the Long Marston Airfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon.
Inside the grounds there is a massive beer tent, open 24 hours a day, hundreds of food stalls, a shopping village, bungee-jumping, mini-motorbike tracks and tattoo parlours. In the evening there is a giant musical stage with top rock and heavy-metal bands. Up on stage, the grinning death's head skull is replaced by a far more family-friendly image – a cute bulldog sitting astride a Harley, its little paws up on the handlebars.
The event is policed by Angels themselves and, despite the vast numbers attending, is now recognised by Warwickshire Police as their least troublesome public event. Teams make regular "security" patrols in customised black Ford Escorts that have had all the glass removed and large white swastikas painted on the sides.
It was at the Bulldog Bash that I first met Colin, an associate member of a leading back-patch gang – he has asked me not to say which gang – who agreed to be my guide to the inner workings of the biker world. After being assured that his true identity will never be revealed, he agreed to fill me in on what he knows about the current back-patch gang scene.
He has never been a member of the Hells Angels but was once a "prospect" for a different biker gang and got to know several Angels as a result. He decided not to continue with the recruitment process after realising that he simply did not have the time or the energy to commit fully to the lifestyle.
You start out as a "hang-around". That's a chance to get to know the club and for them to get to know you. That's before you can become a " prospect," and that stage can last for at least a couple of years.
"You've got to be able to fight or you're not going to get anywhere. Your face has to fit. All that stuff about biting the heads off chickens, eating dogs and the like, some of it used to happen but it was never club policy. The hardest part is knowing how to deal with having a family. You always have to put the club first.
"It's a real commitment. You can't hold down a full-time job, because if the club needs you and calls, you have to be there. Most members will be self-employed because that gives them the flexibility they need. If you're single, you're expected to be there most evenings and weekends. If you have kids, you might get away with just the weekend but you'd still be expected for any important meetings. If there is a big party, you shame the club if you don't make it."
Colin lights a cigarette as he casts his mind back to his own time as a " prospect". His voice grows quiet as he tells me he did some things he was ashamed of, things that he would now rather not talk about.
"When you go to the Bulldog Bash, it's hard to believe there is any tension but, of course, there always is. There are tensions and there are political pressures. Outsiders don't realise the ties and commitments members have to each other, it's like family but more so. And what would you do if someone messed with members of your family?
"The Bulldog Bash may be one of the most peaceful big events around, but that hides a lot of problems. So far as the Angels are concerned, there is always a war to be fought somewhere."
Since the start of the new millennium, the biker world has been relatively quiet. But, as last weekend's tragic events may suggest, there are storm clouds on the horizon. And the biggest battle of all might be waiting in the wings.
In early 2003, the Bandidos (hostile rivals in the US to the Hells Angels) opened their first two chapters in Britain, on the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. They arrived in Guernsey after absorbing an existing gang, the Islanders, who were made "prospects" soon after their clubhouse was raided by police and a significant number of drugs and weapons were found. Guernsey also supports a small branch of the Bandidos' " sister" club, the Outlaws. Jersey also has branches of both the Bandidos and the Outlaws. The current membership of both gangs is unknown but, with no Hells Angels on either island, many within the biking world believe that this is just the beginning.
"The Bandidos are one of the most formidable and violent biker gangs in existence," says the outlaw biker specialist at the National Criminal Intelligence Service. "They have strong links to the drugs trade and have shown themselves more than willing to defend their turf with violence. They have been responsible for dozens of murders, many in broad daylight with no regard for public safety. They have access to military-grade weapons, including rocket launchers and assault rifles. The Bandidos have been expanding ever since the Sixties and show no sign of slowing down. It is unlikely they will stop at one or two British chapters. The significance of seeing the first Bandidos chapter on UK soil cannot be understated."
So today, detectives in Britain and across Europe are watching events on the Channel Islands with great interest.
Extracted from Gangs: A Journey into the Heart of the British Underworld by Tony Thompson (Hodder, £7.99). To order a copy for the special price of £7.49 (plus free P&P) go to Independent Books Direct or call 0870 079 8897
Britain's top five gangs, as ranked by Tony Thompson
Interview by Rob Sharp
1. Hells Angels
The British offshoot of the world's most infamous motorcycle gang was born after two English bikers visited, and took their impetus from, its West Coast birthplace. The group, officially sanctioned in 1969, organised last weekend's Bulldog Bash, one of the biggest biker events in Europe.
From relatively modest beginnings in Illinois in 1935, the Outlaws have grown to encompass 200 chapters dotted around the world. The British arm of the club came under the aegis of its New World forefathers in 2000, and currently boasts followings in Birmingham, London, Kent... and the Forest of Dean. Members flaunt a crossed piston and skull motif on the back of their black leather jackets.
3. Blue Angels
Formed in 1960s Glasgow, the name derives from Scotland's national colours, although some of its members claim the "Blue" stands for " bastards, lunatics, undesirables and eccentrics". They began by using stripped-down Triumph/Norton hybrids (without lights) as their ride of choice. Chapters in Leeds and Sheffield first careered on to British roads in 1997.
4. Road Tramps
With groups in Limerick, Cork and Tipperary, the gang – formerly known as the Reapers – was established in Ireland in 1987. It is part of the Irish Motorcycle Club Alliance, an umbrella organisation drawing together the Vikings, Freewheelers and Devils Disciples. The Road Tramps also have an English following.
The club's (refreshingly honest) slogan is: "We are the people our parents warned us about." It is estimated to have 2,400 members in 195 chapters, across 14 countries; groups in Jersey and Guernsey are their only British adherents. The club, which originated in Texas, is among the Angels' fiercest and most violent rivals.