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December 21-27, 2005

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Hell's Angels Raid

Strike a Pose, There's Nothing to It: Officers raiding the Hell's Angels clubhouse in 1998 are all smiles for the camera.

All Dogs Go to Heaven

The story of the SJ police raid on Hell's Angels has gone from gruesome tragedy to civil rights victory

By Vrinda Normand

For Bob and Lori Vieira, 1998 started with a bang—literally. Twenty-one days into the year, at a chilly 7am, they awoke to gunshots outside of their home on Monterey Highway in San Jose. Lori hopped out of bed, threw on some clothes and ran out the front door yelling, "Don't kill my dogs!"

She yelled it over and over, but it was too late. A squad of San Jose police officers lined up, guns poised, outside of the chain-link fence that enclosed the Vieira property.

Minutes earlier, one of their three watchdogs, a German shepherd/bull mastiff they called Sam, had been sleeping soundly next to the gate. According to court documents, officer Nieves had devised a plan to deal with the dogs as his team prepared their surprise entry. First, he would poke the animal with the barrel of his shotgun, hoping to scare it off.

Sam, however, wasn't trained to recognize a gun barrel and run away from an intruder. He snapped and barked at the offending poker in order to protect his home. Officer Nieves' backup plan was to then "engage" the shotgun so as not to compromise the mission.

He pulled the trigger four times. First, Sam went down. At the sound of the bullet cracking through the air, two other watchdogs began to run away. A 12-year-old German shepherd/bull mastiff named Dog was too slow, and the officer shot him twice from behind, blowing off his hind legs.

The bleeding animal dragged himself under a trailer at the side of the house. The third dog, Derby, found a good hiding spot in the backyard. Sam, who was lying on the pavement, flinched in his injured state. This caused officer Nieves to fire for the last time, at the dog's head, killing him.

At this point, Lori Vieira entered the front yard and froze. Her husband, Bob, stood on the second-floor balcony in his underwear and T-shirt. Both had at least a dozen guns trained on them, though neither was suspected of a crime.

The cops came through the hole they had cut in the chain-link fence, handcuffed Lori only yards away from her dead pet and rushed into the house for Bob. A few officers stayed to retrieve Dog. Lori didn't know he had been shot and tried to coax him out from under the trailer with a piece of salami. This almost always worked in the past, but it didn't today.

Eventually someone from the pound came. Lori says she watched as they forced him out with sticks and burst into tears when she saw that he had no hind legs.

"They were mean to him," she sobs, struggling to recount the story nearly eight years later.

Dead Dogs and Pink Poodles

This whole sorry story was part of the infamous Hell's Angels raid, in which local law enforcement officers searched nine homes and the biker group's clubhouse looking for documents and videotape they believed to be connected with a murder at the Pink Poodle strip club.

They never found a tape. The meeting minutes they finally dug up said nothing about a murder. But the destruction they left in their wake after seizing truckloads of "evidence" to prove Hell's Angels was a criminal gang is now coming back to haunt them.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by San Jose and Santa Clara County, both defendants in a lawsuit waged by the San Jose chapter of the Hell's Angels. In April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the federal District Court in denying the government qualified immunity—essentially clearing the way for the civil suit.

"The officers violated the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights by unnecessarily shooting the dogs," the Ninth Circuit judges wrote, also calling the defendant's execution of the search warrant "unreasonable" and "in violation of the Fourth Amendment."

With those words, this case was suddenly about more than just one group of bikers and their dogs. It's one of the most important search-and-seizure decisions since Sept. 11.

"In this climate, with respect to national security, to have a court issue a pro-civil rights decision is a big deal," says Karen Snell, attorney for the Hell's Angels. "These days, everyone tends to err on the side of law enforcement."

Margaret Russell, a Santa Clara University law professor, agrees the case is a "significant reminder that the Fourth Amendment imposes limits on law enforcement"—especially with the Patriot Act currently up for renewal by U.S. legislators. The act, Russell says, "poses a serious threat to Fourth Amendment freedoms and, if misused, could lead to searches and seizures as unacceptable as those in the San Jose case."

Snell says a lawsuit may not be necessary to settle the Hell's Angels case because two federal courts have already agreed with her clients, and now the highest court has refused to hear another appeal. Last week, both sides met with the original federal judge who urged them to settle before their September 2006 trial date.

'Utterly Irrational'

Through it all, the city and county have stuck to the same defense. "There was a search warrant, and we followed it—plain and simple," says Deputy County Counsel Aryn Harris.

Deputy City Attorney Clifford Greenberg, representing the San Jose police officers who shot two dogs at Vieira's home and one dog at James Souza's home, argues that the law isn't sufficient.

"There are no rules that tell you how to get from point A to point B if there's a dog in-between," he says.

However, assistant police auditor Steve Wing says the department's policy has always been that officers must be in fear of their lives or serious injury before they can shoot.

When questioned on this point, Greenberg responded, "We didn't feel there were legitimate alternatives to using a gun in this case."

But the federal judges did. They concluded that the SJPD team had no realistic plan to "isolate" the dogs other than shooting them. James Souza wasn't home when the cops arrived that January morning, and a neighbor offered to lock up the dog. But the cops dismissed her, entered the property and killed Souza's Rottweiler.

At the Vieira's, the Ninth Circuit pointed out, police officers failed to use pepper spray. They claimed to have shot the dogs in order to facilitate a surprise entry. The judges found that argument "unpersuasive," because the sound of gunshots woke the Vieiras.

"If officer Nieves truly feared that continued barking would 'alter the residents and possibly jeopardize the mission,' it was an unreasonable response—indeed, an utterly irrational one—to fire four shotgun blasts to 'engage' the dogs," the judges wrote.

Martin Mersereau from the national animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says he gets calls about law enforcement shooting pet dogs every day. Usually, he says, his sympathy lies with the dead animal rather than the owner who left his/her dog unattended. He also admits that police officers sometimes "have to do what they have to do" when threatened by a vicious animal.

But after hearing the details of the Hell's Angels incident—where the dogs were fenced in and the officers had a week to prepare for entry using nonlethal means like pepper spray and catchpoles—Mersereau groaned in disbelief.

"That's easily the worst police shooting of an animal that I've encountered in my five years at PETA," he says.

Like a Hurricane

After the cops killed one dog and fatally wounded the other at the Vieiras that January morning, things only got worse. Officers came in through the locked side door (even though the front entrance was wide open), breaking the lock, splintering the wall and causing $3,000 in damage.

They apprehended Bob in the bedroom, hurried him downstairs and sat him on the couch with his arms cuffed behind his back. He stayed that way for seven hours as the raid dragged on. "My shoulders were killing me," he remembers.

Bob sat shivering in his underwear as the police and sheriff's deputies seized everything with reference to his affiliation—nearly 30 years' worth of memorabilia including photos, clothing, his embroidered leather vest, a clock, plaques, newspaper clippings and four Harley Davidson motorcycles.

"Jesus Christ," Bob says, putting his hands on his head, "it looked like a hurricane hit!"

The Vieiras also owned the Hell's Angels clubhouse on Lincoln Avenue, which law enforcement officials cleaned out the same morning. They took the refrigerator door because it had winged skull decals on it. They chopped the mailbox off its post for the same reason and snatched the Coke machine. Then even chiseled a chunk of the driveway with a jackhammer that had signatures etched into the concrete.

In the end, the truckloads of "evidence" were never presented in trial when the government tried to prove the Pink Poodle murder was part of a criminal gang plot. Steve Tausan, the man charged with the crime, was eventually acquitted.

After burying their dogs, cleaning up muddy footprints on their carpet, trying to explain the absurdity of the situation to their insurance company and picking up the pieces of their life, the Vieiras aren't going to walk away without a fight.

"They're just dragging this on as long as they can, hoping we'll die of old age or something," Bob says about the eight-year legal saga. "I mainly want closure for the way I was treated."

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