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Gang Busters

[whitespace] Bob Vieira Guilt by Association: Hell's Angel Bob Vieira says his dogs were shot and his house ransacked by police who were trying to label him as a gang member.

Are the Hell's Angels a motorcycle club or a criminal 'gang'? Soon the courts may decide, as local bikers sue the cops to get their good name back.

By Jim Rendon

ON THE MORNING OF JAN. 21, 1998, Bob Vieira and his wife, Lori, awoke to gunshots outside their San Jose home. Bob Vieira jumped onto the balcony outside his bedroom in nothing but his underwear. There, in bleary-eyed disbelief, he saw a line of San Jose police officers wearing what looked like riot gear. One held a pair of bolt cutters to his chain-link gate. Motionless on the ground, inside the fence, lay their 10-year-old dog, Sam, whose blood had already begun to flow toward the house. Vieira's other pet, a bull mastiff and German shepherd mix, Dog, was running away from the gate. Officers took aim and shot him three times as he ran away.

"I still can't fathom it. It's totally unreal," says Lori Vieira in the shade of the awning on the side of her Monterey Road home, just feet from where her dog was killed.

The officers put the Vieiras in handcuffs and searched their house for seven hours. The couple was not wanted for any crime and nothing illegal was ever found in their home. Yet that morning police had a search warrant for Vieira's home based solely on his 29-year membership in the Hell's Angels.

That same day, Jan. 21, 1998, that same warrant was used to search the homes of 17 other Hell's Angels members throughout the valley by a vast network of law enforcement agencies, including the San Jose, Gilroy and Santa Clara police departments, the FBI, county district attorney investigators and local sheriff's deputies.

They were trying to gather evidence that would link the San Jose chapter of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club to the beating and murder of construction worker Kevin Sullivan at the Pink Poodle Night Club in September 1997.

Now the Angels are challenging those searches with a lawsuit that seeks to clear the club's name and recoup a quarter of a million dollars in damages from city, county and federal agencies.

But local law enforcement officials reject the Angels' claims. "From what I've seen there was no wrongdoing by any county employees during the searches," says Kathryn Zoglin, the attorney handling the case for the county.

Members of the San Jose Police Department, who shot the Vieiras' dogs during the searches, were cleared of any wrongdoing in an internal investigation. San Jose city attorney Joan Gallo refused to comment on the case because it is pending.

Usual Suspects

BOB VIEIRA HAS BEEN riding motorcycles and racing cars since he was a teenager here in San Jose. His living room is a shrine to his obsession and to the club that has dominated his life for the last 30 years. The Hell's Angels winged skull logo is everywhere, on plaques, statues and wall hangings. A belt buckle the size of a taco bearing the death head hangs from the 59-year-old's waist.

But Vieira says he's no lawbreaker. He owned a towing company for 20 years, owns commercial and residential property and pays his taxes on time. His home has been searched four times by police since he joined the Angels, turning up nothing illegal, and he's sick of it.

"What gives them the right to kill my dogs?" Vieira asks. "As far as I know there's no law against being a Hell's Angel."

But that morning, a search warrant put every San Jose Hell's Angel under suspicion. Officers hoped to find minutes of a meeting at which police suspected that the Hell's Angels members may have planned the murder, along with a security camera tape from the Pink Poodle that may have captured Sullivan's killing.

Sheriff's deputy Robert Linderman, with the help of San Jose police officer Jorge Gil-Blanco, a Hell's Angels expert, asked the court for broad reach in going after the Angels, hoping to prove that they were a "felonious street gang." According to the affidavit, the Angels often hide evidence at each other's homes.

But after searching the homes of 17 members, shooting three dogs and confiscating truckloads of belongings, including several motorcycles and anything with the club's name on it, no evidence linked to the murder was found. Steve Tausan, the Hell's Angels member charged with the murder, was eventually acquitted. One club member, James Souza, was tried for possession of methamphetamine found during the search, but Superior Court Judge Lawrence Terry found the search warrant to be too broad, and the case was dismissed.

But police sources familiar with Hell's Angels tactics say the motorcycle club is a criminal gang and should be treated like any other gang. They point out that James Elrite, the former president of the San Jose chapter of the Hell's Angels, was convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in March. And while Mexican nationals now control much of Silicon Valley's methamphetamine supply, police sources say, the Hell's Angels still use their nationwide network of clubs to distribute the drug and to launder money. There are 16 Hell's Angels chapters in California and more than 92 worldwide, officers say.

"These guys [do] everything from street gangs to organized crime," says one police source who asked not to be named. "Not all the members, but a few of the members are involved in it."

Gang Busters

BEING A MEMBER of a police-identified "gang" can have serious legal ramifications these days. In California, a convicted criminal can receive between three and seven years of extra prison time if the prosecution proves a crime was committed to benefit a gang. Once one group member gets a gang-related sentence, it becomes easier to attach the gang charge to any allegation leveled at someone in that group. In addition to state provisions, in 1993 San Jose passed a gang-abatement ordinance, which allows police to get court-ordered injunctions to prohibit members of a gang from congregating and to allow landlords to evict people from their homes if a police officer identifies them as a member of a criminal gang. In the case of the above home searches, police were attempting to secure gang-enhancement charges in the Sullivan murder case, a strategy which ultimately failed.

Karen Snell, a San Francisco civil rights attorney now representing the Hell's Angels, believes that the group is the victim of an erroneous stereotype that will be destroyed if the case goes to trial.

"What gets lost is that this group has been around for over 50 years. Originally they were vets coming home from World War II who liked to ride motorcycles," Snell says. "A few bad apples over the years have created an image that is not correct."

According to the law, a criminal street gang is any group of three or more people, joined together with a common symbol, whose members engage in criminal activity. If one or two members of any group are convicted of certain violent or drug-related criminal activity, their group can be considered a gang.

In their suit, the Angels allege that local law enforcement used the specter of the Hell's Angels gang to gain a broad search warrant that treated every member like a criminal, even though none had actually been charged in the Pink Poodle killing.

And in two recent cases, the Santa Clara County district attorney's office failed to prove that the Hell's Angels are indeed a gang by the legal definition.

Dan Tokaji, staff attorney with the ACLU, says the state is using the gang classification to skirt the constitutional protections most citizens enjoy.

"When the police call someone a gang member, they become the enemy and law enforcement can get away with all sorts of civil rights violations," he says.

The broader issue, says John Crew, director of the ACLU's Police Practices Project, is that it's become far too easy to label a group of people a gang. "Under California's definition of a gang, any member of a police department could be considered a gang member," he says.

George Rios of the San Jose city attorney's office says gang-abatement injunctions have only been used three times since the ordinance was passed. In the Hell's Angels case, police weren't working from an injunction.

Angels From Heaven

VIEIRA SCOFFS at the gang label. Wheeling out his large black 1992 Harley, equipped with a radio, windshield and hard-case saddlebags, Vieira says the Angels are different today. Many of the local members, after all, are pushing 60 years of age--a far cry from the marauding, speed-snorting Angels immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson's 1966 book, The Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The Hell's Angels image peaked a few years later with a 1968 photo spread in Life magazine that brought images of the stylized, hog-riding outlaws to middle America. Then, at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, the Angels allegedly killed a fan in the crowd, though no one was ever convicted of the murder. That concert, marked by Angels' violent outbursts on and off stage, is often looked at as the bookmark at the end of the peace-loving 1960s.

But since then, the Angels have mellowed. In 1970, the group incorporated as the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation Inc., based in Oakland. Their winged death-head logo is trademarked and they have sued over its unauthorized use.

Sonny Barger, the folk hero-like figure who led the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels to international fame, is now working on his biography, which he hopes to make into a film. And even Barger has begun marketing himself. At www.sonnybarger.com, shoppers can buy Sonny Barger tube tops, salsa and even that yuppiest of condiments, bottled water.

Online browsers can now check out any one of a dozen Angels websites put up by local chapters, some selling T-shirts and baseball hats.

"For the most part, we don't like the commercialization of our name, even if we're the ones who put it out there. That's not what the intent of the club is," says Frank Iadiano, the San Jose chapter's president. But, he adds, the legal defense funds need to come from somewhere.

But at a time when many of the original members are eligible for Social Security, Vieira says the police have stepped up their efforts to destroy the club.

"Back then cops just gave us tickets," he remembers. "Today they're going after us as a street gang, as organized crime. Even if we don't do anything, they still say we're guilty."

That's not to say there haven't been Angels who pushed the limits of the law, but Vieira says that's not what the group is about. "It's like a family. It's about riding motorcycles and going places and having fun."

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From the July 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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