Feds take another run at heading off biker gang
Seattle Times staff reporter
The grand-jury indictment against members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang offers a primer of the group. According to the charges:
• The Bandidos Outlaw Motorcycle Organization (OMO) has an estimated membership of 2,400 in 168 chapters in 14 countries on three continents. That includes 90 chapters in the U.S., with 14 in Washington state.
• Over the past five years, the Bandidos claimed Washington and Montana as their territory, meaning other motorcycle gangs were required to receive permission from the Bandidos to establish a chapter in those states.
• The Bandidos are careful before admitting new members, and put candidates through a lengthy process to weed out informants. Before they can become a "full-patched" member, candidates first associate with members, then become known as "hangarounds" who are obliged to do menial tasks.
• Full-patch members wear a diamond-shaped patch that reads "1%." The "1%" symbol is derived from a statement by the American Motorcycle Association that 99 percent of the country's motorcyclists are law-abiding individuals.
• Members who wear the Bandidos colors — clothing depicting the red and gold Bandidos patch — do so with the authority of the OMO and are required to wear them when riding their Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the indictment states.
Flanked by federal and local law-enforcement officers, U.S. Attorney John McKay stood before TV cameras last month to announce a litany of criminal charges filed against 26 members of the Bandidos biker gang and their associates, including racketeering, kidnapping, assault, and drug and firearms violations.
"On the backs of Harleys, they brought violence and drugs to Whatcom County and across the Northwest," McKay proclaimed. Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo expressed hope that the case would "serve to dismantle" the Bandidos.
For those with long memories, the words of McKay and Elfo were more than just a little familiar.
In 1985, another Seattle-based federal grand jury indicted 14 Bandidos and associates as part of an eight-state sweep in which more than 90 people were arrested across the country.
As they did last month, officials in 1985 said the charges stemmed from a two-year investigation and would deal a "crippling blow" to the motorcycle gang. And as they did last month, officials in 1985 said key Bandidos under arrest were based in the Bellingham area. Among them — and arrested again last month — was George Wegers, now 52.
So what happened? How did a group of men described by prosecutors as a violent gang manage to re-form and allegedly commit a whole new set of offenses?
And, defense attorneys ask, if the Bandidos were really such a menace, why weren't they monitored by law enforcement?
"Good question," said Terry Mangan, who was Bellingham police chief in 1985, and who now serves as manager for an FBI training program at Quantico, Va. "We put a lot of them away in prison for a number of years."
But federal records show that the stiffest penalty meted out back in 1985 was two years' imprisonment, usually for drug and firearms violations. Wegers, for example, pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and got an 18-month sentence in 1985.
"I don't think that takes away from the efficacy of the work that was done 20 years ago," Mangan said of the sentences. "But it does mean that obviously you have to keep working at these criminal organizations, because they bounce back."
This time, however, prosecutors are using a bigger stick in an effort to help ensure that the Bandidos do not bounce back. They already have received permission from the U.S. Justice Department to charge 10 Bandidos with one form of racketeering.
They also are seeking Justice Department authority to apply a more comprehensive racketeering statute to nail Wegers, described in the indictment as national and international president of the 2,400-member gang.
The 20-count indictment describes the Bandidos as a sophisticated criminal organization that engages in violent crime, including kidnapping and assault, to make money through drug trafficking, dealing in black-market motor vehicles and parts, and the sale of firearms.
It also alleges that the Bandidos intimidate members of rival motorcycle clubs to preserve and protect their power.
But a different view is offered by Wegers' son, Chris Wegers, who also is a Bandido but is not among the criminal defendants.
"It's just a motorcycle club," said Chris Wegers, of Sedro-Woolley. "It's not a motorcycle gang. There's a lot of difference there."
Chris Wegers said there are positive aspects to the Bandidos, whose members raise money for charities, sponsor food drives and conduct toy runs for kids at Christmas.
The younger Wegers, who was 13 the last time his father was charged, is upset at the way his father is being portrayed. "It's like they arrested John Gotti," he said of the hoopla surrounding the new case.
Never quit monitoring
Current Bellingham Police Chief Randall Carroll, who has been with the department since 1977, said "there were peaks and valleys" of police attention in the 20 years between the Bandidos busts. "We've never quit monitoring them, but we certainly have other obligations."
Carroll said his department called for federal help about two years ago after it had gathered enough intelligence to warrant more intensive investigation. Carroll said his department has limited staff and resources, and once his officers determined that Bandidos had committed crimes across state lines, including the kidnapping of a rival gang member in Montana, it became clear they had to call in the feds.
The effort culminated last month when more than 300 officers, most of them federal agents, swarmed through Whatcom County to make arrests and execute search warrants. Additional arrests were made or warrants served in Montana and South Dakota.
Life sentences possible
Twenty years ago, the government admitted it didn't have sufficient evidence to seek a racketeering charge. This time it says it does.
The racketeering count in the indictment, brought under the Violent Crime in Aid of Racketeering statute, charges 10 people and carries a sentence of up to life in prison. But George Wegers is omitted from that count.
The office of U.S. Attorney McKay has asked Justice Department officials for permission to charge Wegers under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a federal statute originally intended to destroy the Mafia.
Lawyers familiar with the RICO statute say it gives the government additional clout. Defense attorneys believe it could give prosecutors more leeway to go after the organization as a whole — and hold Wegers accountable for the criminal acts of his subordinates.
For now, the government has charged him with tampering with a witness in connection with a 2003 kidnapping in Montana; and conspiracy to traffic in certain motor vehicles and parts, while knowing the vehicle-identification number of the vehicles or parts had been unlawfully removed or altered.
Wegers and other ranking members of the Bandidos are being held without bail.
At George Wegers' initial detention hearing last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake painted him as the boss of a criminal enterprise with "a strict hierarchy." He asserted that Wegers "has the power to order people to do his dirty work, and I'd submit to the court that's what he's done."
Chris Wegers scoffs at that notion, saying it was "not possible" for his father to have such control over the behavior of others. For example, he said, he was standing by his father's side in his father's Bellingham home two years ago when the phone rang with news about the Montana kidnapping.
"He was surprised," the son recounted. "We were all a little surprised."
In an interview, Wegers' defense attorney, Jeffrey Lustick, maintained that his client has a reputation as "a peacemaker, negotiator. He has done his best to root out individuals who would cause organized crime."
But the indictment describes the Bandidos as a "closed society" whose members are scrutinized to avoid infiltration by law enforcement. Members must pay a "road tax," which can include a percentage of their proceeds derived from criminal activities, the indictment alleges.
Defense lawyer John Henry Browne asserts that the government's claims are exaggerated, which he says also marked the 1985 case. Browne, who has a client in the new case, called the government's charges "chippy" and predicted they would fall apart.
"If they were called 'The Bambis' they'd never be charged," he maintained.
Jim Vonasch, a Seattle criminal defense attorney who was involved in the 1985 case and has a client in the new one, also contends the government is overcharging. "It just looks like two or three instances of alleged criminality by people who happen to belong to a group," he said. "There's no connection that I can see from one [crime] to the other."
Vonasch said some of the government's accusations border on trampling on the Bandidos' First Amendment right to associate with one another, and on their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. For example, he pointed to a part of the indictment where Wegers allegedly told another Bandido, "Everything will be OK if everyone keeps their mouths shut."
"They have a Fifth Amendment right not to talk to the police," Vonasch noted.
Still, some accusations paint a darker picture, including an occasion earlier this year when an unnamed co-conspirator approached the wife of an assault victim in a parking lot and purportedly said, "Tell your husband to drop the charges or you won't wake up some morning."
Clubs a place to belong
Carl Taylor, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied motorcycle gangs, said he's not surprised the Bandidos reconstituted since the 1985 arrests. Taylor, a criminologist, acknowledged he has no personal knowledge of the Bandidos, though he said he has interviewed members of other motorcycle clubs.
Taylor and others who have studied the clubs said working-class, white males are attracted to them as a place to belong. "It's their 'Marines,' " Taylor said.
Not everyone associated with the clubs is into felonious criminal activity, Taylor said. Some "buy all the gear, smoke the dope, carouse with the women and drink the beer" because they enjoy the camaraderie, he said.
As for the distinction between "club" and "gang," Taylor said it's a balancing act. The appropriate bottom line should be that you're judged by your behavior, he said.
In the new case, the government says it used confidential informants and has hundreds of hours of recordings from wiretaps, body wires, and even tiny video cameras.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ye-Ting Woo said she does not anticipate concerns comparable to what occurred in 1985, when defense attorneys claimed an undercover informant induced members of the Bandidos to commit crimes so they could be charged.
That doesn't mean the government's case will be a lock. For one thing, as in all criminal cases, the defendants have a right to confront their accuser.
And an important element of the federal indictment includes the alleged kidnapping of a man identified only as "SS" but whose full name, Scott Spencer, has been disclosed in open court. Two years ago, Montana authorities filed felony-kidnapping charges in state court against each of the defendants now charged in the federal case.
Spencer, who ran a custom-bike shop in Great Falls, backed down, recalled Cascade County District Attorney Brant Light. Light said Spencer told him he feared his cooperation would hurt his business.
Great Falls Police Detective Jeff Beecroft, who investigated the case and said he expects to testify in the new federal case, tentatively scheduled to go to trial in January, suggested that Spencer's change of heart had more to do with concerns about his physical well-being.
Woo said the government has resources that may not have been available to Montana authorities to protect and move witnesses and victims with fears about their personal safety. "I expect Mr. Spencer to be cooperative," she said.
Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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