Despite outlaw image, Hells Angels sue often

Serge F. Kovaleski
Hells Angels at a softball game in Spearfish, S.D.
Matthew Staver | The New York Times

Fritz Clapp, a 67-year-old lawyer with a bright red mohawk, practices intellectual property law. Years ago, his clients were "small-time businesses that nobody had ever heard of." Then he found something bigger. Today, Mr. Clapp, an eloquent and irreverent man known to wear a purple fez during negotiations with other lawyers, represents the interests of a group not commonly associated with intellectual property: the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. His main role is not as a bulldog criminal defense counsel for the notorious group but as a civilized advocate in its relentless battle to protect its many registered trademarks.

Just in the past seven years, the Hells Angels have brought more than a dozen cases in federal court, alleging infringement on apparel, jewelry, posters and yo-yos. The group has also challenged Internet domain names and a Hollywood movie — all for borrowing the motorcycle club's name and insignias. The defendants have been large, well-known corporations like Toys "R" Us, Alexander McQueen, Amazon, Saks, Zappos, Walt Disney and Marvel Comics. And they have included a rapper's clothing company, Dillard's and a teenage girl who was selling embroidered patches on eBay with a design resembling the group's "Death Head" logo.

The Hells Angels remain etched in the popular imagination as sullen, heavily muscled men in leather vests who glare from behind raised handlebars, ready to take on anyone who crosses them — rebels with no particular cause but their own form of ritualized brotherhood. But over the years, the group collectively made a leap from image to brand, becoming a recognizable marque and promoting itself on items as varied as T-shirts, coffee mugs and women's yoga pants. Sonny Barger, 75, the longtime Hells Angels leader, at times has offered his own online bazaar of goods that bear his name: sunglasses, bottles of cabernet sauvignon and books he has written.

With more to sell and more to protect, the Hells Angels' turn toward the litigious comes with a twist: The bikers are increasingly calling on the same legal system they deride as part of the machinery that has unfairly defined them as criminals.

In fact, they have become more conscious of protecting their image from misuse even as law enforcement officials have cracked down on the Hells Angels, saying they represent a criminal gang on six continents, trafficking drugs and guns and engaging in money laundering, extortion and mortgage fraud.

These conflicting portraits — biker club versus biker mafia — took shape in numerous interviews with Hells Angels members, defense lawyers, prosecutors and federal agents and in a wide review of legal filings and internal Hells Angels documents. The group's less confrontational side has emerged as its aging membership has been refreshed by new members from a historically familiar source — recent military veterans — and as motorcycling in general has risen in popularity across the country.

"We stabbed and slabbed people left and right in the day, but that way is less common now," said Richard Mora, known as Chico, a Hells Angels member in the Phoenix chapter.

Even so, 65 years after the Hells Angels was founded in Fontana, Calif., it still exists as a uniquely American subculture of hardened individualism, fierce fraternity and contempt for society's mores.

In its rule-bound world, only full members are permitted to wear the provocative death's-head patch or the two words of the club's name, which, like the logo, is trademarked by the organization. Separately, the group sells so-called support merchandise to the public on club websites and at Hells Angels parties and charity events. Recently the club opened a retail store in Toronto.

Designations such as 81 (H and A are the eighth and first letters of the alphabet) and Big Red Machine (Hells Angels' colors are red and white) are on an array of goods, including T-shirts (children's sizes available), beanies, tank tops, bikinis, underwear, pins, cigars, key chains, window decals and calendars.

The bikers generally settle their lawsuits on favorable terms, extracting concessions from the accused parties by getting them to stop using the trademarks, destroy and recall merchandise and, in a few instances, pay some damages.

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United in merchandising, and litigiousness, the Hells Angels nevertheless say that they remain a club defined by decentralization, with each chapter operating as its own entity.

But law enforcement officials contend the group functions in a more cohesive, structured way. Policing the Hells Angels and other like-minded motorcycle groups is largely the domain of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"In my experience working street and motorcycle gangs, the Hells Angels operate like a criminal organization with a global infrastructure and a lot of money they can generate from members worldwide," said John Ciccone, a special agent for the A.T.F. in Los Angeles who has worked on gangs for more than two decades.

He added: "If you go up against the Hells Angels to prove they are a racketeering enterprise, they do have the resources to fight tooth and nail and all the way to the end. You do not usually see those dynamics in street gangs like the Crips and Bloods."

(Read more: A copyright victory, 35 years later)

Intellectual Property

Mr. Clapp's first case for the Hells Angels was a 1992 lawsuit against Marvel Comics, which had named a comic book and its lead character Hell's Angel. The company changed the name to Dark Angel and agreed to donate $35,000 to a children's charity.

Safeguarding the club's trademarks has been Mr. Clapp's job ever since. He is counsel for the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation, a nonprofit established in California in 1970 that owns and protects the club's intellectual property. The corporation, which has board members, is controlled by the hundreds of chapters that make up the Hells Angels club.

"Part of the strategy is to bring shock-and-awe cases and to shine a bright light on them in federal court and the media," said Mr. Clapp, who graduated from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "The intent is not just to punish the infringers but to educate the public that the Hells Angels marques are well guarded and not generic and that they must not be infringed upon."

In the United States, the corporation has 18 trademark registrations covering the use of seven different marques, including a half-dozen or so variations of the death's-head icon, and additional trademark registrations in more than a dozen other countries.

Mr. Clapp's sparse website bears the description "Lawyer From Hell." In a brief video, he leans into the camera sporting his mohawk, sunglasses, jeans and a black T-shirt with the word "ACID" on it, a reference, he recently noted, to the brand of cigars with that name and not to LSD. Mr. Clapp, a former biker-rights lobbyist who for years has been close to Mr. Barger, rides a motorcycle but is not a Hells Angel. He lives in a Prevost motor home and moves around the West, depending on where his legal work takes him.

Lawyers who have defended clients sued by the Hells Angels say Mr. Clapp's manner hardly resembles the brutishness many associate with the club.

"Initially, we were not sure whether we had to worry for our safety," said Kevin Drucker, a lawyer who represented Headgear Inc., which was sued in 2008 over T-shirts bearing the Hells Angels name. "But the impression I was left with was that when they litigate, they do so civilly. This changed the way I thought about them."

That case was eventually settled.

Soon after targeting Headgear, the Hells Angels sued a New York clothing business called Company 81, alleging that use of the number 81 on its products was an infringement.

"We were trying to enter into a coexistence agreement with the Hells Angels," said Daniel Bellizio, a New York intellectual property lawyer who was the company's general counsel. "Our customer base and the channels of distribution were very distinct, and there was little likelihood of consumers confusing the brands."

Although the Hells Angels eventually stopped responding in the case, a 65-page sworn deposition taken by another lawyer for Company 81 illustrated Mr. Barger's views on merchandising.

"Well, I don't want to sound pigheaded, but there's a million people out there that want to make a dollar off of the name Hells Angels and the emblem Hells Angels, and we try to stop them," Mr. Barger said.

He explains that the Hells Angels are so protective about their membership marks that members must sign a document stipulating that anything with the club name or symbols belongs to the corporation and not to them.

"It's on loan to them while they're a member," he said. "And if they ever leave the club, it all has to be turned back in."

Asked about the number 81, Mr. Barger said, "We don't let anybody use it but us." He added, "Eighty-one is Hells Angels."

He said if he encountered someone wearing clothing with an unofficial 81, he would wrest it from the person on the spot. "I wouldn't ask them, I'd take it."

Later in the deposition, he said: "I would say, 'Why do you have that?' and he would probably say, 'I support 81.' And I would say, 'That isn't an 81 shirt.'

"And then I would say, 'Look, we can do this two ways. You can give me the shirt and I'll give you a legitimate one.' Or if the guy says, 'Hey, none of your business where I got it,' " Mr. Barger continued, "I'd beat him up and take it."

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At the Clubhouse

The squat red and white building, with a large death's-head and the words "Hells Angels Motorcycle Club" emblazoned on the side, sits on a quiet street on the fringes of downtown Phoenix, fenced off from nearby public housing and some bail bond offices. This is the Phoenix chapter. Inside, about 10 Hells Angels mill around a long bar, sipping drinks and laying out food for their regular, highly secretive meeting, known as "church."

With its patchwork of memorabilia, the clubhouse resembles a Hells Angels museum. The death's-head is plastered on cushions and light shades. There is a stripper pole in the front room and slot machines in the back. Hells Angels slogans and photos cover the walls. In the yard, 81 is spray painted on a rusted garbage can next to a Highway 81 sign.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighing about 350 pounds with long, stringy hair, Mr. Mora is a longtime Phoenix Hells Angel.

"The new members are younger, smarter and savvier, and they have better bikes," said Mr. Mora, a construction worker in his mid-60s who many years ago served time in prison for murder. "They are better at reading the streets, seeing our enemies and spotting patterns and changes. They are also more clean-cut."

The Justice Department website says the Hells Angels have a total of 2,000 to 2,500 members in around 230 chapters in the United States and 26 other countries. The department says more than 90 of those chapters, with over 800 members total, are in the United States. The true reach of the club globally, though, is unclear. The main Hells Angels website lists about 425 chapters in more than 45 countries.

While Hells Angels members and those in rival biker clubs have tended to hold down blue-collar jobs, the newer generation is more eclectic, with careers and families, a contrast to the riders in the '60s and '70s who seemed wayward and singularly devoted to the club. Today's bike clubs include men pushing 70 and newer members in their 30s. Some work in motorcycle repair shops or tattoo parlors, but others have less stereotypical jobs: eye doctor, chef, accountant, master's student in thermal dynamics, lawyer, military contractor and high school football coach. Whatever their generation, the Hells Angels are bound together as renegades, if not outlaws.

Mike Koepke, 32, a newer member and president of the Yavapai County chapter in Arizona, said, "Being a Hells Angel is a stressful lifestyle because we have people coming at us from all angles, but who wouldn't want to be that rebel?"

He says that riding with his brothers can be transcendent.

"My first religious, Zenlike experience was in 2007 riding back from Montana," recalled Mr. Koepke, who is the father of a young son and an E.M.T. studying to be a paramedic. "It was as though hands were pushing the rain aside so I could get to my destination. It was a spiritual moment."

Andres Ospina, 33, known as Oz, who fought with the Marines in Iraq, is another recent addition to the Hells Angels in Arizona. He has struggled with post-traumatic stress and depression, but said he found solace in the camaraderie of the club, which he likened to "going back to your platoon, your safe place."

"I credit the club with saving my life," said Mr. Ospina, who receives disability benefits from the military. "I had two choices: I could have become antisocial and locked myself in an apartment and cried about things that upset me, or I could be social with people who are like-minded."

Clutching his Hells Angels vest, Mr. Ospina, a father of two, said: "In a sense, this is my armor now. It keeps people away. I am literally fighting for my own right to be who I want to be, and to be left alone."

Attracting Suspicion

In Black Canyon City, Ariz., Howie Weisbrod, 65, a member of the Cave Creek chapter, was helping with security at a bar where some 100 Hells Angels in club vests and jackets mingled at a celebration in honor of Mr. Barger.

Mr. Weisbrod, a burly Brooklyn native, said law enforcement "is obsessed with us because we are the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and a visible target," adding: "They see us as some kind of symbol. They think that by controlling us they can control the other clubs. But that ain't true."

A Hells Angel for four decades, he has had his encounters with law enforcement, having spent about 10 years in federal prison on a drugs and weapons conviction.

What he calls an obsession, law enforcement views as a necessity. State and federal agents reject the notion that the Hells Angels and some rival bikers clubs are merely hangouts for antisocial tough guys. Instead, they say, Hells Angels chapters are dens that forge dangerous criminal conspiracies.

Mr. Weisbrod and other Hells Angels acknowledge that federal and state gang enhancement laws, which can significantly lengthen prison sentences, have been a deterrent to more criminality. In late 2009, a jury in Phoenix convicted a member named Nathaniel Sample of two felonies and determined that the Hells Angels were a gang. Mr. Sample, convicted of aggravated assault and assisting a criminal street gang, was sentenced to about eight years, a term that is largely the result of the gang charge.

Since 2002, there have been about a half-dozen cases in Ventura County, Calif., in which juries have convicted members for being part of a street gang. In the same period, a similar number of Hells Angels have pleaded guilty and admitted to belonging to a gang.

Derek Malan, a senior deputy district attorney in the county, said those convictions had hobbled the club's chapter there. "The national prominence of the club in Ventura is done," he said. "There have been more convictions in that chapter than in any other Hells Angels chapter in California."

The visibility of the Ventura chapter has also been diminished since the departure about two years ago of its longtime president, George Christie Jr., a gregarious man who had been a spokesman for the Hells Angels. Mr. Christie, 66, who owned a tattoo shop, the Ink House, in Ventura and has a consulting business to help felons handle incarceration, was probably the best-known Hells Angel after Mr. Barger.

Some say that he displeased the organization by, among other things, recruiting local surfers from gangs to increase his chapter's sagging membership numbers. The recruits, seen riding around in flip-flops or tennis shoes and shorts, were not considered worthy of being Hells Angels by some other members.

"I gave the club a shot in the arm to keep it on the cutting edge of the motorcycle club culture," Mr. Christie, who led the chapter from 1978 to 2011, said this year. "My thinking was that if we didn't bend, we would break and, in doing so, we would be helping law enforcement by becoming extinct."

In 2011, Mr. Christie, who had served two prison terms of about a year each, was indicted on federal charges stemming from an extortion plot and the firebombing of two competing tattoo parlors in 2007. He faced a statutory maximum of 120 years in prison. But the prosecution and his lawyer struck a deal; he recently started serving a third prison term, 10 ½ months.

Mr. Christie takes issue with law enforcement's position that organizations like the Hells Angels are gangs that operate as underworld criminal enterprises.

"I am not foolish enough to say that crimes have not been committed, but there is no nexus between all of them or many of them," he said.

Criminal Designation

In 2011, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security added the Hells Angels and other motorcycle clubs to a list of criminal organizations that includes the Mafia, the Chinese Triads and the yakuza, the Japanese syndicate. This classification has made it harder for foreign members of these groups to enter the United States for bike runs and other club events. A recent case that epitomizes, for federal authorities, why they designate some motorcycle clubs as criminal organizations is one against the Hells Angels in the South Carolina city of Rock Hill, a suburb of Charlotte, N.C.

In June 2012, 20 members, prospects and associates of the club's Rock Hell City Nomad Chapter were arrested on a 91-count federal racketeering indictment based on wiretaps, surveillance, video recordings, controlled buys and a paid informant. The charges encompassed a range of illicit activity: drug distribution, trafficking of firearms and stolen goods, prostitution, arson, robbery and other violence, extortion and money laundering.

Sixteen of the defendants were convicted of crimes related to a racketeering conspiracy. A dozen of them reached plea deals, including the chapter's vice president, Daniel Bifield, known as Diamond Dan. He was sentenced to 17 ½ years in federal prison.

"The way they got away with it for a while is that the Hells Angels are such insular groups and they use code in such a sophisticated and elusive manner," Jay N. Richardson, the assistant United States attorney who prosecuted the case, said in an interview. " 'Replacing chrome' on a motorcycle, for instance, refers to both legitimate business purposes and illicit ones."

One thing that has not changed is that the Hells Angels remain the top name of the outlaw motorcycle constellation. Its members are regarded as more sophisticated and loyal than those of other biker groups, and the process for gaining membership is believed to be the most arduous, making it the toughest one for law enforcement officials to infiltrate.

"The Hells Angels don't recruit," said Troy Regas, president of the club's Nevada Nomads chapter. "The Hells Angels is one of the top trademarks in the world. It is like Harley Davidson."

But agents have persisted and, stung by infiltrations, biker groups now do exhaustive background checks on prospective members and will enlist private investigators. The clubs administer lie-detector tests and require completion of detailed applications and even references from prison inmates.

And even when law enforcement gets the upper hand, the Hells Angels fight back in court, sometimes using prominent lawyers who have represented such figures as Martha Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio and Shaquille O'Neal.

In 2010, seven members in Arizona were arrested after a shootout with the Vagos, a rival biker group, in a rural neighborhood of the town of Chino Valley. More than 50 rounds were fired, injuring a handful of bikers.

That November, a state judge, ruling in favor of the defense, threw out a grand jury indictment that named five Hells Angels and contained charges that included attempted murder and participation in a criminal street gang. Conviction would have brought sentences decades long. Richard Gaxiola, a Phoenix lawyer for the Hells Angels, argued that a detective had misled the grand jury and violated his clients' constitutional rights by portraying the Vagos as family oriented while vilifying the Hells Angels. The next month, a fresh indictment was returned, and two other Hells Angels had been added.

But Mr. Gaxiola soon uncovered an even bigger problem with the prosecution's tactics that prompted him to seek a dismissal of the entire case. The detective and the lead prosecutor had failed to disclose that their key witness was a paid informant within the Vagos who previously had tried to associate with the Hells Angels but had been shunned.

A new judge sided with the defense by tossing out the case in June 2012, saying the defendants' due process rights had been violated, and concluding that the prosecution had been negligent.

"We were able to level the playing field, which is crucial because when it comes to the Hells Angels in the justice system, their constitutional rights are under assault at every step," Mr. Gaxiola said.