Updated: Aug 23
By Christian Cipollini for MobCity Productions
The passing of Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger - arguably the most recognizable face of the most widely-recognizable motorcycle club - may be the end of an era but certainly not the end of a legacy. Barger’s personality, history and influence in both public and legal domain is a half a century’s worth of notoriety and headlines, all intermingling with misconceptions and mystery.
Barger’s was a storied life, a juxtaposition of myth and reality. His intriguing history has been covered, written about, lauded , detracted, verified and contested for as long as his name has been in headlines dating back in the 1960s. The tales can be found everywhere, it’s almost overkill, so here we’ll focus on the event that put not just addressed Barger, but essentially propelled his infamous organization into an unprecedented realm… the Federal Government’s RICO statute. During this period, the media’s favorite go-to for comment was the generally more-than-willing mouthpiece Sonny Barger, Oakland California’s Hells Angels President.
“First of all we’re a virtual army. We’re all across the country,
and now we’re in foreign countries also. And they have no idea how
many of us there are...We have money, many allies that are outtlaw
bikers that are not Hell’s Angels, that would probably do anything
we asked them to, if something happened.”
‘ —Sonny Barger, 1979
The acronym stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations; designed originally as a tool to ensnare and dismantle the mob, from bottom rungs all the way up to top bosses (who were historically well insulated from actual prosecutable crimes). Although instituted in 1970, and used from time to time throughout the 1970s, the statute didn’t really gain momentum until the latter part of the decade. In June 1979 the government tried to apply RICO against what they deemed a growing menace in Northern California, and it wasn’t the Mafia. The Feds set their sights on the Hells Angels, and armed with indictments they launched a large scale sweep. Agents from the FBI, DEA and local departments swiftly took into custody twenty-five of the thirty-three people listed in the indictment, among them the Oakland Chapter chief Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger and his wife Sharon. The authorities at the time were still on the hunt for another eleven individuals named in the indictment, which carried twenty-five charges ranging from narcotics to murder. By July, some of those ‘wanted’ were captured and ten of the originally-indicted individuals were dropped. The trial itself began in October, extended well into the following year, followed by a second trial, but trial-by-jury cases are never a sure bet for either side.
“RICO's first big test came in 1979, when the law was used to prosecute the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang in California. The bikers were acquitted. With their long hair and tattoos, they didn't look like an organized-crime enterprise to the jury.” - Nathan Koppel, The Wall Street Journals, 2011.
A Brief History of Hells Angels
According to the Department of Justice, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, USA Overview, #147691, 1991 -
“In the late 1960s, a former AMA president was irritated over the raucous
behavior of the outlaw motorcycle gangs and declared that 99 percent of the
motorcyclists in the United States were law-abiding citizens. This
statement was a public relation's effort to demonstrate that only 1 percent
of the motorcycling public was involved in criminal activity. Thus,
denoting the term "1 percenter"; those who chose to be a part of the outlaw
motorcycle gang subculture. The outlaw motorcycle gang members coined this
phrase--using it to differentiate themselves from the law-abiding social
The Hells Angels (the ‘missing’ apostrophe is intentional) origin story is historically ambiguous, a subject rife with misnomer and misinformation intertwined with facts. A 1991 Department of Justice report says of them as having evolved in the 1950s from a club called ‘The Pissed Off Bastards.’ Long running legends tell of them being eponymously named for the WWII squadron, by veteran members. The DOJ also referred to the club as the first born of the original ‘Big Four’ outlaw motorcycle clubs followed by the Pagans and Outlaws in 1959 and the Bandidos in 1966.
Newspaper stories of the then-loosely associated Hells Angels chapters began surfacing in the mid 1950s and certainly added to the mythos of these riders as outcasts and hellraisers. “In perfect formation 30 motorcyclists roared into Oakland,” began an article published in the Oakland Tribune in 1956. “They were members of the ‘Vampires of San Bruno’ or the ‘Bats’ or ‘Hells Angels.” The article further detailed some of the individual bikers and ticketing aftermath - “Some of the South San Francisco cyclists wore earrings, although they were men. One wore a top hat. One wore a waxed mustache and ring in his nose. (Police Sgt Lyle) Dennison approached this one, ticket book in hand. ‘I don’t know your name, but your face has a familiar ring,’ the officer said. He wrote out a citation for two moving violations for Frank Sadilek, 21, Daly City.”
Just as the tales behind the 1% label can be (and is often) challenged, the Hells Angels official website offers its own account of the club’s origins to clarify much of the hazy history and misconceptions of the its genesis. In short, the name was suggested by friend of an original member. The friend was indeed a veteran of the Flying Tigers, Hells Angels squadron but not a member of the motorcycle club. The iconic and unmistakable ‘Deaths Head’ logo was the creation of Frank Sadilek (his name spelled/misspelled a number of different ways in the media), and on that note - the Hells Angels are incorporated, so you can be sure the logo and name are copyrighted property that, when used without permission, is very aggressively protected.
The Angels on Trial
“This is probably the most important case… in the history of the United States. Because it’s a mass criminal Trial… they’re trying everybody for everybody done, even though the majority of us have already been to prison for what we done.” - Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, 1979.
The 1979 Federal indictment was a result of a thirteen month investigation which, according to investigators, showed the Hells Angels were responsible for the majority of methamphetamines being trafficked, and included various other acts considered part of a continuing criminal enterprises. The government had come to view the club as an organization not unlike the mafia and mob racketeers. The FBI agent in charge of the sweep told the press -“I believe this indictment charges the leadership.” That statement reflects exactly RICO statute’ purpose - giving the tools to take down the top tiers of organized crime, not just the street level perpetrators. That said, and although RICO requires certain ‘patterns of behavior’ be proven, the tool is not without detractors and criticism for its ‘very broad’ usability and ‘vague’ interpretations. The government would find out straight from some of the juror’s mouths how that ‘issue’ can backfire on the prosecution.
Notwithstanding the argument over whether or not the Hells Angels were racketeers, the fact is the Hells Angels and other ‘outlaw’ motorcycle clubs obviously didn’t just show up on the government’s map by accident; some key members had both major and minor legal entanglements, including murder charges. Despite their secretive and mysterious ways, the club’s rapid growth and expansion from the 1960s through early 1970s (both domestically and internationally), plus the nearly folk hero notoriety of Oakland President Sonny Barger, inevitably and eventually piqued the interest of law enforcement at a Federal level. Additionally, once ‘investigations’ into the club’s ‘activities’ gained momentum, and as is generally the case, informants were acquired and utilized. While authorities were rounding up San Francisco’s Angels on the racketeering indictments, motorcycle ‘gangs’ - as they were being frequently called - were making headlines around the country.
The RICO trial of Sonny Barger and seventeen others extended into summer of 1980, tallying up 194 witnesses and sinister tales of violence and drug deals, finally going to the jury comprised of five women and seven men in June. Then, after seventeen days of deliberation, the jury returned on July 2, unable to reach verdicts on thirty-two of the forty-four total counts. The government wasn’t finished though and yet another trial began in October. After months of testimony and ten days of jury deliberation, like its predecessor, it ended with deadlock in February 1981. “We were confused by the definition of ‘enterprise,’ one of the jurors told the media. “And the law was so vague we just couldn’t reach a decision on whether there had been a violation of RICO.” Prosecutors threw in the towel and announced there would be no more trials.
Sonny Barger continued to be the main face and voice of the Hells Angels for the remainder of his life. The RICO trials were certainly not the last of Barger’s legal entanglements, but besides his notoriety in headlines and duties as President of the club, Barger also had a long history of movie and television credits, including consultation and acting, and he also penned several bestselling books.
Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs USA Overview. U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. #147691. 1991.
“30 Motorcyclists Roar Into Town and Trouble.” Oakland Tribune. December 2, 1956. Page 62-A.
AP. “Judge Denounces 2 'Hells Angels,' Gives Them Limit.” The San Bernadino Daily Sun. August, 17, 1957. Page 1.
AP. “Crackdown Snares Hells Angels.” The Daily Pantagraph. June 15, 1979. Page 1.
AP. “Angel Chief Stands Accused.” Santa Cruz Sentinel. October 4, 1979. Page 8.
UPI. “Motorcycle Gang War Blamed for Deaths of Five 'Outlaws.'” The Pharos-Tribune. July 5, 1979. Page 1.
Roche, John. “President Carter Taking Right Course in Iran Crisis.” The Herald. December 10,1979.