Angels' origins

Photo by KURT WILSON / Missoulian

Motorcycle club's origins clouded in wartime history, but all sides agree on one thing: Today's Hells Angels are no monks
By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian

Paratroopers were probably original Angels

VENTURA, Calif. - The hard-drinking, hard-riding, hard-fisted phenomenon of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was kick-started not on America's highways, but in the world's deadly and bleeding fields of war.

The Angels have grown, in the past 50 years, to include three dozen chapters in the United States, a presence in 15 countries and a worldwide membership estimated in the thousands.

But before all that, before roving bands of unwashed malcontents began riding the wild West astride iron horses like so many gun-slinging outlaws, before they tore open America's fabric and sewed themselves into the tapestry of mainstream culture, before they bathed and broke out as businessmen, before all that, their name belonged to other Angels.

"Hells Angels" was a name long favored by mercenaries and soldiers, warriors and troops who risked all for principle, belief, freedom and individual rights - including the right to ride big Harley-Davidson hogs. The history of today's Hells Angels is obscured by the hazy exhaust of half a century of Harleys, and no one can see through quite to the beginning.

But many believe the original Angels were members of the U.S. Army's 11th Airborne Division, an elite group of paratroopers trained to rain death on the enemy from above, drifting in behind the lines of battle.

They called themselves the Hells Angels because they flew on silk wings into hell itself, bringing a brutal hope for peace with 20 pounds of TNT strapped to each leg. The nickname was a badge of honor, a mark of invincibility, a wartime emblem indicating the toughest of the tough. It was a totem to ward off the worst.

Not surprisingly, a handful of those original Hells Angels - along with many other returning soldiers who had awakened to the nightmare of war - found it difficult to settle into the half-sleep of the American Dream. After living on the edge so long, they found only a depressing fatalism and monotony in jobs, family, mortgages, college, suburbia and cookie-cutter houses with white-picket fences.

And so they rode. Motorcycles were cheap in the mid-1940s, sold as military surplus, and they offered a certain wild peacetime freedom not unlike the wartime skies of Europe. Soon, individuals gathered into groups, sharing weekends when they rode hard and partied harder.

But when Monday came, not everyone went home. Some stayed, turning the weekend motorcycle club into a surrogate family of full-time brothers.

Two of the first such fraternities were the Pissed Off Bastards and the Booze Fighters, groups that established early the notoriety of the outlaw biker image. In 1947, at an American Motorcycle Association convention in the drowsy town of Hollister, Calif., the Pissed Off Bastards rode in drunk, wild and destructive, landing as if behind enemy lines with a belly full of TNT. The local sheriff later described the scene as "just one hell of a mess."

Quick to control the public relations' damage, the AMA denounced the Bastards, saying it was unfortunate that 1 percent of motorcyclists should ruin it for the law-abiding 99 percent. To this day, the 1 percent insignia remains a badge of honor, worn with pride by those who define themselves as not part of that milquetoast 99 percent majority who ride whining Hondas back and forth to the office.

But in the months following Hollister, internal tension among the Bastards and Booze Fighters was mounting, and in 1948 Bastard Otto Friedli broke from the club, splintering the group to create the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in Fontana, Calif.

Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Hells Angels continued to ride with the other 99 percent, but already their reputation roared out in front.

That reputation crashed into the public consciousness in 1954 when Marlon Brando starred in "The Wild One," a Hollywood sensation inspired by the rumble at Hollister.

That same year, the original Hells Angels chapter merged with San Francisco's Market Street Commandos to spawn the club's second chapter, whose president crafted the intimidating winged death's head that remains the Hells Angels calling card to this day.

Chapters quickly popped up along the California coastline, but there was no organization among the groups, no single vision. All that changed, however, when Ralph "Sonny" Barger helped establish the Oakland Chapter.

Although Barger insists he is not the leader of today's international Hells Angels, he is widely considered so by law enforcement, and undoubtedly wears an unofficial crown. Today, Barger lives in Arizona. George Christie, longtime president of the Ventura, Calif., chapter, is considered Barger's second-in-command and likely successor.

Under Barger's guidance, the Hells Angels chapters came together, hammering out bylaws, codes of conduct, patches, colors, tattoos and club houses. And the myth of the outlaw biker grew. There were tales of mayhem, violence, destruction and, in the early 1960s, accusations of rape in the oceanside town of Monterey.

That high-profile rape case, historians believe, marked the beginnings of what law enforcement now calls an international drug trafficking syndicate. In order to pay legal bills, the legend goes, the Hells Angels made a few drug deals, selling methamphetamines and entering for the first time the world of big-money narcotics.

Whether that version is true, few know for certain and none will admit - proof, perhaps, of the motto "three can keep a secret if two are dead." What is known is that the Hells Angels' defense, however financed, was successful and the rape suspects were acquitted.

It was the first in a long string of high-profile accusations, arrests and acquittals - suggesting either the Angels are slippery or that police like to arrest them despite flimsy evidence. Many believe the truth involves a bit of both.

Regardless, in winning the Monterey rape case the club also won over popular culture, which set the Hells Angels on a pedestal as icons of freedom and resistance to "the system."

The rape acquittals also caught the attention of the California attorney general, who began what would in just a few years become one of the longest running cat-and-mouse games ever played between law enforcement agencies and an established and easily identifiable group.

Infamy bred notoriety, and in the mid-1960s "The Nation" magazine sent a young Hunter S. Thompson off to write about the Hells Angels. Thompson returned to the bikers after completing the article, riding with the Hells Angels for a year while researching his book, "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang."

At the same time, Hollywood had discovered the bikers. Barger starred next to Jack Nicholson in "Hell's Angels on Wheels." Rock stars such as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead struck up friendships with the bikers, which Garcia admitted was a bit scary, because the Hells Angels were, as he put it, "good in all the violent spaces."

That was proved beyond doubt on Dec. 6, 1969, when the Hells Angels were hired as security for a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco.

That night, at the height of the Angels' bare-knuckled stardom, the crowd surged in waves and the Hells Angels braced against it. An irresistible force swept against an immovable object, Mick Jagger sang "Sympathy for the Devil" and everything came unhinged.

An 18-year-old Stones fan named Meredith Hunter rushed the stage, was beaten back, rushed again, was pushed back, pulled a gun, and shot a Hells Angel in the arm.

Barger, interviewed for a recent History Channel special, said that when Hunter fired, "people started stabbing him. The guy killed himself by pulling the gun and shooting it into a crowd. And to me, that's just part of everyday life in the Hells Angels - somebody shoots you, you stab him."

One Hells Angel was arrested for the killing, but later was acquitted, despite the fact that the entire incident was captured on film.

Now, with their bad-boy reputation squarely in place and undeniably earned, the Hells Angels began to emerge as a more sophisticated outfit.

They incorporated, trademarked the infamous death's head and opened chapters around the world.

Their boldness irritated law enforcement, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government tried to pin an official organized crime designation on the group, attempting to prosecute the Hells Angels under laws originally designed to combat the Mafia. The alleged violations of racketeering, influence and corrupt organization laws, however, were never proved, with two hung juries unable to come to a decision on 38 of 44 separate charges.

The $15 million federal prosecution resulted in two mistrials, which prosecutors decried as a miscarriage of justice, while Barger threw a no-holds-barred bash for the jurors.

Despite the verdict exonerating the motorcycle club, police here and overseas continue to consider the Hells Angels a wealthy corporation with a global drug distribution network.

For their part, the Angels continue to deny all charges, and in 1998 happily celebrated their 50th anniversary. The Angels, who Christie admits are "not monks," nevertheless insist that if they were as bad as police allege, they would've been jailed and disbanded years ago.

Their argument goes something like this: with such easy prey (Hells Angels do, after all, advertise their affiliation with emblazoned colors) police must be incompetent investigators or simply working under mistaken assumptions, and they're willing to give police all credit due.

Or perhaps it is as Christie's club members say - cops chase Angels because Angels are easy to chase. Finding real criminals is much tougher, and would require investigative initiative beyond pulling over every biker wearing the infamous winged death's head.

Today, both sides agree much of what the Hells Angels were is as far gone as the origins of their name.

The war of rhetoric between the Angels and police has been spun by popular culture into a complicated web of conflicting myths. And as those myths have emerged, the Hells Angels have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, carried into tomorrow by sheer inertia, like a Harley riding high in the curve, barely holding on, relying on a wisp of friction to keep from blowing over the top and into quiet nothingness.

So far, friction has served them well.

Information for this article came from interviews with George Christie and members of the Ventura Hells Angels, conversations with law enforcement officers, the History Channel, and "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," by Hunter S. Thompson.

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