By David Kurlander
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis last week suggested that former President Trump and his allies could face Georgia state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act charges for their attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Associations: From the Masons to the Mob,” Heather Cox Richardson, Joanne Freeman, and Elie Honig discussed the origins of the federal RICO statute and the utility of using racketeering charges to go after criminal associations. In 1979, one of the first major RICO cases targeted the motorcycle club Hell’s Angels, leading to a tumultuous prosecution that illustrated both the statute’s immense power and serious problems.
On June 13th, 1979, 200 federal agents raided the homes of top Hell’s Angels members in and around Oakland, California. The Department of Justice charged 32 Angels with conspiracy charges, connected to a methamphetamine operation that prosecutors alleged netted $160,000 in daily street sales.
The 64 collective indictments charged the Angels under the RICO statute. RICO was part of President Nixon’s sweeping Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 and was designed to aid in the prosecution of organized crime by lifting statute of limitations requirements, upping sentencing guidelines, and allowing for more elastic group conspiracy charges.
RICO required the government to prove that a defendant had committed two of 32 types of crimes (including murder, extortion, and mail fraud at the high end) over a 10-year period. If those crimes were demonstrated, then prosecutors could loop in the entire criminal enterprise and secure additional convictions of co-conspirators. RICO remained largely unused until 1975, but during the late 1970s was used some 200 times. While many RICO trials focused explicitly on the mob, the statute was becoming an effective tool to charge other kinds of crimes; the most famous RICO case until the Angels was against former Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, who was charged under the statute along with four accomplices in a bribery scheme.
Just months before the indictment, Rolling Stone journalist Howard Kohn wrote a sprawling exposé of the Angels’ misdeeds entitled “Hells Angels: Masters of Menace.” Kohn’s story strung together many of the crimes that would take center stage at the trial. He relayed how a former friend of the Angels, a young woman named Margo Compton, was shot alongside her boyfriend and six-year-old twins after she agreed to cooperate with police to bring down The Love Nest, an Angels-run San Francisco prostitution ring that she had fled. He reported on the Angel thefts from a lab in Oakland that carried materials used in large-scale meth production. And he told in scorching detail about the bomb attack on a detective in Vallejo, California, Bill Zerbe, who narrowly escaped death in a reprisal for his tenacious pursuit of Angel higher-up James Ezekiel “Jim-Jim” Brandes.
The figure who loomed largest in Kohn’s reportage, however, was Sonny Barger. Barger became national president of the Angels in 1958. Initially fiercely right-wing, Barger made headlines in 1965 for using Angels to break up a Berkeley anti-Vietnam War march. By the late 1960s, Barger was a bona fide celebrity, appearing alongside a young Jack Nicholson in the Roger Corman-produced 1967 film Hells Angels on Wheels. He organized the Angels security force at the infamous Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where the Angels killed a 19-year-old Black man named Meredith Hunter after Hunter allegedly pulled a knife in the crowd. Barger beat a murder charge in 1972 for allegedly killing an unreliable cocaine courier, but he served three years in Folsom Prison beginning the following year for heroin and weapons possession.
When Barger got out in 1977, he continued to serve as the de facto leader of the Angels. “The government was also pissed off that I would not break my association from the club after I got out of jail, but I refused to play their game,” Barger wrote in his 2001 autobiography. Barger’s name led the indictment.
The RICO trial for Barger and 17 of his fellow indicted Angels began on October 4th, 1979. Billy Hunter was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. Hunter, a 36-year-old ex-NFL punt returner who would later lead the National Basketball Association’s player’s union, was helped in the prosecution by a young Assistant U.S. Attorney named Robert Mueller. Hunter and Mueller presented their case to Judge Samuel Conti, a conservative jurist known as “Hanging Sam” for his enthusiastic support for the death penalty.
Shortly after the trial began, Barger, whose bail was set at $1 million, sat with Washington Post reporter Cynthia Gorney for a defiant jailhouse interview. Barger attacked law enforcement: “As far as the beaters-up of the poor innocent citizen, the killing of the poor innocent citizen, such as that, the authorities got a way bigger part in it than we do.”
Barger went on to fiercely criticize RICO: “I think that this is probably the most important case that’s ever come down in the history of the United States. Because it’s a mass criminal trial,” Barger explained. “They’re trying everybody for what everybody done, even though the majority of us have already been to prison for what we done.”
One of Barger’s lawyers, Frank Mangan, also chimed in. “This is in essence taking his whole life, everything that he’s ever done and everything bad 31 people have ever done, and throwing it all out in front of a jury,” Mangan complained. “If they don’t get him on this case, maybe they’ll leave him alone.”
Another defense attorney, Richard Mazer, argued that the Angels were not a formal criminal enterprise: “A lot of Angels are guilty of a lot of stuff, but they are not club activities.”
The Angels ran with the anti-RICO sentiment. They paid for a full-page San Francisco Chronicle advertisement accusing the government of using a sprawling statute to violate civil liberties.
The trial proceeded tensely. 194 witnesses presented harrowing stories of the Angel’s violence and misdeeds. Many Angels, known for their brutality toward those who testified against them, sat in the courtroom in the San Francisco Federal Building, where 8-foot-high Plexiglass walls were installed around the bench.
The sprawling portrait of the Angels’ misdeeds, however, did not convince the jury that there was a centralized meth distribution scheme, the charge on which the indictments depended. After 17 days of deliberation, the jury hung. On August 7th, 1980, the government dropped the conspiracy and racketeering charges against most defendants, including Barger, who celebrated by seeing his friend Willie Nelson at the Oakland Coliseum. At the show, Nelson dedicated his song “Whiskey River” to Barger and his wife Sharon.
Mueller told the press that the prosecution was “definitely going to proceed with some of the remaining defendants.” Only a week after the first trial ended, prosecutors introduced a pared down case against 14 Angels before a new judge, William Orrick.
The second trial was just as messy as the first. In November 1980, a former Angel and witness for the prosecution, Thomas “Big Red” Bryant, asserted that the Drug Enforcement Administration had given him a briefcase containing $30,000 in cash in exchange for a damning statement against the Angels. “The government’s conduct is shocking and outrageous and amounts to purchase of testimony,” defense attorney Richard Hodge argued. The San Francisco District Director of the DEA, Dan Addario, defended the payment to Bryant, arguing that it was simply a reward for his information, and revealing that the practice was typical: “We have paid $5,000, $10,000, $20,000, $30,000. We’ve paid more.”
Judge Orrick eventually denied a motion by the defense to dismiss the charges because of the alleged bribe, but he chastised the prosecution for a move he called “stupid” and “clumsy.”
Another controversy immediately materialized when a former police officer, Scott Barnes, testified that the government had recruited him to serve as part of an undercover “biker enforcement team” that planted evidence and installed electronic surveillance devices on the Angels.
The mid-trial scandals were costly. On February 25th, 1981, the jury hung again. One juror who voted for acquittal, William Aylward, told the New York Times that the use and payment of informants was particularly alienating, saying, “’They let these people off, people who committed more crimes than the people they were trying…I just felt that I couldn’t believe them.”
Judge Orrick asked Mueller whether the government had any plans to retry the Angel defendants. ”The Government position is that there will be no retrial in this case,” Mueller curtly responded.
Barger was not totally left alone his acquittal; he served three more years in federal prison beginning in 1988 on a conspiracy conviction. In his autobiography, Barger reflected on the significance of the trial: “What’s the upshot of the RICO trial? I feel that our victory prevented criminal RICO from achieving what the government prosecutors wanted, which was to hog-tie First Amendment rights.”
The Department of Justice would secure triumphant convictions using the RICO statute during the 1980s, perhaps most notably in U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Rudy Giuliani’s war against the Mafia. But for a moment in 1981, the sheer complexity of the new law—and the labyrinthine legal overreaches that the tangled trials revealed—presaged the current debates over whether the statute may help to address the excesses of former President Trump and his associates.
For more on the culture of the Hell’s Angels, read Yves Lavigne’s juicy 1989 Hell’s Angels: “Three Can Keep a Secret If Two Are Dead.
To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces:
- ‘Celerity, Certainty, and Security’: Stephen Dorsey, Star Routes, and Post Office Scandal
- ‘A Disgrace to the Senate’: The Fall of Theodore Bilbo and the Long Fight for Voting Equality
- ‘An Exercise in Carterism’: Patricia Harris, States’ Rights, and the Roots of Republican Deflection