Officers gather outside the Phoenix Hells Angels clubhouse where a man was wounded Tuesday morning by Glendale SWAT police officers.
Feds launch Arizona sting involving drugs and firearms
Federal agents said they delivered a major blow to the Hells Angels outlaw biker gang in Arizona with predawn raids Tuesday that netted 30 arrests and left one suspect hospitalized with a bullet wound.
Virginia O'Brien, special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the case blows away two claims made by Hells Angels leaders: that they are a benevolent organization and that they cannot be infiltrated by authorities.
"The Hells Angels arrested by ATF today, they don't contribute to Toys for Tots," she said, referring to one of the club's charity drives. "These are the guys who contribute to firearm and drug trafficking."
U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton said the suspects include 18 members and associates of the motorcycle club who were indicted on charges that include murder-for-hire, bombmaking and machine-gun sales. He said Tuesday's raids, combined with last year's drug conviction of leaders from the group's Arizona Nomad chapter, is "the most significant investigation and prosecution of Hells Angels in the state."
More than 500 peace officers took part in the operation, serving warrants on bikers and other organized-crime suspects from Kingman to Marana. The targets included the club's Cave Creek, Tucson, Flagstaff and Chino Valley chapters.
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The criminal case involves a total of 14 indictments against 36 suspects. Agents also obtained 40 search warrants and served 22 of them. Investigators confiscated 560 firearms along with pipe bombs, silencers, machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, drugs and $50,000 in cash. Assault teams entered homes and other buildings in search of machine guns, bombs and drugs.
Hells Angel Michael Coffelt, 40, was shot Tuesday during a raid at the club's Cave Creek chapter house in the 1100 block of West Ironwood Drive in Phoenix. Glendale police Detective Brian Wilkins said police shot Coffelt after he confronted SWAT officers with a gun.
Police initially said Coffelt fired at police, but Wilkins said authorities are now checking a weapon found at the clubhouse to determine if that is true. Details were few Tuesday, and the shooting remains under investigation.
The raids culminated a two-year investigation headed by two undercover ATF agents and a Phoenix police detective who managed to infiltrate the Hells Angels. Charlton said that the investigation is not over and suggested that superseding indictments may contain additional charges and suspects.
Club leaders could not be reached for comment, but Pat "Pooh Bear" Conley, chairman of the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs and the president of the Sober Riders Motorcycle Club, said he is suspicious of the criminal case.
"I think this is trumped up," said Conley, whose organization counts the Hells Angels as a member group. "If anyone is guilty, they are as individuals. It has nothing to do with the club. They do not practice organized crime. If so, they don't need to put on fund-raisers."
A search warrant affidavit filed in U.S. District Court says investigators posed as Solos Angeles, members of a Tijuana-based Hells Angels outfit. It says they eventually joined Arizona chapters, where they were forced to pass biker "tests" by feigning use of methamphetamines and marijuana. "They did such a good job in their undercover roles that they were accepted by the Hells Angels . . . and embraced by the Hells Angels," O'Brien said. " . . . (Now) we're taking major measures in their protection."
One of the suspected murder-for-hire plots involved David Wayne Dolat, 44, of Riviera, ArizAuthorities contend Dolat put out a hit on a prison inmate. He promised, according to court records, to pay the killer inmate $500 plus an additional $100 added to his account every Christmas.
Law enforcement experts say the Hells Angels have controlled Arizona biker turf since they moved in and absorbed the Dirty Dozen group about 17 years ago. The state has six chapters and an estimated 200 members, including Sonny Barger, iconic leaders of the international club distinguished by Harley Davidson motorcycles and a "Death's Head" logo. Barger, who lives in Cave Creek, was not among those arrested Tuesday.
Terry Katz, a Maryland state detective and past president of International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators, said Tuesday's arrests won't shut down Hells Angels operations here but could weaken the organization by eroding leadership.
"It would be presumptuous for anybody to say that this is going to cripple the Hells Angels," Katz said. "But they cannot recover to the level they were before."
Katz said the Hells Angels has been infiltrated previously, but the penetration by three agents is "quite a fete" and extremely dangerous. "You're in a room with people. If they discover who you are, you're going to get seriously hurt or killed."
The search warrant affidavit contains a detailed description of the Hells Angels organization and enterprises, designed to belie the claims of Barger and others that his club is a social fraternity of motorcycle enthusiasts.
It says an informer first tried to establish the Solos Angeles here nearly four years ago and won approval from two chapter presidents. However, the informer was rejected by the late Daniel "Hoover" Seybert, president of the Cave Creek chapter in Phoenix. (Seybert was shot and killed last year outside a popular club hang-out.)
The informer later was allowed to join the Red Devils, a support club created in south Tucson to combat drug-dealing efforts by the rival Bandidos biker outfit. The informer is suspected of feeding information to investigators on extortion, prostitution, gun running, drug dealing and other criminal activity.
The affidavit says undercover agents began consorting with Hells Angels leaders two years ago and eventually were accepted by club members, mostly felons. Their interactions were permeated with pot smoking, meth use and gun deals, but O'Brien said undercover agents never violated the law to perpetuate the cover.
Among the vivid allegations about Hells Angel life in the sworn declaration by an ATF agent:
• One suspect explained that he was making drug deliveries during the Laughlin River Run, a huge annual biker event, because law enforcement would be distracted. He also described an incident where up to 60 Angels beat up five police officers. And he explained how illicit profits were used to buy bulletproof vests.
• Club member George Walters, arrested and released after a casino shootout with members of the Mongols biker gang in April 2002, told undercover agents he has a "kill on sight" mentality toward members of the rival gang: "In front of the police, in front of the police station, I am going to blast them."
• Walters is suspecting of meeting with undercover agents last month and arming themselves for a major shootout in Las Vegas with members of the Bandidos gang. Those involved took "advantageous positions" at the meeting site, but no enemy gang members showed up.
• Dennis Denbesten, a member of the Nomad chapter in Flagstaff, is described in the affidavit as a drug user and manufacturer who was nicknamed "Chef Boyardee" because of his renown as a methamphetamines cook.
• Robert Reinstra, identified as sergeant-at-arms for the Skull Valley chapter, described his life in organized crime: "extortion, loan sharking, prostitution and, you know, racketeering." He supposedly told of shooting informers in his role as a "rat hunter."
• In February, Duane "Crow" Williams of the Mesa chapter is suspected of selling a 9mm pistol to an undercover agent, then explained that "he had used the firearm at pointblank range to shoot someone in the head; that blood spatters had landed on the barrel."
• Two months ago, Steve Helland, a member of the Hells Angels Nomad chapter in Golden Valley, told an undercover agent about the gunshot slaying of his son in May 2002. Helland is suspected of discussing how he would like to kidnap the suspect "and torture him with a butane torch," then dismember him.
Authorities said none of the murder-for-hire plots was carried out. But the list of suspects includes numerous ex-convicts, including some with arrests for murder, sexual assault and drug violations.
But Conley, of the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs, cautioned against considering Tuesday's arrests an indictment of the organization.
"There was a time that almost everybody in the motorcycle club might have been less of a citizen , more of a rebel," Conley said. "I think they realize that stuff doesn't pay. . . . I think what you'll find it that the vast majority of Angels didn't have anything to do with it."