B.C.'s Hells Angels: Rich and Powerful
Canada is a haven for the outlaw motorcycle gang, with more members per capita than any other country. B.C's Angels have mounted an effective public-relations campaign that portrays them as harmless motorcycle enthusiasts, but they maintain a fearsome reputation in the criminal underworld. The rich and powerful Hells Angels motorcycle club in B.C. -- whose members largely eluded criminal charges and flew below society's radar screen for two decades -- are now expanding across the province, bolstering their multi-million-dollar business network and cementing their territorial stake on organized crime.
The expansion is partly because they are protecting their turf from the Bandidos. A rival U.S. outlaw motorcycle gang with deep roots in neighbouring Washington state, the Bandidos have moved into Alberta and are threatening to set up shop in B.C.
Last January a Bandidos member was fatally shot outside a strip club in Edmonton, where the Texas-based motorcycle gang has established a probationary chapter.
But the Hells Angels expansion is also a savvy business move by a successful and powerful organization with a legendary reputation that is growing internationally.
Eight years ago, there were 70 so-called full-patch members and five chapters in B.C. Today, there are 95 members spread across seven chapters: Vancouver, East End, Haney, White Rock, Mission, the Nomads and Nanaimo.
There are also plans for a new Kelowna chapter and there's talk of another chapter in Surrey, where a so-called shadow support club was established months ago.
The Renegades, an outlaw motorcycle group in Prince George that has about a dozen members, is a Hells Angels puppet club.
The Hells Angels, a predominantly white organization, has roughly 2,000 members worldwide, with chapters in Canada, the U.S., Europe, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and South America.
Canada has more Hells Angels members per capita than any other country, including the U.S., where there are chapters in about 20 states.
At the same time as B.C.'s Hells Angels became some of the wealthiest bikers in the country, they've used a public relations campaign to establish an image as a harmless club of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Sure, a few members have criminal records, the club maintains, but any large organization has people who have run-ins with the law. That doesn't make them a criminal organization, the Hells Angels say.
But in the criminal underworld, the Hells Angels have a fearsome reputation.
The trial last year of contract killer Mickie (Phil) Smith heard evidence that one of Smith's five murder victims was Paul Percy Soluk, 33, who had ripped off Hells Angels marijuana-growing operations. Smith said he was told by an Asian gangster named Brian, who arranged the murder, that it was being done for the East End chapter of the Hells Angels.
Police never found the body of Soluk, who was killed in 1999. Smith, a 56-year-old former life-insurance salesman, confessed to an undercover officer posing as a crime boss that Soluk was located in a Surrey crack house and taken to a garage in Surrey, where he was shot.
Smith said a man he called Yurik helped chop up the body and dispose of it.
"He's not an Angel but he works with the Angels," Smith said of Yurik. "I know he's done lots of hits."
Police said the Smith case underscores how Hells Angels distance themselves from crimes that could put them behind bars for life, instead contracting out to other gangsters -- a marriage of convenience, of sorts.
So far, Hells Angels in B.C. have avoided the kind of violent and bloody public turf war that erupted on Montreal streets with the rival Rock Machine biker gang, which sparked the political will and funding to target the bikers and prosecute them on charges of murder, extortion, drug trafficking and making money from prostitution.
Here in B.C., the Hells Angels have operated largely unopposed by rival biker gangs, allowing them to consolidate operations.
"They are disciplined and well led," said RCMP Insp. Bob Paulson, who is in charge of major investigations involving outlaw motorcycle gangs.
Although the Angels have a reputation for violence and retaliation, for the most part B.C. has not seen the deaths of innocent victims caught in the crossfire, unlike Montreal, where the death of a young boy outraged the public, who pressured politicians to take action.
"Arguably there are a number of murders attributed to the HA in B.C., but they're all kind of within their element . . . there was no spillover," Paulson said.
But even without the kind of street warfare that erupted in Quebec, having the Hells Angels spread across B.C. is expected to create spinoff effects from increased underworld activity, including rising insurance rates to cover damage caused by marijuana-growing operations in houses.
The huge profits reaped from the drug trade, police say, have been used by Hells Angels to establish legitimate businesses ranging from trucking firms and retail cellular-phone outlets to travel agencies, coffee bars and hip clothing stores.
Members of the public generally do not know they are frequenting businesses owned by Hells Angels members, since police chose for years not to publicize that information.
And many Hells Angels use nominees -- trusted associates who register companies in their names -- to hide business assets, police say.
Vancouver police chief Jamie Graham vowed to "shine the light" on Hells Angels activity when he took over as chair last August of the national strategy to combat outlaw motorcycle gangs for the Canadian Association of Chief of Police.
The public is also affected by the hundreds of Hells Angels "associates" -- a network of friends of club members who have been known to infiltrate the country's ports, phone companies, the post office and other government offices where private information can be obtained about citizens who run afoul of the Angels.
"The ports is an example where they use their associates to facilitate criminal activity," said Inspector Andy Richards, in charge of the outlaw motorcycle gang unit within the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, the successor to the Organized Crime Agency of B.C.
"The telephone company, or Shaw Cable or ICBC, that's an example where they've just got this wide-range of contacts ... where they can just make a phone call and get something done, if they need to, for example, run a licence plate," Richards said.
Hells Angels members also have used the collective muscle of the organization to push aside competitors in certain business ventures, he said.
There used to be six or seven agencies that handled strippers in Vancouver, but now two are controlled by the Angels or associates and one is an independent, Richards said.
In the early 1990s, Richards said, the now-dead Hells Angels member Donald Roming was one of the key enforcers helping push others out of the stripper business -- at one point seriously assaulting one of the owners of another agency.
"Without speaking ill of the dead, he was responsible for laying a very serious beating on a 67-year-old man who was involved with one of the independent companies at the time, to the point this guy was hospitalized," he explained.
There were no arrests from these "takeovers" because of the victims' reluctance to report the activities to police, he added.
Over the years, Richards has seen two levels of Hells Angels develop: "You're seeing the original old-timers, some of whom are 9-to-5ers who have legitimate jobs driving a truck."
A lot of the old guys are in it for camaraderie and brotherhood, he said, but most of the younger guys are in it for the money, the power and the respect that the Hells-Angels patch commands. "The younger guys see it as a real entrepreneurial activity to get into the club, to have that protective layer around you, to make money," Richards said.
But not all the old-timers are members just for the camaraderie. Some are masters of setting up shell companies to manipulate the stock market in what are called "pump and dump" schemes -- buying shares to drive up price, then selling before the price begins dropping, police say.
The Hells Angels have also been allowed to grow and prosper in B.C. since members of Vancouver's Satan's Angels motorcycle gang originally became Hells Angels in a "patch over" in 1983. For years, there were very few successful prosecutions against full-patch members.
Paulson points to the East End chapter, a wily bunch of individuals who successfully have eluded convictions, despite a number of charges that ended up in stays or acquittals.
"They've long been held up to be the seminal chapter, not just in B.C. but in Canada," he said. "They're wealthy, they're influential and they're successful at avoiding us."
Only in the last decade has B.C.'s patchwork-quilt of municipal and RCMP police forces reorganized their attack on the Hells Angels. They now point to a dozen or so recent successful prosecutions to show police are finally making inroads.
The RCMP for the second-straight year has identified five priority organized-crime groups to target. Outlaw motorcycle gangs -- essentially the Hells Angels and its puppet clubs -- are in the No. 1 spot for the second time.
The Mounties in B.C. have also developed a list of the top-20 organized-crime figures in B.C. and nearly half are Hells Angels members.
"Prosecutions are tough," Vancouver police Chief Jamie Graham said in an interview. But he pointed out: "We're working smarter than we ever have before."
Some officers feel their superiors blew two rare chances in the past decade to turn insiders into informants and bust some top-level Hells Angels and other high-echelon gangsters.
One of the most shocking examples of how police dropped the ball was the Western Wind debacle, detailed in the recent book The Road to Hell: How the Biker Gangs are Conquering Canada. Written by Julian Sher and William Marsden, the book explains how the RCMP in B.C. had a chance to nail drug-dealers for $330 million worth of cocaine when a Vancouver Island fisherman offered to help the Mounties intercept a drug shipment between Colombians and the Hells Angels aboard the vessel Western Wind, which was headed for Victoria.
The fisherman wanted to be paid $1 million and be placed in witness protection, but the RCMP declined the offer; U.S. authorities intercepted the boat loaded with more than two tonnes of cocaine, but no one was ever charged, says the book, which contains sharp criticism of the RCMP's handling of the botched case.
One of those who worked on the Western Wind file was former RCMP officer Pat Convey, now an inspector with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit. Convey was among those critical in the book of the handling of the case. "It happened and I'm not going to go into it again," he said in an interview. "Yes, I got my knuckles rapped [for speaking out in the book]. I'm not in the RCMP any more."
Could the same problem arise again? "We're human beings and human beings make mistakes," replied Convey. "I think it's unlikely it would happen again."
Meanwhile, the prospect of a fifth-anniversary party for the Angels' Mission chapter appeared to raise little interest in the Fraser Valley town on Friday. Staff-Sgt. Jack Robinson of the Mission RCMP detachment said extra members will be on duty over the weekend to keep an eye on the party.
He said previous anniversary parties at the clubhouse had been without incident.
© The Vancouver Sun 2004