‘Robbie’, an Adelaide-based member of the Finks Motorcycle Club, got a new tattoo to celebrate the South Australian government's war on bikies. He now has the word ‘Finks' emblazoned across his throat in bold green type. It was an indescribably painful process, but Robbie, a 25-year veteran of the club, endured it for what the tattoo symbolises. He is not going to hide away, nor submit to the labels anybody else might give him. He has a criminal record and has done time, but he refuses to be typecast as a criminal. He operates on a different plane altogether, willing to do some short jail terms in order to maintain a life of medieval-style knight errantry. If they send him back to prison, it will just give him more time to master the Navajo flute, which he has been learning to play.
At the same time, Robbie's new tattoo sends a message to his club mates. Their membership is not something they can wear, like a suit or a piece of jewellery, then put away in the cupboard when it's inconvenient. It's not an image that can be used to intimidate weaker beings for personal gain. It's a commitment, one for which a member must be prepared to sacrifice his liberty, and possibly even his life.
The strength of that commitment will soon be tested. The South Australian premier, Mike Rann, has just enacted what he calls the toughest anti-bikie laws in the world - which would suggest that the state is in the grip of some major bikie activity. Rann has said that his Serious and Organised Crime legislation was partly inspired by the commonwealth government's anti-terrorism laws, enacted after the London and Madrid bombings. In reality, it gives the police what they have always wanted: a lower burden of proof, making it easier to get convictions for offences already covered by existing laws.
The new law provides that the state's attorney-general, acting on advice from the police, can declare any group of people a criminal gang and then prohibit members from associating with each other, through the use of control orders. If the members meet or communicate six times in a year, they will face up to five years in jail. There will be no review or judicial appeal, nor can the clubs or individuals gain access to the intelligence on which the control order is based.
In a legal first for an Australian state, the police will also be able to ban the wearing of insignia in public if it deems that community safety is compromised. This amounts to a legally enforceable dress code. And to enforce it, the police will only have to satisfy a "balance of probabilities", rather than prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubt. South Australia's attorney-general, Michael Atkinson, has proudly described this as "a social experiment" and branded his state "a laboratory" for others to observe in their own struggles with bikies.
Remarkably, the director of public prosecutions, Stephen Pallaras, QC, has told the Adelaide media that the new legislation doesn't go far enough. "Why do we tolerate [the clubs'] existence?" he said. The answer is that their existence is still legal, at least until 1 July, when the new law comes into force. The organisations' clubhouses are set up in accordance with council by-laws; their members are subject to the same legal framework as any other citizens. Over nearly four years of monitoring the media coverage of bikies, I have read on numerous occasions the phrase ‘outlawed motorcycle gangs', as if the clubs were already proscribed. They are not.
Premier Rann has said that the old laws were not sufficient. The bikies have been able to thwart police by hiring the best lawyers in town - hence the lowering of the evidentiary hurdles. This reinforces the popular belief that bikie gangs have become a new kind of organised crime, pursuing anarchic goals while cleverly working the legal political system to their advantage. In reality, there are no legal precedents in Australia to suggest that these clubs are set up for the purpose of criminal activity. Their hierarchies are not structured to facilitate crime, as they would be in dedicated drug syndicates. No club stipulates that members must have a criminal record or commit an offence to join. It would be ridiculous to suggest there aren't criminals involved - there are accomplished villains in most chapters - but it's equally fatuous to maintain, as South Australian authorities have, that the motorcycle is a mere prop, a cover. Illegal activities tend to be decentralised, carried out in groups of two or three members and often with accomplices from outside the club. The uneven distribution of wealth among club members is ample evidence of that. At most, clubs provide a permeable membrane through which criminals can pass back and forth, enlisting hard men to resolve their business disputes.
There are regular arrests and convictions of club members across Australia, for offences ranging from drugs and extortion to murder and assault, but I am yet to see any Australian club convicted or even accused of a criminal conspiracy. In January 2006, the president of the Club Deroes in Western Australia, Phillip William Rowles, was arrested for possession of methamphetamine. The overheated media reporting of Rowles' arrest implied that police were set to reveal the hidden world of Bikies Inc. Rowles was caught with 8 kilograms of tablets that tested positive to morphine and methamphetamine, some laboratory glassware and a thousand rounds of shotgun ammunition. I waited for the follow-up, the arrest of co-conspirators, the exposure of the inner workings of a club-wide plot, but I was disappointed. In March this year, Rowles was finally sentenced to just seven and a half months in jail. A few of his associates were busted for owning bongs and possessing cannabis, but it was hardly a win for the ban-the-bikies lobby. One report suggested hopefully that police investigations "were continuing and more charges might be laid". We are still waiting.
This is not to say that there aren't large numbers of bikies involved in the illegal-drug trade. Most clubs are experiencing tension between the haves and have-nots within their ranks. The ice epidemic is having the same social effect on bikie clubs as it is in the wider population. Heroin use has long been banned in clubs worldwide, and now members caught using or dealing ice are likely to be kicked out of the club and their motorcycles confiscated. In some extreme cases, they may also have their club tattoos forcibly removed, such is the hostility towards the powerful amphetamine. This reflects practicality, rather than temperance. Drug addicts in custody will tell police anything to escape the horrors of withdrawal. Bike clubs are one of the few institutions in which a code of silence still exists, and drugs like ice represent the biggest threat to that solidarity. They are dividing clubs internally, and creating conflict between clubs that had previously left each other alone.
Some motorcycle clubs have been on recruiting drives in recent years, in order to defend themselves from attacks by other clubs. It's the new soldiers, though, who invariably start the wars. This was the lesson learnt from the case of the former Hells Angel Christopher Wayne Hudson, who pleaded guilty in May to murdering one and wounding two others in a busy Melbourne street in June 2007.
Hudson had been a Gold Coast Fink, until he proved too hot to handle and defected to the Hells Angels. His former colleagues were happy to see him go. He might have been a useful tool for the Angels in their long-running feud with the Finks, but soon he was beyond their command, too. In March 2006, he sparked a wild gunfight at the Royal Pines Resort. Hudson was shot in the jaw but survived, much to the disappointment of the Finks - and some Angels. On the outer with the Gold Coast Hells Angels, he drifted to Melbourne, bingeing on drugs and booze all the way. Early one morning, a psychotic rage overwhelmed him and he bashed his girlfriend, 24-year-old Kaera Douglas, on a city street. When two bystanders came to her aid, Hudson opened fire with a handgun, wounding Douglas and a 25-year-old Dutch backpacker, Paul de Waard, and killing a 43-year-old solicitor, Brendan Keilar. While on the run, Hudson is believed to have visited local Hells Angels, who arranged for his club tattoo to be removed, ending his association with the organisation. Hudson's actions in Melbourne were entirely self-motivated, yet his murderous rampage has strengthened calls for a national approach to bikie clubs. The Australian Crime Commission had already begun lobbying for this, gathering intelligence from state police to build a case for a national taskforce.
A curious story appeared in the Age newspaper some months before the Melbourne shooting. The accompanying image was designed to chill the blood of all upstanding citizens. A parade of bikers snaked its way through the leafy streets of Melbourne's east. They rode four abreast, disobeying road rules, and you could almost smell them through the newsprint: the stink of sweat and axle grease. The caption warned that this was "One of Victoria's 17 bikie gangs [taking] to the streets". But it was nothing of the sort. There was not a single rider wearing club colours, nor any other club insignia. It is law in such bike clubs that public runs are conducted in full colours. Bikie runs in mufti are about as likely as diggers marching on Anzac Day in Hawaiian shirts. No one, in fact, could say who the motorcyclists were. Professor Arthur Veno, of Monash University and Australia's leading bikie expert, said they were probably just a Harley-owners group on a run through town, or perhaps it was a bike club's open day that included members of the public.
The accompanying story raised yet more questions: ‘Outlaw Gangs Make Killing' suggested the Australian Crime Commission had discovered that bikers were expanding from drug trading into legitimate industries. "[Bikie] involvement in outwardly legitimate business enterprises is potentially impacting adversely on a number of key market sectors in Australia, including finance, transport, private security, entertainment, natural resources and construction," the ACC had told the Age. This was serious. Bikies, it seemed, were taking over the world. I called the ACC to get the source material. The dossier was a page and a half. I called the ACC back and asked for clarification, for some examples of the evil conglomerate's activities. I emailed my questions; the ACC promised to respond. It did not. Finally, I contacted the ACC spokesman, who was not allowed to speak to me. He broke ranks and said that all at the ACC were too busy. Perhaps spreading fear is a full-time job.
Victoria has 17 operating bikie clubs, but they cause remarkably little trouble. It's quite a stretch to say that club membership carries the certainty of criminal connection, any more than membership of the Melbourne Club makes one a tax cheat.
In the US, the FBI has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years trying to prosecute bike clubs. In all but two or three cases, it has failed in this. And if the Hells Angels is the most potent organised-crime group in the US, then its iconic world leader, Ralph ‘Sonny' Barger, has a question for his compadres in crime: "Why isn't someone giving me my share of the money? They say I am the boss!"
When I spoke to him, Barger, who is in his late sixties and for almost half a century has been a Hells Angel, was standing in the backyard of a modest home in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona, cleaning out his horse stalls. His list of assets was modest indeed for an alleged crime kingpin: a mortgaged house, a leased truck, two dogs, three horses and a five-year-old Harley Davidson motorcycle. For three decades, Barger was the president of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels. This group became the template for the spread of Angels chapters and bikie culture around the world. Then, in 1992, after serving time in prison, Barger decided the desert life was for him and left northern California behind. He became a member of the Cave Creek chapter, near Phoenix. When I met him, he looked remarkably fit, despite losing his larynx to cancer in the early 1980s and surviving two heart attacks in the '90s. Like many Californian exiles, he came to the south-west to find freedom, but the urban sprawl had reached his doorstep and he was planning to move further into the desert.
Arizona is a major transit point for America's methamphetamine trade. Seizures of the drug on the border with Mexico are doubling each year, and the Hells Angels are widely regarded as the prime suspects. So, in July 2003, to much public acclaim, law-enforcement agencies launched a massive offensive against the Angels in Arizona. Operation Black Biscuit was touted by the media as "the most successful undercover operation ever pulled on an outlaw motorcycle club." Three-dozen suspects were charged with gunrunning, freelance murder and narcotics violations. Five months later, 16 Angels and associates, including three chapter presidents, were charged with racketeering, conspiracy, murder and drug dealing.
According to reports, the government assembled 800 hours of bugged conversations, 92,000 phone calls and 8500 seized documents to prove that the Hells Angels was a criminal enterprise. Investigators confiscated computers and files allegedly containing drug ledgers, membership lists, meeting minutes and records of by-laws. Yet, despite all this evidence, Barger said, when police raided the Cave Creek chapter they had only a warrant for a computer: no members were to be arrested.
"They seemed to think that because I was supposedly the boss, they would find all the records of our state-wide criminal activity in our computer," he said. The cops came expecting a war, swooping on the clubhouse before dawn. "They knocked down the back fence [with an armoured car]; they killed our dog; they broke through the back of the building; they shot out every window; they shot our prospect [a would-be member] three times when he answered the door ... all in just 14 seconds." The police claimed that the prospect had drawn a weapon and fired at them. But after the biker was charged with aggravated assault, forensic tests showed that his gun had not been fired. An Arizona judge described the Cave Creek raid as an attack, and deemed all evidence inadmissible in future proceedings.
Barger called Operation Black Biscuit a publicity stunt that will have no effect on the speed trade. Not one of the Hells Angels charged with drug offences was arrested with more than one gram of the drug, and "that's personal use". Ultimately, all 16 Angels charged with racketeering were acquitted. While Barger conceded that Hells Angels have dealt drugs in the past, he insisted that the club is no drug cartel. He could recall Angels being busted for manufacturing amphetamines only twice in 50 years. America's Drug Intelligence Center concurs, and has suggested that Mexican gangs control the manufacture and distribution of speed in America's south-west. The bikers rate a mention only as a minor player further down the retail chain.
"We do have criminals in our club," Barger told me. "I was a criminal in our club, but that does not mean the club is a criminal organisation. Is the Catholic priesthood a criminal organisation? In the last few years we have seen hundreds of cases of child molestation: does that make the priesthood a criminal organisation?" According to Barger, the FBI has created an industry for itself by pursuing and harassing the club. "If they got rid of me and the Hells Angels, if we were wiped off the face of the Earth, crime would not reduce by a tenth of 1%. Whatever club took our place - no matter who they they were, whatever their name - they would still be referred to as those guys who are acting like Hells Angels. People don't know us - they fear us. Everybody who knows us doesn't fear us. That is the big problem: fear of the unknown."
He might be understating the aggression that motorcycle clubs harness and sometimes fail to contain. While on a visit to Adelaide last October, I became aware that young members of two bikie clubs were hunting each other. I was told to stay away from Currie Street, in the city's entertainment precinct. Just after 1.30 am on Sunday, 14 October, a 23-year-old man, an innocent bystander, was wounded in a drive-by shooting outside the Gemini Gaming Lounge, in Currie Street. Later I was told that the attack was not sanctioned by the leadership of the clubs involved. In fact, it was a public-relations disaster. In the aftermath of the shooting, the leaders of both organisations worked to ensure there was no retaliation.
Nothing in the Rann government's anti-crime package could have prevented this violence, or helped bring the perpetrators to justice. Nothing but tighter gun laws could have prevented it, or for that matter the shooting in Melbourne. A constructive relationship between clubs and police could even prevent some violence. I have witnessed the tireless efforts of some club elders to control and counsel members who would otherwise run amok. Dismantling clubs might simply unleash more Christopher Wayne Hudsons on society.
In New South Wales, Operation Ranmore is achieving results without curtailing the right of association. The gang-squad chief, Detective Superintendent Scott Whyte, is targeting criminals in the clubs, not the clubs themselves. "They didn't believe it at first, but now it's sinking in. We are going after the criminals," he said. Nearly 200 club members or associates were arrested in the first four months of the operation, with 580 charges laid, most of them relating to drugs, weapons or assault. Using existing laws, Whyte's team is also pursuing cases in which assets may have been acquired through crime. Task Force Hydra, in Queensland, has also been attacking crime in bike clubs without lobbying for racketeering legislation.
Cops involved in policing bikies in Queensland and NSW say repeatedly that banning clubs and proscribing association is a political act that only diverts resources away from genuine law-enforcement problems. The worst-case scenario would be a national banning of motorcycle clubs, driving the moderates into the hardliners' camp. Such action would only serve to tighten the bonds between club mates. It would provide further evidence of a conspiracy, a social contract that excludes their kind. And every misanthrope and murderer would be queuing up to join a club.
The polite citizenry views bikies through the prism of police action and media reports, aside from the occasional noisy cavalcade when members ride through town on their club runs. This is a difficult time in which to stand aside from society's norms, to declare allegiance to a code at odds with mainstream thought and display symbols of alternative values. But that hasn't stopped Muslim-Australian women from wearing headscarves to protest against religious intolerance, and it hasn't stopped members of motorcycle gangs from wearing their colours proudly to proclaim their brotherhood. As a national crackdown on bikies looms, the righteousness of all club members is being assessed: some have gone to ground; some have surrendered their club patches. For the remainder, perhaps about 10%, the pressure is hardening their resolve to fight. It is a battle they will surely lose, but there will nevertheless be casualties on both sides.
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