SAN FRANCISCO—Sonny Barger seemed to be wiping tears from his eyes. He looked over at his attorney, blinking, and started to grin. The two men shook hands.
Penny Cooper, another lawyer, was moving to each of the four men in turn, giving each a congratulatory peck on the cheek. After seven weeks, it was over in a rush; Sonny Barger and three of his key lieutenants in the Hell’s Angels were found by a jury to be innocent of murdering Severo Agero, a fumbling Brownsville, Texas, dope dealer whose body was found in the bathtub of a burning Hayward, California, house last May. Barger and the others would remain in jail under heavy bail, awaiting trial on other charges related to drug dealing, but whatever hopes State Attorney General Evelle Younger had of this case decapitating what he claims is a key criminal syndicate in California appeared to be being dismissed along with the jury. Prosecutor Donald Whyte sat grimly at the opposite side of the courtroom. His case had collapsed when the jury refused to believe the state’s two key witnesses, both of them admitted petty dope dealers and cheap criminals.
In the end, it had been Barger himself who rescued the Angels. He took the stand calmly near the beginning of the defense case. To the charges that he put a .32 bullet in Agero’s head, he replied simply that he was home in bed with his girlfriend at the time of the murder. So much for that, but Barger went on in three days of defense and prosecution questioning to reveal the most candid explanation of the Hell’s Angels that anyone had heard—at least in the past three years.
Sonny lives in a bland-looking frame house in an upper middle-class section of the Oakland Hills. A mean-looking Doberman pinscher trots around inside the fence and signs hung randomly read: FREE SONNY.
But before he was busted, Sonny told the court, the security was even more necessary. “I sleep with an automatic under my pillow and an extra clip under the mattress,” he said matter-of-factly. He also said his house has 11 telephones to “conduct club business.” In a rear darkroom, he said, he makes phony drivers’ licenses.
But the bombshell came when Barger testified that over the past few years, he has frequently dealt with the Oakland police to turn over weapons or the locations of weapons to them in return for the release of jailed Angels. It was simple as that; the Angels paid off the police in guns they themselves had peddled to radicals or revolutionaries and in return the police let the Angels operate.
The claim might have been ignored as a bluff had not Inspector Edward Hilliard of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office taken the stand and admitted that he accepted guns, dynamite, grenades and even heavy machine guns from the Angels in return for deals on arrests. The deals covered hundreds of weapons in at least 15 different meetings between 1968 and the spring of last year.
In one case in particular, Hilliard made a deal to help Sergey Walton, a Barger lieutenant and co-defendant in the murder trial.
As Walton looked on from the defense table, Hilliard, a brusque, greying man, quietly told the court, “I told Mr. Barger and Mr. Walton that in the event they turned weapons and explosives over to me and Mr. Walton was found guilty I would make the information about weapons and explosives known to the judge for him to use as he saw fit.” Twenty of the 23 counts against Walton were dismissed.
Hilliard said the longstanding pact was arranged because he feared the weapons might fall into the hands of “subversives.”
In mid-1971, Hilliard elaborated, Barger called and asked to meet him behind a liquor store near Barger’s home.
“Mr. Barger got in the back seat,” the inspector testified. “He said he had read an article in a newspaper that had given him an idea. He said he knew that buildings were being bombed by the Weathermen and that we were not apprehending anyone.
“He said if we could have Hell’s Angels released from state prison he would have one body of a Weatherman delivered to us for every Hell’s Angel released.”
“And what did you say to that,” prosecutor Whyte asked.
“That it was absolutely out of the question.”
Despite all that, or maybe because of it, the jury found Sonny and the three other Angels not guilty. Even though Barger admitted on the stand that he made money off “narcotics deals,” the jury refused to buy the line of the state’s two informants that Sonny killed a cheap dope peddler from Texas. The Angel leader is still in jail in lieu of more than $100,000 bail awaiting trial on narcotics charges.
* * *
Up in Ukiah, 300 miles to the north of Oakland in the winter-thin hills of Mendocino County, George “Baby Huey” Weathern heard of the verdict in his jail cell. It was bad and good for Baby Huey. Within weeks, he would be on a witness stand himself testifying as a renegade, defying the code he had sworn with his Angel brothers during the years when he wore the colors—”One on all, all on one.”
But there was good news in the verdict for Weathern too, and that was part of the complication in his character that had left him filled with agony since he was arrested at his ranch and agreed to tell the cops about the two bodies they found buried there. It was said that when Weathern jabbed two sharpened pencils into his eyes November 7th, it was the act of a man terrified at retribution from the Angels for finking. Those who knew him better, though, said Baby Huey was punishing himself, performing penance for betraying Sonny.
Sonny Barger is undoubtedly the best friend George Weathern ever had.
George Weathern came out of high school in 1959 as a brooding, over-built kid who felt defensive enough about his bulk to be known by some as a bully and by others as a shy harmless bear of a young man. He came out of the urban squeeze of Oakland, anxious to get moving, but aimless, always looking for a handle. He took a job as a lathe operator and began hanging out in the beer halls where the tougher white dudes of Oakland made their evenings.
The toughest of them were the Angels, a uniformed band of heathens prepared to sack the village if necessary in an orgy of violence over the slightest insult.
George Weathern loved the image; he loved the macho style that made the Angels mythical monsters.
He met Sonny even before he joined the Angels in 1962. Barger was not just the prototype of Angel identity, although he served that role longer than any man. Barger could also be a kind, almost godfatherly figure, Even long after Baby Huey had severed his ties with the Angels as a club, he kept a picture of Sonny Barger prominently displayed in his home. It was a friendship built out of the deepest kind of devotion.
Baby Huey has been married now 14 years. His wife, Charlene, is a pixyish, sensitive woman whose whole life seems dedicated to George and their two children. It might be more so now that they can break away, however hard that is, into a new life.
Maybe like a lot of Angels, George has been a lover of symbols. They crop up everywhere in his life—in the motorcycles and the lifestyle of the Angels, in the gun collection he had put together over the years, in the blank, cruel stare he could effect if needed.
But people said those were just symbols. And Baby Huey used them as a shield and a camouflage.
Inside the club, at least according to Baby Huey, there was rarely any formal talk of dope dealing or gunrunning of the type the attorney general suggests had become an occupation with the Angels. In the meetings, which were farther and farther between as the years went on, the talk was of motorcycles and runs, parties and police, but seldom of dealings. That was left to individual members, who, like entrepreneurs, were in business for themselves. The club served as an impressive fraternity, one from which you drew your credentials, but not your living.
George Weathern says he got into business in 1965 when he met a famous West Coast maker of LSD. As an Angel, he had two big advantages: First, his bike made him extremely mobile in the state, and second, his colors made people afraid of him. It was a ploy being used by numerous Angels, although they, like Baby Huey, operated in small bands independent of the larger club itself. The club, in fact, took no orders. Sonny Barger had virtually absolute control over chartering a new club—a power that extended all the way to England—but he issued no unit orders. If anything, Barger served to be a peacemaker of disputes—or the supreme arbiter—in the growing organization. In some cases he could save a person’s life. He could also hand out small favors such as dope deals, Weathern said. Like a politician passing out patronage, he would leave open the question of repayment.
Baby Huey began serving as a distributor for big deals in acid. The money was spread among two or three other compatriots in the Angels, but none of it ever went to the club itself, nor would there be any reason to put it into the club. It went to George and Charlene and whomever was involved in the deal.
He was at the peak of his business in 1967 when he was asked by some people in the club to do a favor for one of the members being held in Oakland on drug charges. All Baby Huey, the gun collector, had to do was leave three machine guns at an Oakland hotel room, then call police and tell them of the weapons’ location. Charges against the other Angel were dropped, and Weathern never did learn of what happened to the guns, which he had purchased from another dealer. It was the kind of mysterious arrangement that was becoming common between Oakland authorities and the Angels, but the precise meaning of it is still unclear.
By 1968, Baby Huey was deep into narcotics dealing, and, short of heroin, was doing a substantial amount of drugs himself. Charlene wanted it to end, and so, for that matter, did Baby Huey. He had burned out a little in those years. The old macho image was fading with wear, and George decided to get out. The club itself had changed anyway, there were seldom meetings or runs. The older member hung out together as friends, but they wore their colors largely as advertisement and protection. He had even sold his bike.
In 1968, Weathern made his biggest deal, netting over $40,000 in cash. With his portion, Weathern intended to buy a ranch—a place to retreat. He took in as his partner an old Angel buddy, William “Zorro” Mitten, who paid half of the $25,000 in cash that purchased the 156-acre ranch just outside of Ukiah. It would be years before Baby Huey could actually expect to take his family and move there, but he began saving for that day, and making weekend trips up to the country to work on the ranch.
It was an afternoon in 1969. Baby Huey and Zorro were partying, and Weathern was ripped on some kind of animal tranquilizer they had been trying. Only it didn’t serve as a downer, it worked more like a twisting upper, and it made you paranoid and mean. Rats crawled out of the walls, the air was thick with fear; Zorro was part of it and so were the Angels. Baby Huey pulled out his .38 and shot Zorro four times.
* * *
Had it not been for Sonny, shooting Zorro Mitten might have been the most disastrous act Baby Huey ever committed. Zorro would not forget, and Weathern could expect his former buddy and partner in the ranch to want revenge. But in the beginning Sonny probably saved his life.
It was Sonny who calmed down Zorro and who paid him off by buying out Zorro’s share in the ranch. George’s admiration for Sonny Barger blossomed even more after that. He says, in fact, that he trusted Sonny so much and admired him so much that he thought the Angel’s leader was only testing him when he told him the ranch would have to accommodate the bodies of two would-be Angels killed at a wild Richmond, California, party and that of a young woman who still is unidentified.
Baby Huey was not there when the bodies were stuffed into abandoned wells on the property. As instructed, he said, he had left the keys to the gate with another Angel and stayed away that weekend. His attorney says Baby Huey privately doubted the bodies were really there right up to the time when he pointed the burial sites out to police who had been alerted by another Angel who had watched the two club hopefuls being murdered.
To talk about what he knows, Weathern has been granted immunity. Of course, he’ll have to give up the ranch when the trial is over and probably move to some other state where the approach of anyone looking remotely like a Hell’s Angel would be telegraphed to him like a prairie fire.
Baby Huey, or whatever is left of the person who bore that nickname, is well aware that some of his old friends who ran afoul of Sonny and other Angels just aren’t around anymore. Nobody knows what happened to Animal or Tiny or a couple of the other dudes who used to sling their weight over hogs and grin in that evil sneer that mocked the death’s head symbol they wore on their backs.
“He still won’t believe it,” a source close to Weathern said. “Nobody like George wants to believe that Sonny would order the murder of another Angel, renegade or not. It would be like fratricide.”
In no way are the Angels finished. Weathern himself says the club has grown in recent years, particularly in California. But there are two kinds of Angels—one kind who ride bikes like they were bent on suicide and another kind who are deep in dope-related crime that does not necessarily stop at murder. Where Sonny stands is apparently somewhere in the middle.
Baby Huey? It’s not Baby Huey anymore, it’s brother George, devout student of Catholicism who now prays dutifully every night and goes to Mass as much as possible and keeps a crucifix in an honored spot just as he used to keep a picture of Sonny Barger.
Like people said, George Weathern always did like symbols.