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Hell’s Angels: Masters of Menace

This infamous gang has traded its colors and cycles for dark suits and Lincoln Continentals

Hells AngelsHells Angels

Hells Angels local member from New York consoles mourner from California for Vincent Girolamo outside of Provenzano Funeral Home, 1979.

Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

IT WAS THE WINTER OF 1976 when the twins and their mother first appeared in the Oregon village of Laurelwood. They moved into a small cottage under the ponderosa and kept to themselves. The mother, a sad-eyed woman of twenty-five, worked intently inside the cottage. She rarely left, except to drive her two six-year-old girls home from first grade each day.

The young family seemed scared, on the run perhaps, but with the spring thaw, they began to relax. The woman started making friends with some people from town, the dark-haired twins got to play outside after school, and the secret of their mother’s project even slipped out.

She was writing a book, an autobiography of her life back in California with the Hell’s Angels. It was a story with names and places. How the Angels had forced her into prostitution, kept her on drugs, brutalized her. How she finally had escaped from them and turned state’s evidence.

The twins were too young to know all the details. But they understood that their mother was hiding from some men, and they knew the faces of those men. Or at least the men thought so.

It was the summer of 1977 when the family’s pursuers found the Oregon hide-out. The men entered boldly and exacted revenge from the mother with a bullet behind her ear. Then, to make certain no one would ever identify them, the businesslike hit men squeezed off three more shots at close range — one for the nineteen-year-old local boy who was visiting the family and two for the twins, who were found lying facedown on their blood-soaked beds.

Who killed Margo Compton, her two children and the local youth? No one knows for sure. The police have some prime suspects, of course, but the murder, like so many previous murders attributed to the suspected assassins, has never been solved…

EXCEPT FOR THE CHAIN-LINK fence, there is nothing to distinguish Sonny Barger’s white frame house in this pleasant neighborhood at the eastern edge of Oakland, California. Barger keeps the place up to suburban standards. There is fresh paint on the shutters, azaleas in the flower boxes, new grass on the lawn.

The friends who visit seem prosperous. They drive Lincoln Continentals or Chevy Corvettes and dress fashionably, sometimes in three-piece business suits. Yet it took several phone calls and weeks of persistence to get past the locked gate that keeps away the uninvited.

The men in the dark suits and expensive cars are members of the Hell’s Angels, once the baddest gang on two wheels. Barger had been their longtime leader. The Angels are older now and ride their fabled motorcycles infrequently, their lifestyles having grown more conservative. But they still don’t like strangers.

Barger has recently returned from four and a half years at Folsom Prison. In the old days he wore his hair slicked back, as if facing a perpetual highway wind. Now he is forty and his hair is flecked with gray and curls around his ears. His arms and chest bulge with prison-gym muscles, but his face looks pudgy and almost agreeable.

We meet on a chilly night in fall 1978, about ten p.m., when the Angels’ day really begins. Inside Barger’s house, his wife, Sharon, a former local beauty queen, distributes cups of coffee. I refuse mine and Barger lightheartedly waves it back toward me, saying, “It’s okay, you can drink it. We didn’t put anything in it.”

The living room is overburdened with gold plaques, wood carvings, mirrors and rugs, all bearing Angels death’s-head epigraphs. Another room is crammed with boxes of Angels memorabilia that were packed away during Sonny’s stay in Folsom. A huge, glass-top coffee table bears the inscription SONNY BARGER, PRESIDENT, HELL’S ANGELS.

His three top lieutenants — Sergey Walton, Jim-Jim Brandes and Kenny Owen — lounge about on leather easy chairs. As of this writing, all three are thirty-four; Walton has been an Angel for eighteen years, Brandes for fourteen. Both live within a mile of Barger. Owen, who lives across the county line in Vallejo, joined the organization eleven years ago.

Walton has the familiar outlaw beard, but he could pass for a junior college professor. Brandes might be a cheery saloonkeeper with a premature belly and prairie drawl. Owen has a tall boxer’s physique — taut and virile as a Greek statue — and a fierce, untamed mass of black curls and beard, but his eyes are unfocused and his manner seems turbid.

They do not look like what police call a triumvirate with an absorbing ambition to corner the amphetamine market in northern California. But they have been arrested and jailed several times, and they have set local records in making six-figure and seven-figure bails. Yet they have never been convicted of a capital crime.

Prosecution witnesses often develop faulty memories when a Hell’s Angels case comes to trial. One witness walked into a courtroom, saw ten Angels crowded onto the back bench, and walked out. Witnesses who take the stand seem to have a high rate of mortality. The Angels have a reputation for a calculated, Mafia-style violence that removes all who stand in their way.

The conversation at Barger’s house is peppered with old adventures, old crimes, old sexual conquests: the time park rangers stopped Barger and some other Angels with two trussed-up recruits kicking and yelling in their car trunk; the time police climbed the fence at Brandes’ house, encountered a pet lion and quickly jumped back over; the rime the 1967 Mr. America carried a pound of cocaine into a police trap set for Barger.

But as the night wears on and the coffee gives way to beer, the talk turns to a pending attempted murder conspiracy case against Brandes and Owen. One of the Angels’ dealers has testified against them in a pretrial hearing, but he seemed scared and ashamed, a man whose nerve had lapsed.

“I wonder if he’ll show up at the trial?” I ask.

A hint of menace appears on the Angels’ faces.

“Maybe he’ll just crawl back into whatever hole he came out of,” Walton says, his voice flat, emotionless.

“But what will you do if he does show up?” I press.

Brandes leans forward. He smiles without showing his teeth and speaks softly. 

“I’d just like five minutes alone with him. I think I could change his mind.”

THE HELL’S ANGELS FIRST took to the road in California during the postwar Forties. Mostly carousing bikers out to raise hell and trample convention, they wore red-and-white skull “colors” on their backs and galleries of tattoos on their arms. Their violence was generally not lethal and their victims were most often thrill-seeking young women or reckless rivals on choppers. Police considered the Angels an outrageous, but public, nuisance. In a typical case in 1968, sixteen members of the motorcycle gang were arrested for unlawful assembly when folks in a quiet California town objected to women leaving an Angels party with blouses unbuttoned and bras unfastened.

On holidays, the Angels converged on Bass Lake, a remote resort town in the Sierra foothills where they partied until they were falling-down drunk and did their best to leave unwary tourists with a lifelong trauma. After a while the town council offered the Angels money to stay away.

Other maverick bikers loved their swagger, and Angel chapters sprang up in Switzerland, West Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia and across the U.S. But the Angels essentially remained a creation of California, where the club once had eleven chapters and a membership of 300. The Angels leadership was headquartered in Oakland, a hard-luck working-class area across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. Red neon signs blink on every night over hundreds of beer halls in this territory known as the East Bay. It was here that things started turning ugly for the Angels in the late Sixties.

The outlaw bikers, who had discovered LSD and marijuana before middle-class hippies did, began cashing in on the new trade in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. At. the same time, the Angels’ fondness for swastika politics drove them to savage discourse with antiwar longhairs; they rode their bikes through one peace rally and brawled with marchers during others.

Nonetheless, they were hired in 1969 to provide security for the Altamont rock festival in California. Overzealous as always, the Angels fatally stomped and stabbed a black man in front of the stage. By the early Seventies the organization was desolate. In quick succession, a host of portrait photographs were posted on the Oakland clubhouse walls to commemorate a grim attrition. Terry the Tramp and German died of overdoses. Magoo expired from a heart attack, Whispering Bill Pifer succumbed to cancer. Tiny, Stork and Monk were murdered, apparently the casualties of internal rivalries. George “Baby Huey” Wetherh disappeared into the counterfeit world of protected federal informants.

Baby Huey had once been Sonny Barger’s best friend. He had joined the Angels as an awkward, hulking teenager and become one of the club’s most devoted scrappers and vice-president of the Oakland chapter, which Barger headed. Baby Huey was among the first to weary of the pace, and in 1969 he quit the club and retreated to a 153-acre ranch a couple of hours north. But he let the Angels use the ranch’s abandoned wells as burial sites for three murder victims. When another Angel tipped off police to the morbid cache in 1972, Baby Huey was unwilling to serve as scapegoat. Instead, he betrayed his mentor and friends. Placed in protective custody, Wethern stabbed pencils in both eyes in a moment of frenzied regret, but he survived to give testimony that imprisoned four Angels.

Barger eluded prosecution, but later the same year he had to stand trial on charges relating to the execution of an unreliable Texas cocaine courier, a murder Sonny allegedly carried out while he was dressed in a dark suit and surrounded by his lieutenants. Barger had a fearless presence, even though he stood a modest five foot ten and weighed a mere 145 pounds. His command, which extended to all California chapters, had gone unchallenged since 1957. He had starred alongside Jack Nicholson in Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967) and had been the iconoclastic hero in Hunter Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels.

The jury acquitted Barger of the murder charge, but he was finally put away in spring 1973 for drug and firearms violations. The judge ordered that he be denied parole for at least ten years.

Barger’s exile left the Angels of East Bay without an obvious leader. Sergey Walton, his second-in-command, probably would have inherited the role, but he also went to prison in 1973 for cocaine possession. Instead, Walton’s protégé, Jim-Jim Brandes, became the power in Oakland, and Brandes’ friend, Kenny Owen, emerged as a leader in Vallejo. Brandes met Walton in 1965 when both were twenty and serving time in Susanville Prison, Brandes for check forgery and Walton for stealing a Harley-Davidson. Walton won Brandes over with his good-times tales, and as Walton’s prominence in the club grew, so did Brandes’. And, because of their access to Barger, so did their authority.

Brandes is an unemployed mechanic. He sometimes appears slow and sleepy, usually after marathons of hyper-activity, but he is someone who can slide into a quick fury. “He’s nobody’s fool,” says a one-time associate, “though he sometimes lets you think he is.”

Al Prater, a friend from prison, ingratiated himself with Brandes by killing a man who had tried to ambush Jim-Jim. But, as a former Angel told police, Prater then tried to exploit Brandes’ personable nature. Al’s final indiscretion was the theft of an Angel’s Harley engine block, and Brandes’ reaction was not sentimental. According to the ex-Angel, Brandes shot Prater and Prater’s wife in the head and dumped their bodies in a remote area. (However, Brandes claims the ex-Angel was the murderer.)

Kenny Owen supposedly is more easygoing than Brandes. “Kenny is real mellow,” Brandes says. “He lets people get away with stuff that I’d kill them for.” However, Owen’s career in Vallejo benefited, according to a former associate, from a series of killings to which he gave his cynical blessing.

Drug dealer Gail English was murdered in November 1973, allegedly for intruding on Owen’s Vallejo drug franchise. The Vallejo chapter president allegedly shot English because of Owen’s complaint, but was himself killed in the shoot-out Informants said the next two presidents were also eliminated; one was welded inside a fifty-five-gallon drum and dumped in the bay. As a result, Owen inherited control.

Vallejo is a humble borough of small stucco buildings and 75,000 residents in Solano County, thirty-five miles north of Oakland. Streets on the outskirts of Vallejo are unpaved, unshaded and provide a bumpy ride through parched land.

In its early years the club was allowed to operate in Solano County without much interference from the police. But in the mid-Seventies this treeless hill country became the arena for Inspector Bill Zerby’s pursuit of Jim-Jim Brandes, Kenny Owen and Sergey Walton.

BILL ZERBY IS BUILT ALONG the lines of a file cabinet, his shoulders at right angles to a thick, squat frame. With a friendly, cherubic face and a handlebar mustache falling down his jowls, he’d cultivated a reputation as a bar-hopping bachelor, a sexual athlete — and, incongruously, as a hard-driving, humorless cop unable to accept defeat.

Zerby and the Angels worked the same East Bay turf, Zerby as a narc for the Solano County Sheriff’s Department and the Angels as wholesalers of amphetamine (which the Angels call crank). They quickly grew to hate each other.

The inspector had chanced upon the Angels during a routine investigation. At first he’d traded friendly banter with them, out of habit and because they didn’t seem like the coldblooded animals he’d imagined. But the more he tracked them, the more he came to see their darker side.

Zerby went after them in a way few other cops had dared, assisting in seventeen arrests of Brandes, Owen and friends in 1976 and 1977 The quest turned into an obsession. Whenever the Angels congregated, Zerby seemed to be skulking nearby in his black-over-green Mercury Montego, an unnerving and resolute shadow. This was no ordinary surveillance of an ordinary gang, and a silent, awesome tension built up.

In September 1977 the silence was broken by a phone call from Brandes to Zerby. The narc had gone out of his way to have the Angel arrested for driving with a suspended license, an effort that offended Brandes’ sense of protocol. He had called to complain and as Zerby recalls it, the words came out in short, cackling bursts, as from a pistol during target practice.

According to Zerby’s grand jury testimony, Brandes said he considered the traffic warrant a matter of personal vindictiveness and warned, “Two can play the same game.”

“Am I supposed to take that as a threat?” Zerby asked.

“You can take it any way you want,” Brandes snorted, ending the exchange with a click. It was a cliché, Zerby knew, but he couldn’t take it lightly.

THE PHONE CALL SIGNIFIED A further disintegration of the Code, the axiom by which the Angels and the police previously had lived — not in harmony, but side by side. Though neither would admit it, the two uniformed groups were not so different. They often came from the same rough-and-tumble backgrounds, and though they hoped for enough bucks to escape, they wanted even more to hang onto the unique freedoms their status accorded them. So they made a place for themselves in the final preserve of male dominance, the world of guns and fists where only lawmen and outlaws are permitted.

Unlike common crooks, the Angels did not shoot at cops. Even in the grip of booze or with the cops badly outnumbered, the Angels did not take up chains or hurl their bodies in the fighting style they made famous. There was some scuffling whenever an Angels horde encountered local constables, of course, but the two sides usually reached accommodation at out-of-the-way encampments, with the police standing guard to keep curious natives out and beery bikers in.

The Code allowed for this crudely defined détente — and for a symbiosis based on a shared distaste for left-wing longhairs. In the late Sixties Barger made a pact with Oakland Police Sergeant Edward Hilliard to tip off police to the weapons caches of leftists in exchange for the release of jailed Angels. The deal was a little one-sided, since the Angels often hoodwinked Hilliard with guns and explosives they themselves had picked up on the black market. But the arrangement held up until the Angels moved into big-time drug dealing. Narcotics attracted different cops: organized crime detectives, better educated, less in empathy with bikers. Their investigation quickly zeroed in on Barger. As the Code crumbled, Barger took the witness stand during his 1972 murder trial and coolly described his unholy covenant with the Oakland Police Department.

The embarrassed Hilliard tried to defend himself, explaining that he had refused Barger’s larger offer to deliver the bountied bodies of leftist fugitives. Still, the revelation left the police looking like patsies. In swift retaliation, Hilliard’s brethren began getting serious with the Angels.

The Angel leadership subsequently tried, in 1974, to sanitize the club’s image. Led by San Jose president Fillmore Cross, the Angels expelled known junkies and laid down strict rules against using any drug that could be injected into a vein.

The Angels bought billboard space, at public service rates, to advertise their No Hope with Dope slogan and won unaccustomed praise from Art Linkletter and church and civic leaders. Next, they contributed 160 pints of blood — their own — to the Red Cross, and Fillmore Cross became a popular speaker on the campus and talk-show circuit. For a while, the Angels appeared to have reformed.

Local narcs, however, were not impressed. They labeled the public relations effort “so much shuck” and kept up the pressure and wiretaps. The bug on Cross’ phone, according to a federal investigator, caught him telling an associate, “Hey, I’ve gotta split to be at the TV studio to do my number,” then hurriedly closing a drug deal. While drawing the line against “hard drugs,” the Angels had not banned crank and hallucinogens, a distinction the cops did not appreciate. A year after the No Hope with Dope billboards went up, Cross went to prison for possession of amphetamine.

Narcotics detectives did more than anyone to undermine the Code. Not only did they subvert an open rivalry into clandestine combat, but they also invited disloyalty in Angel ranks, turning weak or besieged members into informants. In turn, that gave impetus to what is rumored to be a special Angels assassination squad known as the Filthy Few, for its ritual of eschewing baths and eating dead rodents. The squad began as an antidote for perfidy in drug transactions, but by the mid-Seventies the Angels’ alleged hit men had embarked on a widespread campaign against turncoats and suspected turncoats inside the club. Police estimate that as many as twenty-five members have been executed.

Both Tom DeWilde and Dennis Mehyre, Kenny Owen’s predecessors in Vallejo, allegedly were victims of the purge. DeWilde burned himself out on crank and reportedly ended up at the bottom of the bay because his colleagues were worried that paranoia and pending jail time might bring him under Zerby’s influence. Informants say Mehyre, who has never been found, was also killed.

Narcs like Zerby, skilled in recruiting informants, were feared and despised. Yet, even with them, a remnant of the Code survived. All cops remained off limits to the Filthy Few, a ban rooted in common sense as well as tradition.

IN FALL 1976 ZERBY ATTENDED an annual convention of West Coast narcs and was told how Kenny Owen had pulled off a prank in Portland, Oregon. As explained in later grand jury testimony, the escapade involved “D & H Speed Engineering,” a barely cryptic ruse Owen employed to order forty pounds of chemicals used in the manufacture of amphetamine from a Portland company. Federal narcs learned of the plan and concealed tiny radio transmitters inside the chemical canisters, then waited for Owen to take the delivery. But he anticipated the narcs. Instead of picking up his order, he paid a night visit with burglar’s equipment and made off with the canisters — but not without first removing the radio devices.

“What makes me sick is that these scumbags are so damn arrogant,” Zerby says. “They think they can get away with anything because they’re the fucking Hell’s Angels. All they’re asking for, really, is for someone to get on their case.” Zerby vowed he’d be that someone.

A few months later, in January 1977, Brandes and Owen’s business took an unexpected and providential turn. One of their dealers, Henry Crabtree, brought them news of an easily accessible chemical trove. Crabtree had befriended a night security guard for a local chemical company. As Crabtree described it to a grand jury, there was a basement with walk-in cubicles crammed with bins of exotic chemicals. He had piled fifteen of the tall bottles onto his arms and delivered them to the Angels.

Excited by the possibilities of plunder, Owen and Brandes consulted their new partner, Sergey Walton, who had been paroled three months before, had been elected president of the Oakland chapter and because of his seniority, had assumed the final say in the triumvirate. With him along, Owen and Crabtree headed for the chemical company late one January evening.

Crabtree said the heist included three-neck flasks, separatory funnels, stirring rods, stirring rollers, bottles of phenyl-2-propanone and a huge vacuum pump — enough glassware to build five amphetamine labs. With the proper equipment, a lab can be set up in, say, a guest bedroom. Phenyl-2 and methylamine gas are “cooked” in a three-neck flask, with one neck operating as a valve for the fetid steam that rises from the concoction. The Angels prefer twenty-two-liter flasks, so big they require two men with steady hands to pour the liquid through a filter. At this point, the liquid is given a final rinse with a vacuum pump and acetone, which separates out impurities that the pump sucks from the flask, leaving behind a substance that dries into a shimmering white crystal. A single, twenty-two-liter batch will yield seventy-nine pounds, worth nearly $2 million on the streets.

Because of police surveillance, however, the Angels had to find frequent new locations for their lab, and each spot had to be isolated from neighbors who might detect the smell. The windfall of equipment eliminated the need for constant disruptions, and as Crabtree testified, the Angel trio began an orgy of amphetamine production.

HUGH COMISKY IS AN OLD friend of Bill Zerby. Comisky is slightly smaller and darker and wears a thin mustache, but like Zerby, he is single and has the intense look of a man who takes his work home. Comisky also shares Zerby’s enduring interest in the Hell’s Angels.

In 1973, while in private practice, Comisky was retained as counsel for one of six men, some of whom were Vallejo Angels accused of gang raping a woman. “She was a young girl looking for excitement,” Comisky says, “and they did her every way I’ve ever heard of.” It was a routine criminal case until he inadvertently revealed the woman’s home address during pretrial proceedings.

Two days later she lay dying, twitching like a fish on a hook, the victim of a heroin overdose. Comisky was horrified. “She had no past record of heroin use,” he says. “She was murdered, pure and simple, with the help of my naiveté.”

When Zerby came to him for advice in spring 1977, Comisky was a Solano County assistant district attorney. Zerby wanted to raid 900 Demming Way, a two-story white frame house with a green tile roof where women of the night once serviced off-duty young men from nearby marine and navy bases.

A friend had asked Kenny Owen and his wife, Laufey, to house-sit there in March, and they had so liked the location — off by itself on a lonely road five miles from Vallejo — they decided to move in, unabashedly evicting their friend upon her return. The change in tenants did not go unnoticed. Shortly afterward, police say, a neighbor heard the sound of gunfire, and her dog came limping home with a bullet in its leg.

The incident suggested to Zerby that Owen possessed a gun, a prohibition for ex-felons and another piece in the jigsaw of circumstantial evidence that Zerby brought to Comisky.

In addition, Zerby spent the weeks of April and May in a dawn-to-dusk endeavor, taking inventory of the visitors to 900 Demming Way. At 7:35 a.m. on April 7th, Zerby says he saw Brandes arrive in his silver blue Continental. An hour later Zerby watched him hide a package behind the car door panel, then drive off. From Zerby’s vantage behind a row of eucalyptus trees on a ridge a quarter of a mile away, he was convinced that Owen had set up an amphetamine lab in the garage.

With Comisky’s support, he obtained a search warrant. At daybreak on June 21st, with Zerby and Comisky in the lead, the police party moved in. Owen had garrisoned the three-acre plot with a chain-link fence and installed an iron-bar gate bearing a red and white No Trespassing sign at the driveway. Through the fence the cops could see a modest garden of sweet corn and tomatoes, two quarter horses in a corral, a lone eucalyptus shading the house and a yard cluttered with wild fennel, unkempt to discourage sightseers. Parked in the driveway was Owen’s fleet of automobiles: a silver Corvette, a gold El Camino, a blue Chevy station wagon, a white-over-red Buick and a dark Continental — a showy testament to the Angels’ metamorphosis from two-wheel hot rods.

The police cut the gate lock and scurried for the garage. It was festooned with $30,000 in machine shop tools, but except for a few dirty flasks, there was no sign of a lab. The Angels apparently had made another timely switch.

Infuriated, the officers cuffed Owen’s hands behind his back, inserted a four-foot-long pipe under his arms and dragged him through the premises, forcing him ahead of them through each door as a precaution against booby traps. Upstairs in the bedroom, in a hollow leg of the headboard, they allegedly found his personal stash of crank, and in the downstairs gun cabinet they discovered a derringer, two rifles and an Ithaca sixteen-gauge shotgun.

Though this was enough to saddle Owen with two felony counts, the raid clearly was disappointing.

ODIS “BUCK” GARRETT, A LONG-TIME Vallejo Angel, made headlines in 1973 when he and two other bikers reportedly tried to gun down a marine who was armed only with a jack handle. Zerby considered Garrett “a con man and bully” and was happy to see him move to San Francisco, where he opened a massage parlor, The Love Nest, in partnership with “Flash Gordon” Grow.

Grow had been elected president of the San Francisco Angels after the January 6th, 1977, execution of his predecessor, Harry “The Horse” Flamburis and Flamburis’ young girlfriend. At age thirty-seven, Flamburis had turned churlish and a little eccentric. He worked as a night longshoreman and he sometimes took potshots at neighbors for disturbing his daytime naps.

The penalty meted out to Flamburis, however, was not for early senility but apparently because he was resisting the Angels’ move into prostitution and narcotics racketeering. Garrett and Grow were part of that move, as was Margo Compton, a Vallejo woman they had sheltered after she left her husband. She was grateful until Garrett turned her into a Love Nest prostitute.

Compton went to the police after a customer beat and raped her and after Garrett refused to let her quit, claiming she owed $4000 for protection from her husband and for her weekly issue of amphetamine. She told police that she and four other Love Nest women had to return forty percent of their tips to the Angels. The operation also allegedly had the protection of two San Francisco vice officers who were paid off in cash and sexual favors.

After testifying, Compton fled to a cottage in rural Oregon. She had to return for more testimony in July 1977, and two weeks later, assassins found her hide-out. They shot her and her daughters in the head with a .22-caliber pistol, identical to the method used in silencing Harry the Horse.

To Zerby, the murders signified the Angels’ immersion into a coldblooded netherworld. He volunteered his services to Oregon authorities and pressed his informants for leads.

He learned that Compton had been corresponding with relatives in Vallejo and that the Angels had intercepted a letter with her Oregon address. One Vallejo Angel allegedly bragged of driving two gunmen to Oregon, adding, “We know how to take care of people like that.”

Dealer Henry Crabtree later told prosecutor Comisky that he’d caught Brandes, Owen and four other Angels in a celebratory mood shortly after the slaying. “The Margo Compton thing had been aired over the television,” Crabtree explained, “and they had videotaped it out of Kenny’s house. So we sat out there in his garage, listening to the playback. They were laughing and joking about it.”

The evidence was too sketchy for indictments, but Zerby wanted the Angels to know he was on the case. “I’ve got a pretty good idea who the murderers are,” he told a local reporter, knowing the Angels would see his comments in their daily logging of newspaper stories about themselves. “We’re getting closer every day.”

That was partly bluff. But all the Angels knew was that Zerby had become a relentless pursuer. After the June 21st police raid on Owen’s house, there followed a federal raid to search for more firearms. Shortly after that, Owen drove by the home of a neighbor who was a potential witness and paused to look at her in a manner she thought was malevolent. Zerby seized on this flimsiest of excuses to justify a third ransacking of the Demming Way house. Then came an arrest warrant for Brandes’ driving with a suspended license. It was in this context that Brandes placed his menacing phone call to Zerby, hoping to scare him into backing off.

The fear that Brandes’ move elicited, though, was not as powerful as the contempt. Both Zerby and Comisky made no secret of their raw feelings toward the Angels, an attitude that got them into trouble with their Solano County superiors and made their friends wonder at the extent of their fixation. But they felt a surge of vindication in October 1977, when a jury convicted Buck Garrett of pimping and pandering, and a judge sternly ordered him to prison.

ONLY DAYS AFTER GARRETT’S INCARCERATION, the biggest Angel of all won his freedom. Sonny Barger came home from Folsom Prison on November 3rd, 1977, nearly six years ahead of schedule. (Barger’s lawyers persuaded the state supreme court that his original sentence had been directed more at his affiliation than at his criminal actions.)

Prison had changed the Angel don. Weight lifting and a regular diet had added thirty pounds of muscle to his wiry build and eliminated the gauntness from his face. Watergate had mellowed his anti-Left ideology. “Take a crime like Nixon pulled off,” he’d said in a prison interview. “Maybe what some of these crazies are doing is right.”

He’d attended prison classes, completing grade school, high school and two years of college (in sociology), worked quietly as a janitor and steered clear of prison-yard politics, preferring to pluck his guitar alone in his cell.

The Angels did not forget him. Once they hired a plane to blanket Folsom with thousands of leaflets wishing Sonny a happy birthday. And they organized an unstinting welcome-home celebration at a ranch that the Angels own in the Sierra foothills.

It was a private party, and I had no chance for an invitation. So afterward I went to see the Turk, a retired San Francisco Angel and reformed cycle thief who does occasional repair work on my car. The Turk had been among the dozens from across California who gathered to greet the gang’s old man.

Everyone had a festive, backslapping time, the Turk said. The Angels wore leather, rode chrome and drank copious amounts of beer. It was almost like old times.

But Barger’s position within the Angel ruling circle was not what it had once been. The Turk noticed Brandes and Owen standing by themselves at times, looking uneasily at the camaraderie around Barger. “The way I see it is like this,” the Turk said, drawing a parallel to Teamster boss Frank Fitzsimmons’ vexation at Jimmy Hoffa’s early release from prison. “Sonny is like Hoffa, and them other guys are like Fitzsimmons. Sonny’s got the rank and file on his side, but Brandes and them have their hands on the throttle, and they don’t want to let go.”

AT FIVE P.M. ON NOVEMBER 14th, 1977, eleven days after Barger walked free, Zerby and his partner, Inspector Richard Grundy, were at the end of a long day’s stakeout of Demming Way. They were parked in a cemetery down the road and were debating which bar to patronize for supper, when Grundy spotted Jim-Jim Brandes illegally behind the wheel of his Lincoln Continental.

The cops hit their siren and after a brief chase, forced him to the shoulder of the road. A hasty search revealed a Phillips screwdriver on the floor and two loose screws in the threshold plate at the bottom of the right front door. They removed the plate and, from a narrow hole in the frame, snaked out a zip-lock plastic bag stuffed with what apparently was a pound of freshly cooked crank.

Along with the amphetamine, police allegedly found a modern hoodlum’s technological arsenal: a police radio equipped with frequencies from Reno to Fresno, a radio band directory, a homemade police siren, a blue flasher, a pocket-sized tape recorder, a radio transmitter small enough to fit in a cigarette pack and a device for detecting bugs worn by others.

Zerby and Grundy had the pleasure of seeing Brandes behind bars for a few hours until the Angels bondsman arrived. Brandes remained cockily unconcerned until the next day, when Zerby arranged for federal agents to confiscate the Continental, thereby circumventing a law that prevents local police agencies from doing so. When he heard of this, Brandes said he was filled with cold fury.

GARY MILLIGAN BELONGS TO that breed of men with drifting loyalties and uncertain identities. When he was twenty he wanted to be a cop; instead he admits he ended up as a dealer for the Angels.

Neither Zerby nor the Angels like him, yet he spent 1974 to 1977 as a welcome visitor in both their worlds. Zerby wanted to pry information from him, and the Angels, trusting Milligan’s instinct for self-preservation, tolerated his dalliances with Zerby, apparently finding it a convenient way to keep an eye on the Solano County Sheriff’s Department.

Milligan enjoyed this crook-and-cop voyeurism, attracted both to the Angels’ colors and the cop’s badge. Then in 1977 Milligan noticed an unsettling change.

“The Angels were getting quite upset about the repeated arrests, harassments and different people being stopped, and going into the Angels’ residences,” Milligan later explained to the grand jury. “And if Zerby didn’t back off, they were going to do him in. Owen and Brandes put it personally with Zerby, like they thought he was going above and beyond the call of duty, so to speak.”

In December 1977 Owen asked Milligan, an aficionado of books about explosives, for a do-it-yourself manual from his library.

For months Milligan had been keeping Zerby generally informed about the Angels, trying to gain the cop’s succor on a pending charge of setting fire to his estranged wife’s truck. But Milligan said nothing about the Angels’ sudden interest in explosives, apparently hoping they were talking bombast, not bomb making.

By mid-January, however, he knew otherwise. Milligan later testified he saw “Dirty Doug” Bontempi in the Demming Way garage, fiddling with a galvanometer, an instrument used to check the circuitry in remote-control blasting.

“Is that thing working now?” Owen inquired.

“Yeah, it checks out,” Dirty Doug assured him.

A look of mischief crept across Owen’s face, and he cupped his hands around his mouth. “BOOM!” Owen’s raspy bellow sounded like a detonation, and both Angels laughed at the joke.

HAD JIM-JIM BRANDES EVER READ Of Mice and Men, he might have noticed an analogy in his relationship with Henry Crabtree, he as the shrewd survivor and Crabtree as the oversized (six feet eight, 300 pounds), good-natured bumbler. Crabtree is so trusting, Brandes says, that he once sold fifty-dollars’ worth of crank to an undercover cop who solicited him, unintro-duced, on the street.

Since grade school Brandes has kept a patronizing eye on his giant friend, who likes to dress in ten-gallon hats, cowboy boots and spangled jackets. In fall of 1977 Brandes took Crabtree along for a late-night drive to San Jose. “Jim-Jim got to talking about Zerby, and when he gets ranting about Zerby you can just kick back and go to sleep — he’s really talking to hisself,” Crabtree told the grand jury. “But he kept on ranting, ‘I should teach that sonuvabitch a lesson. I should get a gun and blow his head off.’ Then, as we was driving down the road, he just kind of got a smile on his face and he said, ‘I think the best thing for the fucking punk would be to fucking hit him, cripple him.’ Jim-Jim really wanted Zerby alive, but hurt and backing off the case.”

“If you kill a guy, he’s not hurting,” Brandes elaborated. “But if you leave him alive, he’s hurting and you’re satisfied. Plus it leaves a hell of an intimidation.”

ZERBY KNEW THE ANGELS were stalking him. At 5:30 on an October morning in 1977 he woke to the sound of a big-horsepower car outside his condominium. “I looked and saw a Corvette with the motor running,” he recalled for the grand jury. “I got a good look at the profile, and I believed it to be Brandes.”

When Zerby arrested Brandes in his Continental a month later, he took special notice of two items in the inventory of contraband: a 233-page photocopy of a military handbook on booby traps and an address book containing Zerby’s address, phone number and the license-plate number of his car. What Zerby didn’t know, however, was how and when the Angels would strike. He sought answers from his informants without success. He felt particularly and personally exasperated by Gary Milligan’s unaccustomed shyness. So Zerby convinced a judge to change the personal-recognizance bond in Milligan’s arson case to a bail of $100,000, thereby making Milligan subject to arrest.

Milligan already was pinioned in the limbo between the two angry camps, feeling the squeeze on his seesawing loyalties. When Zerby started turning the screw, Milligan went into hiding.

Henry Crabtree was also on the run in early 1978. Brandes’ once-compliant sidekick had split from the Angels and ventured on his own into the amphetamine business. “I got kind of tired of all the killing,” he testified. “The game of hustling is fun when you’re down in the small rackets. When you get in the big rackets, it ain’t fun. The hustling part of it I enjoyed. I still would. The killing part, no.”

But Crabtree had foolhardily set himself up in competition with the Angels, and Brandes allegedly set out to restore the Angel monopoly.

Brandes’ only concession to sentiment, according to Crabtree, was bringing in outsiders as the hired guns: He allegedly paid $10,000 to the Aryan Brotherhood, a white racist gang of convicts and ex-cons in fellowship with the Angels, to eliminate his childhood buddy. A roaming band of Aryans soon sighted Crabtree’s cycle outside a local bar. “I ran out and jumped on my motorcycle to take off,” Crabtree testified. “They took a shot at me and I laid my bike over in a ditch and slid off and started running through people’s yards.”

Crabtree subsequently found sanctuary in the homes of friends, who proved exceptionally valiant. The Aryan Brothers, frustrated in their bounty hunt, later shot two of those friends through the hands when they wouldn’t talk.

MONDAY, JANUARY 30TH, 1978, dawned late in Solano County; the sun emerged slowly from a curtain of flat, white clouds above the distant Sierras. Brandes and Zerby were due in the county courthouse at nine o’clock for a pretrial hearing on Jim-Jim’s November arrest on charges of amphetamine possession. But the Angel’s archenemy failed to show.

Zerby had come home Sunday night after a weekend of skiing at Lake Tahoe and left his Montego parked on the street next to the curb. It was a short walk across a bed of ivy to the front door of his two-story redwood condominium. About 8:30 the next morning he retraced the same path and opened the passenger-side door of his car, depositing a folder of papers on the seat. Zerby then performed a ritual he’d begun several months before. “I checked that car for a bomb every morning, rain or shine,” he says. “On this morning I walked all the way around it and checked all four wheel wells and the suspension in front and back. I checked everywhere.”

What Zerby didn’t inspect, however, was the tangled patch of ivy in which he was standing as he reached for the door on the driver’s side. Suddenly dirt and ivy leaves showered the street. He could tell from the force of the explosion hurling him forward that the dynamite had been buried somewhere behind him. But the roar in his ears — an overwhelming sound that echoed at a higher and higher pitch — left him staggering in all directions.

The superintendent of a nearby construction site found him, bloody and befuddled, and called an ambulance. The bomb had been built of dynamite and triggered by remote control. It had been designed to maim, not kill, and it proved, efficient. Zerby lost a hundred percent of the hearing in his left ear and seventy-five percent in the other. His neck was left with a permanent crick, his hands with a partial paralysis (he has to force feeling back into them three or four times a day). The head pain that exploded with the bomb has never completely gone away.

When Hugh Comisky heard that his star witness was incapacitated, he postponed the hearing and took a raiding party of Zerby’s fellow officers back to Demming Way. This time they were looking for leftover wiring and blasting caps to tie the Angels to the bombing. The police arrived ahead of the search warrant, however, and as twilight deepened, so did the impression of an intractable siege on Owen’s compound.

The police asked the Angels to let them in. But Owen and his four companions balked, aware that the warrant had to arrive before ten p.m. or, under state law, the authorities would have to return in the morning.

Night fell and an eerie darkness enveloped the Angels’ stronghold, disrupted only by occasional oscillating blue flashers at the gate and bobbing flashlight beams from Angels moving about the house. Owen opened the gate twice, once to usher in an Angels lawyer and a second time to accept delivery of a case of beer he’d ordered to ease the wait. The police conferred quietly, trying to interpret sounds inside; they grew worried that evidence was being hammered beyond recognition.

Finally, minutes before ten p.m., Comisky drove up with the proper signed documents. The prosecutor summoned Owen and jubilantly waved the warrant. Owen was unmoved. “Fuck you!” he bristled. “It’s after ten o’clock. Come back tomorrow.”

At that, the lead patrol car surged forward and snapped the gate’s lock with a singing crack. The gate swung wildly, grazing Owen’s scampering lawyer, and the police were in, bounding into the house before Owen could react. Their attention was immediately directed toward a small mountain of cardboard boxes piled up inside to obscure the door to a walk-in closet. They shoved aside the obstruction, then used a crowbar to pry away a half-inch-thick slab of plywood that recently had been nailed across the door. A large suitcase sat inside the door, and fearing a booby trap, the police attached a clothesline tether to pull it clear. One of the deputies edged forward into the crawl space where a staircase narrows the closet at an angle. “Hey,” he shouted, hurriedly backing up. “Either there’s somebody in there or we got a body.”

The cops coaxed out “Dirty Doug” Bontempi. His hosts had furnished him with a sleeping bag, a bottle of water and a bowl of stew fresh from a skillet on the kitchen stove. Bontempi, wanted for a parole violation, was led away with Owen and the others. The raid also yielded traces of dynamite on a car floor and a poster of Zerby that had been used as a dart board, but once again, there was little for Comisky to take to court.

BY COINCIDENCE, ERRANT informant Gary Milligan chose the morning of January 30th to surrender himself. Comisky tracked him down in a courthouse restroom just hours after the Zerby bombing and extended a proposition. Milligan’s personal-recognizance bond would be reinstated if he would find the inspector’s assailants.

Milligan gave Comisky an expedient answer. But the reluctant informant did not make up his mind to keep the bargain until a month later, after the prosecutor provided more negative incentives. When Milligan was not forthcoming, Comisky had him arrested on a charge of grand larceny for stealing his ex-wife’s two-year-old pair of boots. Bail was set at $50,000. As soon as he paid it, Comisky had him rearrested for possession of a stolen TV.

“Comisky told me they had a stack of cases they’d hit me with if I didn’t cooperate,” Milligan says. “He told me he could make as many cases as I could bail.” Thus persuaded, Milligan agreed to testify before the Solano County grand jury, which had been convened to hear the evidence against the Angels.

Comisky’s other key witness for the grand jury was Henry Crabtree, who had been apprehended two days after the bombing and charged with possession of amphetamine. The weary behemoth brooded and pondered his dilemma for five days, then volunteered his testimony.

A small militia occupied the Solano County courthouse for Milligan’s and Crabtree’s appearances. Rifle-equipped sharpshooters patrolled the roofs and alleyways around the sprawling, marble edifice. U.S. marshals shepherded the two men into the closed jury room to bear secret witness against their former associates, then remanded them to protective custody.

Comisky also subpoenaed several Angels. Forty-two Angels were served at dawn on Monday, March 27th. Twenty officers descended on Sonny Barger’s house to serve his subpoena and to conduct a parole search. Inside they found a 9- mmautomatic, a .38-caliber revolver and a rifle — supposedly sufficient cause to return the Angels’ leader to jail for an apparent parole violation (an offense for which there is no bail).

Barger was in a sour mood as he was marched before the grand jury two days later. “I have nothing to say,” he protested. When Comisky pressed for answers, Barger spit back sarcastically, “Put me in jail!”

The following Saturday, April 2nd, more than thirty Oakland Angels gathered at their clubhouse, a former storefront, for a meeting and a birthday party.

Two patrolmen stopped to write citations for public drunkenness when the party moved outside. One merrymaking Angel began photographing the police and upset them. Within minutes, fists and beer bottles flew. Soon forty-one patrol cars had converged on the clubhouse and a long-festering malignancy burst open as unrestrained patrolmen smashed up the Angels headquarters. The behavior of the rampaging police was so excessive that four officers ultimately were fired and four others suspended.

On Monday, thirty-six hours later (and nine weeks after the Zerby bombing), the Solano County grand jury handed down indictments against the East Bay Angels. Brandes, Owen and Bontempi were charged with conspiring to murder Zerby. Brandes, Owen and Walton were indicted for manufacturing and selling amphetamine.

Comisky paraded his prisoners before a Solano County judge, and in a move that reflected his own rising emotions, he convinced the judge to rule the murder conspiracy a capital offense, punishable by the gas chamber. Bail for Owen, Walton and Bontempi was set at $500,000 each. Brandes’ bail was $1 million, making him the highest-priced defendant in the county’s history.

Both Owen and Walton raised the money within hours, and though it took Brandes a week, he also was able to put up enough real estate as collateral. Bontempi had to serve extra time for his parole violation, but then he too posted bond.

Even Comisky and Zerby, who had often pointed to the Angels’ luxuriant lifestyle as a barometer of their illegal incomes, were surprised at the level of their resources. But because the high-priced bonds left the Angels so heavily mortgaged, making flight unlikely, the prosecutor and the narc were content. They were convinced that after the trial, Brandes, Owen and Walton would be put where they belonged.

SONNY BARGER APPEARED IN court April 13th to rebut the charge of having an illegal arsenal. Barger claimed the guns belonged to his wife Sharon who, he said, acquired them because dissident Angels had threatened her life over his decision to retire. A parole officer took the stand and testified that Barger had been masterminding the Angels’ new get-tough policy toward the police.

The parole officer quoted from a March 1978 state organized crime report that cited the Zerby bombing, the 1977 bombing of a San Jose detective and an alleged murder plot in San Diego. Two Hell’s Angels recruits, equipped with a machine gun, silencer pistol and binoculars, had been arrested in San Diego February 27th, 1978, while keeping a telescopic eye on the home of an unpopular undercover agent.

The judge took all this under submission and postponed his decision until summer, leaving a displeased Barger in jail.

In late July, Zerby, Comisky, Brandes, Owen and Walton were brought together for a special hearing in the murder-and-narcotics conspiracy case. At issue was the legality of the June 1977 raid on Demming Way, the November 1977 search of Brandes’ car and the March 1978 grand jury investigation.

Both sides exuded confidence.

Zerby and Comisky chatted amicably with me, discussing the case as if it were a foregone conclusion. Both talked of leaving law enforcement afterward. Zerby, 36, may be obliged to find a new career because the bomb left his hearing too impaired to pass the police physical. Comisky, 34, felt that all future prosecutions might be anticlimactic.

Comisky, a small-town prosecutor, seemed about to succeed where the high-powered federal prosecutors had failed. He took me to his office and gestured at a wall filled with citations and letters of appreciation. None of these, he said, could compare to what he was about to accomplish. After the trial, maybe he’d find work in a big San Francisco law firm. “Once you’ve pissed on Mt. Olympus, it’s time to find another mountain,” he said, twirling in his chair.

Zerby came in and the two fell to daydreaming. Perhaps, they grinned, they could open a bar called Sympathy for those unhappy men still carrying badges.

But Zerby wanted to talk about the case. He savored an irony in the Angels’ efforts to rid themselves of him. Zerby had been due for a transfer from the narcotics squad in June, he confided, and if the Angels had waited, the bureaucracy might have done what the booby trap didn’t. As far as the Angels were concerned, however, that was no longer the only point. This was now a feud, a macho tug of war.

Zerby came to the hearings each day in polyester leisure suits. Brandes arrived the first morning wearing blue jeans, his silver Angels belt buckle and a leather vest with the winged skull colors. The next day he wore dark glasses and a dark, Mafia-style suit with a diamond set in a filigreed gold band on his index finger.

Each evening the Angels returned home in their Continentals and Corvettes. A police helicopter sometimes followed, hoping to catch them in traffic violations. The police obviously thought this a clever ploy. But it only amused the Angels since they were monitoring the copter’s every move with their police radios.


N JULY 28TH, JUST AS THE hearings got under way, Sonny Barger returned to Oakland: after a three-month deliberation, the judge in his case had acquitted him of the gun charge. I was scheduled to stop by Brandes’ house that night, but instead, Brandes, Walton and Owen joined Barger in the Sierras for a weekend retreat to bring the ex-president up to date. On August 4th, Comisky called Zerby to the witness stand for his version of the previous two years. The narc’s mustache was gone, his barrel chest looked flabby and his eyes seemed oddly empty and faded. He spoke in a soft monotone and had to ask Comisky to repeat several questions. Meanwhile, Brandes’ face beamed with malice. During a recess he approached me and said smugly, “This ain’t the Zerby we used to know and love.”

On August 10th, Gary Milligan replaced Zerby on the stand. There was a stir as Milligan entered, flanked by U.S. marshals, and he kept his face averted as he took the oath. He gave his age as thirty-six, but his receding hairline, his paunch and weak chin — along with a look of defeat that seemed to hold his body in a perpetual slump — made him appear twenty years older.

Milligan was upset because the police had kept him in jails instead of motels, then had charged him with grand larceny for running up a long-distance bill on the jail phone. Anxious to avoid hostility in front of the judge, Comisky gave him immunity. But Milligan’s testimony did not reflect well on either side. He was testifying solely to escape Comisky’s “trumped-up” charges, he said, and more than ever, he lived in fear of the Angels’ revenge.

Henry Crabtree, the other Angel turncoat, was supposed to follow Milligan on the stand. But as Comisky lamely explained it, Crabtree had slipped away from the marshals and could not be found.

Crabtree’s mysterious absence especially perturbed Judge Thomas Healy, the moon-faced magistrate who had twice postponed his vacation to continue the hearing. From the start he had expressed distress at both sides’ nonchalance toward the fine edge of the law, and he made it clear he did not want to referee an ongoing dogfight. Finally Healy called a halt to the proceedings and set August 15th for his decision.

On that day the Angels trooped silently into the courtroom, their faces a collective, insolent mask. Comisky, now as nervous as a hamster, sat fidgeting at the head of the prosecution table. Zerby took a seat on the wooden benches opposite the Angels. He looked unruffled but a little forlorn.

Judge Healy entered with a steely gaze and came directly to the point.

On the June 1977 raid of Owen’s house, Healy ruled in favor of the Angels, holding that Zerby’s search warrant was insubstantial. On the November search and seizure of Brandes’ car, he again accepted the arguments of the Angels’ lawyers, ruling that Zerby had taken advantage of a traffic violation for an unwarranted search. As a result, those charges were suppressed.

But the judge’s announcement contained an ironic reward for Zerby’s obsessive perseverance. He declared the January bombing search warrants valid and bound over the Angels for trial on the grand jury’s charges (though he reserved a final decision pending the missing Crabtree’s reappearance).

The Angels’ lawyers accepted congratulations for the partial victory of their clients, while Comisky and Zerby huddled briefly. Then Zerby withdrew, and Comisky looked up to see the hardmouthed Owen towering over him.

“You’re the conspirator!” Owen shouted hoarsely. “It’s not us. You’re the one!”

Comisky turned white and hurried away.

Two weeks later, Inspector Zerby sat in a booth at a Solano restaurant, lunching on a club sandwich and a wine and rum drink. Seated next to him was the twenty-four-hour-a-day bodyguard that Solano County had provided him. A bosomy waitress brought a menu, and Zerby used the chance to flirt outrageously.

A friend happened by and asked about his evaporating bank account. Zerby gamely rejected the commiseration. Instead he motioned to a Vallejo lawyer, a local counsel for the Angels, who came hesitatingly from across the room. “Hey,” Zerby deadpanned, “are your clients still willing to pay me $1000 a month if I get on my boat and never come back?”

The lawyer picked up on the joke. “No, no, I told you it was $100 a month.”

“Hell, I can’t live on that,” Zerby cracked. “Tell ’em they’ve gotta do better, or I won’t retire.”

In a few weeks, on September 21st, Judge Healy wanted the two sides back in court to fix a trial date and to hear Crabtree’s belated testimony. “Keep this under your hat,” Zerby told me, “but I can guarantee you that Henry will be there.” Crabtree had been afraid to come forward before because the Angels had threatened his sisters, the narc disclosed, but now Crabtree’s family also would receive protection. “We’ll get these scumbags yet,” Zerby said, self-consciously exercising fingers that had gone numb again.

A few days afterward, I asked Brandes about Crabtree. He was cagey at first, but then a self-congratulatory mood overcame him. “Henry called me a little while back,” Brandes allowed. “He said he’d do anything he could to cut us loose.”

While Zerby had been sipping wine and rum earlier, Brandes had secretly met with the missing witness. He and his renegade friend had reconciled, Brandes claimed, and Crabtree was now willing to desert Zerby and Comisky. Crabtree had promised to stay away from court, and Brandes said he was prepared to forgive his disloyalty.

SEPTEMBER 21ST ARRIVED. There was no sign of Crabtree in court. Brandes was so sure of that eventuality that he did not bother to attend.

The weeks passed and Crabtree did not reappear. In mid-November Comisky quit the case and then resigned from his job to return to private practice. “I’d just about had it with the frustrations,” he says.

Zerby, attended by his bodyguard, continued to shop for a doctor to cure the pain in his ears. Only he and his most zealous friends still believed that the Angels would end up behind bars.

The turn of events left the Angels in an expansive mood, and they invited me to drop by one evening for a quiet celebration at Sergey Walton’s house. Dropping by required certain logistics. The front gate is always locked and a hidden sound box allows the Angels to eavesdrop on potential intruders. Two killer Dobermans patrol the yard. Brandes picked me up at a nearby liquor store and escorted me into the Walton house.

It is a cozy, carpeted bungalow decorated with dark-wood, soft-leather furniture and equipped with an electronics collage. The stereo equipment alone must be worth $7500. The TV room has been remodeled to resemble a medieval armory. Burnt-wood beams line the ceiling, and a gray stucco with a cavelike texture covers the walls, on which are hung knight’s armor, swords, maces and other exotic weapons. Sheepskins are scattered about, and a sculpted, red-winged death’s-head ornaments the mantle.

The eleven p.m. news was on. Walton’s wife, Linda, was taking notes on the further disintegration of the case against the Angels. Everyone listened respectfully until it was over, then Walton and Brandes took turns drinking Coors, munching from a pound bag of M&M candies and complaining about Zerby. Even with their recent success, they seemed unable to put the narc out of their minds.

The next week we all reconvened at Barger’s house. Sonny’s face clouded only once, when Brandes mentioned Baby Huey Wethern’s new book, A Wayward Angel. Barger seemed pained at the thought of his old crony. He said it had been six years since he’d seen Baby Huey (now living with a new identity and a surgically altered face), and he didn’t care if it were sixty more.

By now, the Angels seemed oblivious to my presence, and they moved the discussion to current business. Some new projects were under way: more real estate investments, maybe a new clubhouse, a tentative film sequel to Hell’s Angels on Wheels. But their major concern was how to cope with cops like Zerby.

Barger had spent the afternoon helping his lawyers draft a possible solution: a massive civil rights action against Zerby and the police agencies of Solano and Oakland counties. “That’s what they’ve been doing to us for years,” Barger explained. “They tie us up in court with a lot of bullshit. So we’re gonna see how they like it.”

The three younger men — Brandes, Walton and Owen — were pleased with the prospect of Zerby drowning in depositions. But they were skeptical of any tangible result and seemed to be indulging the elder statesman mainly for the sake of public unity. It was clear who was really in charge.

Crabtree had explained it this way in his testimony before the grand jury: “From what I’ve seen, Sonny Barger runs things, but if he tried to change things now, I don’t think he could. [Brandes, Walton and Owen] are the ones capable of killing quick. So, you know, with that and the money, why, that’s absolute power.”

I MEET ONCE MORE WITH Jim-Jim Brandes, in November 1978. It is past midnight when we get to his house, a comfortable place furnished with the same unconcern for cash flow or interior decorators. The spacious living room has a cool, silvery aura and the dark hardwood floors have a polished sheen. A California eagle, which Brandes says he shot with a pellet gun and stuffed with the insides of a Volkswagen seat, is perched on a rafter in the open ceiling.

“I love this place,” Brandes says quietly. “It’s the first real home I’ve ever had. I don’t keep dope here or anything like that. If I want to do dope, I go elsewhere.” His wife of five years, Maggie, is fast asleep, as is their twenty-month-old son, James Sergey Brandes Jr. The black-booted Angel tiptoes through the house, then impulsively plucks the baby from his crib. In seconds James Jr. is awake and whining, but his father’s clumsy affection manages to shush him.

In the garage, Brandes’ bike, a 1972 Harley without the modifications many Angels used to favor, gleams from under a tarp. The bike is in perfect condition, not unlike a museum piece; Brandes, like most other Angels, only uses it for occasional Sunday afternoon promenades.

We take his burgundy Corvette for a 100-mile-an-hour late-night ride to the Oakland clubhouse. From the outside, the Angels headquarters could be a ghetto market, protected by metal grating, barbed wire and heavy padlocks. Inside, it might be a college fraternity house.

Color photographs of Angels alumni, men who died wearing their colors, have been randomly placed on the paneled walls and over the mirrored bar. In the rear is a library stocked with skin magazines and a guest bedroom that rents for fifty dollars a month to nomad members. Upstairs is a felt-covered blackjack table, poker table and two pool tables.

Brandes passes me a beer and selects a Waylon Jennings album for the new stereo. With the stereo turned up, Brandes challenges me to a few games of eight ball. He lets me win. Only the accouterments on the wall suggest the true disposition of the place and its membership: a gruesome painting of a dog chewing on a female corpse, a faded Sin & Lust movie poster, a Don’t Tread on Me flag.

Two years before, the Angels sicked the clubhouse mascot, a large mongrel, on a black man who walked by with his pet hound. When the smaller dog unexpectedly triumphed, the Angels brought out machine guns to silence the hound and chase away its owner. It was that sort of behavior that first brought the Angels to Bill Zerby’s attention.

I ask Brandes about the incident and he pleads ignorance.

The Angels no longer engage in random violence, Brandes explains. And anyhow, that was not what was at issue with Zerby.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you I don’t deal drugs and expect you to believe me,” he says. “And if Zerby catches me dealing, I’ll do my time. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d do it.

But Zerby drew a line and stepped over it,” Brandes rules with finality, “I don’t take that from anybody in the streets, and I sure as shit ain’t gonna take that from him. I don’t let nobody come around and shove me around. I don’t think anyone does — if he’s a man.”

In This Article: Coverwall, gangster, Sons of Anarchy


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