Hemet, California; Thursday, March 9, 2006
A few hours before dawn I’m wide awake and skittish as hell, waiting for the shitstorm. My fiancée lies asleep beside me, nine months pregnant and blissfully unaware her world is about to shatter. For three tense years I’ve been living on the edge as a federal informant, operating deep undercover to gather criminal evidence against one of this country’s most violent motorcycle gangs—evidence that will lock my brothers away. My fiancée knows me as a patched member of the Vagos Motorcycle Club, but that’s only half the story. I wonder how she’ll take it when she learns the rest: that the man she loves is a man she never really knew . . . that our time together was a lie.
Talk about a rude awakening.
Too restless to stay in bed, I head into the kitchen for coffee and cigarettes. Leaning against the counter, chain-smoking Marlboros while the coffee drips, I check the clock on the microwave.
5:36 a.m. Almost time. In less than thirty minutes there’s no turning back. At precisely
6:00 a.m. (PST), more than seven hundred heavily armed law enforcement officers will sweep through Southern California in one of the largest gang busts in United States history.
And it all starts with me.
In the winter of 2003, the year I went undercover, my hometown was under siege, its citizens terrorized by a group of crank-fueled outlaws no one could control. I was a local businessman with a shameful history—a one-time drug dealer and two-time felon haunted by the sins of my past. Though I’d spent much of my life in the company of Harley-riding outcasts like the Hells Angels, for the sake of the community I turned against the brotherhood and vowed to end their violence and intimidation.
When I volunteered for that thankless mission, shaking hands with Special Agent John Carr in Bee Canyon, my path seemed clear enough; a few months riding with the Vagos and wham-bam-thank-youma’am, I’d have my hometown cleaned up and those fuckers in cages.
Dumb bastard. What the hell were you thinking?
Before that handshake I had the world by the balls, brother. Ol’ George Rowe was sitting pretty. Now everything’s gone to shit. The life I knew, like the man I was, is slipping away—and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
Guess I should have known where this was headed. I might have been three years under, but it’s taken a lifetime to get here. I’ve been riding a hell wave, and there’s no breaking free. Nothing to do but let the waters take me.
A Banging Place
Ninety miles east of Los Angeles, out beyond the San Bernardino Mountains and down into the scorching heat of the San Jacinto Valley, you’ll find the city of Hemet, California. My old hometown was still a ranch and farming community when Mother forced it down my throat in the summer of ’71—nothing but potato fields, low buildings and a few flat streets skirting the western edge of the Mojave Desert. But with Californians migrating inland from the coast in search of affordable property, the valley’s population was booming.
From the Santa Rosa Hills on Hemet’s south flank to the city of San Jacinto, which shares the valley floor to the north, came a growing flood of retirement communities, trailer parks and stucco subdivisions. In just ten years—from 1970 to 1980—the city’s population nearly doubled, creating opportunities for anyone looking to make a buck . . . legal or otherwise.
For the lawless few, geography was the key to scoring big money. Hemet’s founding fathers would have shit their Levis had they known their little start-up would become the ass-end of a pipeline delivering marijuana, cocaine and heroin from Mexico, one hundred miles to the south. Starting in the 1960s, Hemet became a banging place for outlaw biker gangs hungry for a slice of that Mexican drug connection, many rolling in from neighboring cities like Riverside and San Bernardino, birthplace of the Hells Angels.
As a boy, I grew accustomed to the roar of their straight pipes blasting through the valley—iron horses farting thunder, ridden by barbarians with wild manes, greasy leathers and fuck-you attitudes. I wanted some of that. I too raised my middle finger to authority and shared a passion for motorcycles, which I’d been riding since I was seven years old, barely tall enough to reach the shift lever of the little Hodaka my father bought me before he died.
He was tough, my old man, a full-blooded Yaqui Indian and decorated Korean War veteran. But the warrior was no match for malaria and alcohol, a one-two punch that fried his brain and ravaged his liver. Terminally ill, Dad wanted to spend his last years teaching his boy how to hunt and fish in the mountains, but for that he needed custody from Mother, a mean-spirited drunk with a face like leather, ridden hard and put away wet by more men than I can remember. When I was a toddler I swear I spent more time napping in bars while Mommy trolled for bed partners than I did sleeping in my own room.
Custody was hard fought and harder won by fathers in those days, but when I jumped to my feet at the juvenile court hearing and screamed, “I don’t want to live with her, I want to live with my dad!” the judge heard me loud and clear. Mother got my sisters, Carol and Lin Ann, while Dad pulled me from kindergarten and took me into the Cascades up near the California-Oregon border.
Those were special years we shared in the high country, the absolute best of my life. But watching your father wither away from cirrhosis and thrash on the ground in fits of epilepsy, eyes rolling in their sockets, was asking a lot from a ten-year-old. So in 1970, with the end near, the old man packed our belongings and came down from the mountain, returning to Southern California to die.
Dad was forty-one when his wasted body finally quit. In my mind’s eye I can still picture the end like it happened this morning. We were sitting on a couch watching television when he slumped sideways and fell across my lap. At first I thought he’d passed out—it had happened before—but as his skin grew cold I realized there was no waking him up again. Four hours later my uncle stopped by and found me still pinned beneath Dad’s stiffening body. Truth is, I didn’t want to let go. I was ten years old and terrified of a future without him. Afraid of being alone.
I became a ward of the state, bounced between foster homes until a kind woman from Buena Park took me under her wing and tried teaching me how to read and write, lessons this kindergarten dropout had missed while learning survival skills in the Cascades. The world turns unexpectedly, and certainly nothing is guaranteed in life, but I believe my future would have been different had I stayed with that woman. I really do.
But then Mother returned, looking for custody of the Social Security checks I’d been collecting since my old man passed away, and once they were hers I was dragged into the backseat of her Oldsmobile 88 and shanghaied to Hemet. I still remember heading east on the San Bernardino Freeway, desperately trying to memorize the road signs that would lead me back to that foster home in Buena Park. Instead the bitch dumped my ass on the county, and I ended up in a cage at juvenile hall trying to figure out what “incorrigible” meant.
The couple that rescued me owned the Hemet property where Mother was shacking up. With her blessing, they adopted me a few months later. Guess I should have been grateful for a roof over my head and three squares on the table, but life was never easy with that dysfunctional crew. There was a shitload of drinking and fighting in that house, with much of the anger directed at me.
My new dad was a tough little sonofabitch, strong and tanned from working with the town’s park and recreation department. Pat was a firm believer in old-fashioned “spare the rod, spoil the child” discipline. And when that man doled out punishment, the lessons came hard. To be fair, I was never a choirboy and probably deserved the occasional butt-kicking, but Pat’s brand of abuse was an entirely new experience. The dad I’d lost had raised his hand to me only once.
This one broke my arm.
Had my old man been alive, I know how he would have handled things. When my uncle back in the San Fernando Valley gave me a black eye, dad gave him two. When a perfect stranger in a Burbank mall slapped me upside the head for mouthing off, my father lifted him up and dropped him on his skull.
“Son,” he said as he knelt before me, “don’t ever let anyone push you around.”
Later in life I took Dad’s advice to heart, but when you’re an eleven-year-old getting pounded by a grown man, it’s easier said than done. For now my best defense against my adoptive father was vaulting the six-foot backyard fence whenever he was after me.
“That boy sure can jump,” Pat would boast to his drinking buddies.
Tough as he was, though, my new dad was no match for his 250-pound wife. Pat might have worn the pants in the family, but no one messed with Mama Cass—that’s what I called her when she was safely out of earshot. Pat came through the door shitfaced one night and mouthed off as his wife was in the middle of ironing. Big mistake. Dodi pinned him to the wall and ironed her hubby’s chest. Swear to God, that woman had a heart as big as her appetite, but piss her off and you’d best run for cover. Whatever Dodi had in her hands you’d get clobbered with. Garden tools, spatulas, skillets—you name it, she’d wing it. I saw more spaghetti on the walls than in the pots.
In the back bedroom of the house, my alcoholic mother was shacking up with Pat’s brother, John, the town drunk with a heart of gold. Down the hall lived my little sister, Lin Ann, and my older sister, Carol, fifteen years old, knocked up and soon to be married. In the basement slept my adoptive brother, Keith, a machinist in town who was good friends with a couple of biker brothers from the neighborhood—one who rode with the Vagos Motorcycle Club, and the other a patched member of the Hells Angels, named Freight Train. Vagos and Angels mix like oil and water, but in the brothers’ case blood was thicker than club loyalty.
Keith’s half brother, Gary, the only family member missing from that Hemet nuthouse, was a twenty-four-year-old roughneck who’d lost his foot in a Texas oil field accident. As gangrene crept in, the doctors chased the infection up his leg, amputating it one chunk at a time. Wasn’t long before the poor bastard lost that entire limb, followed by his wife and kids. Homesick and depressed, Gary came limping home on a prosthetic leg, rented a house with Freight Train and got busy drinking himself to death.
Freight Train had earned his road name with the Hells Angels for good reason. The man was a four-hundred-pound behemoth with hands the size of baseball mitts. His hair was long, his beard wild, and he had a silver-plated front tooth that gleamed when he smiled. And when Freight Train smiled, it meant someone was about to get hurt.
God’s truth, I once saw that man-mountain flip a police cruiser on its top—with the cop still inside. Another time he took on a platoon’s worth of shitfaced marines outside a bar in Winchester, California. Ol’ Freight Train was outnumbered and surrounded, but then came that slow smile, out popped the silver tooth, and down went nine of those jarheads. It took a pool stick punched through his gut to finally derail him, but by then the damage was done. For his one-man assault on the United States Marine Corps the government charged Freight Train with—I shit you not—destruction of federal property . . . a charge they later dismissed.
I earned a few bucks mowing Gary’s lawn back then, and watched as motorcycle outlaws from across the valley come thundering in on their Harley-Davidsons to raise a little hell. These were tough mothers— many of them Vietnam War vets searching for the same camaraderie they’d found in the service.
They wore patches on their backs with club names like Mescaleros, Hessians and Hangmen, and boasted of being “one percenters,” the outlaw’s badge of honor since 1947. That was the year a bunch of shitfaced bikers “rioted” at a motorcycle rally in Hollister, California—an event made famous by Marlon Brando in the 1953 biker flick The Wild One—then got slammed in the press as “the deviant one percent” of an otherwise law-abiding motorcycling public.
Over in San Bernardino, the Hells Angels took that as a backhanded compliment and began wearing a “1%” patch on their jackets, identifying themselves as outsiders who followed nobody’s rules but their own. Many of the bikers who hung at my brother’s place wore that diamond-shaped badge of honor, and it wasn’t long before I was ditching the lawn mower and sneaking inside to be nearer those larger-than-life characters.
Sure, they sometimes got pissed off and ran my scrawny ass down the road, but I’d always worm my way back in. Eventually I was adopted as a kid brother and came to know their ironclad code of loyalty and commitment, which placed the brotherhood above all else: above jobs, above friends . . . even above their own families. To me those bikers were modern-day musketeers, saluting each other with bottles of beer while shouting, “Fuck with one, you fuck with all!”
FW1-UFWA: the universal battle cry of the motorcycle outlaw.
But by the late 1970s, the beer-guzzling, gang-brawling characters I’d grown up with were a vanishing breed in the San Jacinto Valley. Tired of the life and increasing pressure from law enforcement, outlaws like Freight Train had become more interested in raising families than raising hell. Of course, turf-pissing contests were still fought over the patches on their backs, but with the old dogs slowing down and the young pups lying low, the roar of straight pipes quieted in the valley, and a biker flying his colors became a rare sight on the streets of Hemet for almost two decades.
Then the century turned and a new, more aggressive generation of outlaw rolled into town, one pumped on steroids, fueled by testosterone and always looking for a brawl.
Excerpted from Gods of Mischief by George Rowe. Copyright © 2013 by George Rowe.
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