Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“No Angel”, by Jay Dobyns & Nils Johnson-Shelton (Canongate)

This review has been cross-posted on our other (non-fiction) site.

Dobyns-NoAngelUS&UK US   |   UK

An ATF agent goes undercover with the Hell’s Angels

The first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and the inside story of the 21-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life.

Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mph, and responding to a full-scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols – these are just a few of the high-adrenaline experiences Dobyns recounts in this action-packed true story.

Dobyns leaves no stone of his harrowing journey unturned. At runs and clubhouses, between rides and riots, Dobyns befriends bad-ass bikers, meth-fueled “old ladies”, gun fetishists, psycho-killer ex-cons, and even some of the “Filthy Few” – the elite of the Hells Angels who’ve committed extreme violence on behalf of their club. Eventually, at parties staged behind heavily armed security, he meets legendary club members such as Chuck Zito, Johnny Angel, and the godfather of all bikers, Ralph “Sonny” Barger. To blend in with them, he gets full-arm ink; to win their respect, he vows to prove himself a stone-cold killer.

Hardest of all is leading a double life, which has him torn between his devotion to his wife and children, and his pledge to become the first federal agent ever to be “fully patched” into the Angels’ near-impregnable ranks. His act is so convincing that he comes within a hairsbreadth of losing himself. Eventually, he realizes that just as he’s been infiltrating the Hells Angels, they’ve been infiltrating him. And just as they’re not all bad, he’s not all good.

No Angel has been described as the new Donnie Brasco and the most in-depth account of the world of Outlaw Biker Gangs since Hunter Thompson’s seminal work, Hell’s Angels (which I might also review one day). In No Angel, we get a riveting account of an undercover ATF agent’s experiences infiltrating the notorious outlaw biker gang – from the initial forays into that world; the scary moment when another biker accuses them of not being genuine (which carries a death penalty); the team’s year-long mission to gain respect and trust in the eyes of local Hells Angels; Dobyn’s eventual prospecting and ‘patching in’ with the Hells Angels; and finally the investigation’s big bust at its completion.

I must admit to the source of my initial interest in this book: I’ve been watching Sons of Anarchy, which is brilliant and has put me in the mood to learn/read/watch more about bikers and their culture, so I ordered this book on the strength of a Newsweek excerpt I remember reading a couple years ago.

Dobyns gives the biker gangs a quite funny acronym: “OMGs”. As someone who hates emoticons and text-speak, I was very amused by this. They are, however, nothing to laugh about: as “America’s only truly indigenous form of international organized crime” – one that has spread alarmingly easily and well-managed – “violence was and is the [main] source of the Hells Angels’ power.”

The ATF’s and other federal law departments’ interest in biker gangs had, prior to the investigation detailed herein, largely been small-scale, and not particularly rewarding or sensational: small-time drugs and weapons charges. With Operation Black Biscuit, the ATF was hoping to slap a great big RICO charge against the Hells Angels. This would require dedication, a long and dangerous investigation. The main impetus for this operation – or at least something that heightened its importance and the increased attention from the federal government – was based largely on the Hells Angels-Mongols rumble at a Laughlin casino, which resulted in a small number of deaths and a large number of hospitalisations (amazingly, though, no civilians were seriously harmed, if at all).

Dobyns goes into a great amount of detail, outlining not only his own investigation, but also gives us a look into the ATF’s past experiences with outlaw biker gangs. He highlights one of the stranger issues:

“some biker investigators assimilate and sympathize with their adversaries. Some even form their own clubs. This has always been a mystery to me. Cops don’t mimic mafia dons or dress as Crips and Bloods and form up neighborhood sets, so why would some choose to create their own motorcycle clubs patterned after criminal syndicates? Maybe it’s because they’re bound by the bikes themselves – one thing that cuts across all of them is the ‘live to ride, ride to live’ credo – but I wouldn’t know since I don’t really love bikes. Go figure.”

This, I must say, I found surprising – I would have thought a perfect agent to send undercover would be one who loved bikes. But, considering the tendency of biker lovers to ‘go native’, perhaps a non-bike-lover was the better choice. In the past, Dobyns explains, “these forces – a disregard for their legitimacy from above, a wary respect and kinship from below – combined to give the bikers some semblance of a safe haven.”

It’s worth mentioning the unfortunate role of women in these worlds – both that of the bikers’ and undercover cops’. No Angel is filled with descriptions of the sorry state of a woman’s lot in the biker world. They are treated very poorly by the bikers. Dobyns explains that many of them were, or appeared to be “old, broken-down women”, who had “been living too hard for too long”:

“Some were attractive, some looked like mudflaps on a snowy day in March.”

Ultimately, they are little more than toys or objects to be passed around and (horrifyingly frequently) shared.

“The women walked away. The backs of their jackets had single patches that read PROPERTY OF THE RED DEVILS. This referred to both the women and the jackets.”

When it comes to female undercover agents, there were problems with finding “Bird”, his undercover alter-ego, a believable and competent “old lady”:

“I’m of the minority opinion in law enforcement circles that women are as capable and essential as men are in undercover assignments, but the truth is they have a hard road to walk. Most of the time they play girlfriends, runners, or mules. What I needed was a woman the Hell’s Angels would actually respect.”

The many horrific, dark and depressing moments mentioned in No Angel – drug ravaged people, child neglect, etc. – are weirdly contrasted with some quite amusing moments and scenes. One, which was particularly funny, is Dobyns’s account of when he and two other tattooed and burly bikers metrosexed it up while waiting for their club president, talking about the aloe in sunscreen before doing each other’s backs: “three bikers rubbing suncream into each other on a hot Phoenix night”. Or when Dobyns mentions his “love [of] the seasonals at Starbucks”; in this case the Halloween seasonal, a “pumpkin-flavored latte with brown sugar cinnamon sprinkles’ which the hulking, tattooed outlaw biker gets “with extra foam and low-fat milk. Totally lame, but there you go.” It’s moments like these that show how, despite his tough-guy image, he’s still human like the rest of us, with eccentricities.

The effect Dobyns’s undercover life has on his home life is interesting. Beyond the expected family tension one might expect from a father and husband who is absent a good deal of the time, the nature of Dobyns’s undercover work, the fact that he has to allow his role to consume him, can make normalcy difficult to achieve. For example, at a neighbourhood party:

“I must have looked like a circus attraction at that party. I was strung out, and fresh tattoos peeked out from the edges of my clothing. I was the only guest with a twisted five-inch corkscrew goatee, that’s for sure.”

His embrace of the biker role meant he couldn’t relate to the people he was supposed to be comfortable around.

“All I could think was that I’d rather be hanging out with my guys. Not just Timmy, Pops, and JJ, but Smitty, Dennis, Bob, Joby – any of them. I didn’t like them more, but I didn’t feel so weird around them.”

For Dobyns (and also myself), the contradictions of the Hell’s Angels are fascinating. The author explains:

“The Hells Angels are separate from society, but they’re rooted in it; they’re noncomformist, but they all look the same; they’re a secret society, but also flamboyant exhibitionists; they flout the laws of the land, but they’re governed by a strict code; their name and their Death Head logo represent freedom, individualism, toughness, and lawlessness, but both name and logo are protected by legal trademarks.”

The camaraderie described by the authors is amazing – it really does give the Hells Angels the feel of a brotherhood – if you were accepted by one, you could be vouched to another – leading to invitations to rallies and parties, all making your time with them blessed.

The internal politics of the club were interesting. As time has passed, there appears to be a growing the rift between young and old members of the club. Covering almost all aspects of club business and function, the issue of drug use and trade, general comportment of members, and also – most importantly – the future direction of the Hells Angels club. Basically, the real-life tension portrayed by the Sons of Anarchy club (only reversed, as it’s the younger SoA Vice-President who wants to take the club in a legitimate direction).

“Generally, younger members felt as though they’d joined the Hells Angels to raise hell, to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to, and not be told otherwise. Older members – members, it should be said, who’d lived this freer, hell-raising lifestyle in decades past – preferred to rest on their laurels, doing whatever they could not to attract attention from the law.”

Following the suspicious, sudden murder of the Hells Angels’ heir-apparent – Daniel “Hoover” Seybert – Dobyns believes the internal tensions are simmering ever-closer to the edge, and might even have been the cause of Hoover’s murder (he was considered one of those wanting a calmer life and more legit club). He and his team started to hear more and more grumbling from the younger members about the strict, softening older members.

The investigation called for Dobyns and his crew to form a biker gang, which they do – an Arizona charter of the Solo Angeles. As they get deeper into the world, tighter with its denizens, and rack up countless drug and gun buys, they still recognise the need to break out of their comfort zones in order to blow the case wide open and make it really count. Dobyns outlines many of these small deals, illustrating the ease with which some of them were completed, the almost blasé attitude the criminals had to buying and selling illegal (often modified) guns or drugs. The slow pace of the operation also created stress within the ATF group as to how best to approach the problem.

“I wanted to pursue the Angels’ offers of membership. How often had a group of cops been given this opportunity? ... I felt we’d never get the true dirt on them as outsiders, that they could profess to trust us Solos till they were blue in the face, but it would never matter because we weren’t Hells Angels. If we wanted to take a swing at these guys... then this was the only way. My answer to break out of the comfort zone was to become a Hells Angel, to give ourselves over to our adversary.”

Given the considerable courting from established Hells Angels charters, and their respected, older members, it’s not surprising that Dobyns wanted to push as hard as possible for membership – literally to be invited into the belly of the beast. Slats, the operation’s ATF leader, had a different perspective. He preferred them to stay Solos, to maintain their relative freedom, but to push for more and bigger deals, to effectively make the Hells Angels’ own greed push them to work with the Solos. Also, if Dobyns and his fellow undercovers became Hells Angels prospects, then “our operation would become tied to the whims of the club and our sponsors.” As Solos, however, “we could do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted.” Dobyns is honest enough to concede that his approach may not have been best: “Slats is expert in the criminal mindset, and he might have been right, too.” When the decision was made, one thing is clear: the members of the task were supremely driven, even zealous – despite their solid case, which would have sent some shockwaves through the Hells Angels, they all wanted to push for a bigger, more devastating case. Their egos didn’t allow them to settle for a smaller bust.

No Angel is a gripping read – I found myself picking it up at every opportunity, and annoyed whenever I was forced to put it down (real life always has a tendency to get in the way of reading...). The glimpse we get of the bikers’ world is not a glamorous one, and yet Dobyns manages to deal with his subject in a balanced manner – his righteousness and hatred for much of it is evident throughout, but he’s not dishonest about the allures the lifestyle and the world present to those who are invited into it.

The writing is tight and stripped down, so you’ll find that you fly through the book. There are the occasional moments of normalcy, when Dobyns goes home to see his wife – his love for his family is clear, and sometimes leads to some slightly soppy chapters – it seems laid on a little thickly, if I’m honest. The strain his undercover work puts on his marriage is also fairly portrayed – he actually takes most of the blame for the difficult situation and stress.

Filled with colourful characters, riveting detail of the bikers’ criminal underbelly, No Angel is a gripping and entertaining account of life as an undercover agent, a detailed account of the dark world of bikers, and highly recommended.

Also try: Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels (2003); Kerrie Droban, Running With the Devil: The True Story of the ATF’s Infiltration of the Hell’s Angels (2009)*; Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, Hell’s Angels (2001), Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free (2003) & Freedom: Credos from the Road (2005); William Marsden & Julian Sher, Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers’ Global Crime Empire (2007); William Queen, Under & Alone (2010); George Wethern & Vincent Colnett, Wayward Angel: The Full Story of the Hell’s Angels (2008); Andrew Shaylor, Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (2007); Sons of Anarchy Seasons 1 & 2 (2009, 2010)

* Running With the Devil appears to parallel some of No Angel, and even ‘Bird’ is mentioned. It doesn’t seem to have been received as well, however.

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