July 23, 2004, Manzana Road, Apple Valley, California
Police found the man’s body spread-eagled facedown in bloody gravel. He looked grizzled, early forties, a tweaker the Daily Press later identified as James Gavin (aka Little Jimmy), a man gunned down “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” One surviving victim, a woman with lazy eyes and skinny shadows, recounted how two strange men opened fire in her living room. One bullet pierced Little Jimmy’s back and penetrated his heart as he fled into the street. Blood spurted from the hole in her own arm and formed dark mosaics on the tile.
Everything happened like flash film, according to the woman, quick hot bursts on a white screen. Sounds amplified, loud bangs, muffled screams, the front door slammed shut like a cough in deep summer. The intended victim had curiously left minutes before the intruders stormed the house. He said he felt “spooked” and set up for a drug rip.
No one guessed the gangland murder had the Vagos’ signature.
No one knew anything about the killer.
No one except me, and technically, I didn’t exist.
Eight months earlier, November 2003, Victor Valley Chapter
San Bernardino County, California, with its thinly populated deserts and high mountains, was home to the Vagos Motorcycle Club, an outlaw biker gang composed mostly of ex-military personnel, known as “violent predators” and dubbed the “largest urban terrorist” organization in the United States by San Bernardino County DA Michael A. Ramos. Intelligence sources warned that the Vagos, known as “the Green Nation,” posed an “extreme threat” to law enforcement. Members had purportedly infiltrated public safety agencies, operating as moles, securing sworn and nonsworn positions, and working undercover to obstruct and dismantle police investigations.
“Can you get inside?” Detective Samantha Kiles1 of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) challenged me one chilly morning before Thanksgiving 2003. She sat across from me in a room in the department’s Criminal Intelligence Division and warmed her hands on her coffee mug. A petite blonde with an affable smile, Kiles disarmed. Trim and fit, she looked every bit a marathon runner. Fiercely determined, she watched me with the steady gaze of a predator sizing up her prey. At six foot three I towered over Kiles even seated. I had no experience with the biker subculture, had never ridden or owned a Harley. Moreover, I didn’t look like a biker. When I smuggled narcotics for the Bulgarian mob, I blended in as a businessman, clean-cut, sharply dressed, no tattoos. But I faced a minimum sentence of twenty-two years in prison for conspiracy to distribute and manufacture a hundred pounds of methamphetamine, so it was in my best interest to cooperate. And I had already been betrayed by my so-called “loyal” minions.
“You grew up here.” Kiles took a sip. True. And I had already proved my reliability as a confidential informant (CI) for the U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Newly released from pretrial house arrest, I now had mobility to work more complex cases, not just drug deals or cartels but gangs. I had voiced as much to my “handler” at the DEA, and he had connected me to Kiles.
“I know skinheads,” I said and named gangs where I could easily blend in as a Caucasian male. But more than any other group, Kiles advised, the Vagos terrorized Southern California.
My poverty-stricken childhood as a white sore in a Hispanic barrio flashed in my mind’s eye. Freedom had one exit and I took it: I became a drug dealer, my life consumed by smuggling large quantities of cocaine from South America to Europe. Money motivated me and I had talent. At the time I justified my activities with my own felonious code of ethics—at least I wasn’t a snitch or a child rapist. And as the drug market evolved from cocaine to methamphetamine, I became a cook, earning half a million dollars a year. As I shuffled from room to room in my spacious mansion with its white walls and fancy leather furniture, I struggled to save the illusion even as my addiction ravaged me. Money blew around me, smacked into the ceiling fans, fluttered into the street like confetti. My expensive cars disappeared, repossessed. My wife left. Sweat drenched me. I paced the halls, slammed each door shut, worried that the shadow people might find me. Without electricity, my house became an inferno.
Foil covered my windows, blocking the sunlight. My life continued without definition, hour after hour of endless monotony. I closed my eyes and hoped no one saw me. Pounding at my front door, loud, crisp shouts: Police. Open up. I raced to the nearest bathroom. On my knees, hands shaking, I flushed drugs down the toilet. Water splashed onto my cheeks. My head clouded with noise. Black-clad bodies crashed through my bathroom door, their raid jackets announcing in bold white letters LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF SWAT TEAM. MP5 machine guns targeted my chest and red laser beams framed my heart, yet I felt sudden relief.
Other federal agencies had launched several unsuccessful investigations into the Vagos. Four or five times the size of the Hells Angels in Southern California, the gang’s violence was legion, and law enforcement had become increasingly alarmed as the Vagos’ penchant for brutal and unprovoked assaults, firearms trafficking, distribution and sale of dangerous narcotics, extortion, loan-sharking, and murder spread from the biker scene into the general population. Like rats, the gang members lived deep in the city’s sewers, foul and deadly. But the government had no interest in pest control; they needed extermination.
“What do I have to do?” I folded my arms across my chest, pumped for the assignment. Kiles briefed me on the Vagos’ history and growth: The club formed in the 1960s in San Bernardino City and spanned twenty-four chapters in Southern California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah with ten chapters in Mexico (Baja California, Jalisco, and Mexico City). The gang, originally called the Psychos, chose as its insignia Loki, the Norse god of mischief, riding a motorcycle. The gang had no official enemy, no incentive to declare war on rivals like the Hells Angels or Mongols. So-called fence riders, their power derived from their unpredictability and terror campaigns. The club subscribed to the philosophy that it was better to be feared than revered. They were the mafia on wheels but without the pretense of respectability or legitimacy. The Vagos never hid their brutality; they flaunted it. And whether their bravado derived from sheer machismo, raw animal instinct, or jockeying for position in the drug economy, their acts left a staggering body count.
“Get inside, gather intelligence on the gang, identify the club’s leaders, purchase drugs from them, and collect as many illegal firearms as you can,” Kiles said and recited a list of bars the Vagos frequented within a forty-mile radius of my apartment. Members would not be difficult to spot, she continued. Outlaw biker gangs proudly flew their “cuts,” denim or leather sleeveless vests adorned with coded patches that signified a member’s criminal and sexual achievements. They wanted the public to know they were outlaws, so-called one percenters who represented a minority of motorcycle enthusiasts responsible for committing 99 percent of all crime.2
“Look for officers.” Kiles drained her coffee, but when I said I had no clue what officers were, she simplified: “the green patch.” Full-patch members wore a bottom rocker that announced CALIFORNIA and a top arc that displayed VAGOS. The triangular center patch reinforced the “V” of Vagos and depicted Loki. The name Vagos, though sounding vaguely Hispanic, actually stemmed from the word “vagabond”—moving around—and its membership was 70 percent white (the leadership, however, was Hispanic).
“After that, you’ll have to improvise.”
My “pay” for my risk was time, not money. If I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life behind bars, I would have to produce results. Twenty-two years tightened like a noose around my neck. I had no plan, no bike, and no government protection. I had never felt more alone.
* * *
At first, I took Kiles’s lead and hung out at armpits like the Motherlode, hoping to eavesdrop on conversations with bikers as I shot pool and drank beer with patrons. The Vagos’ drinking cheer, “Viva Los Vagos and butt fuck the rest,” thundered through the place. Graffiti on the walls was a strange combination of reality and fantasy, from Grand Theft Auto gaming—a fictional Hispanic street gang in Los Angeles at war with a fictional Grove Street gang. I watched members slam back shots. Stress coursed through me like an electric current. I lived in a dingy apartment thirty miles from the county line with my pit bull, Hercules. Each night I drove in the chilly darkness from my home to the bar, then back home, often stumbling in after three in the morning, dehydrated, hungry, sleep deprived, and anxious about beginning the charade again hours later.
After two weeks of nothing, I formulated a plan.
The Motherlode, situated in Hesperia, smelled rank, a mixture of beer, piss, and puke. Harleys lined the perimeter. Music pulsed like a frantic heartbeat. Dimly lit, hazy from cigarette smoke, cramped with pool tables, a jukebox, and green-tinted walls (in honor of the Vagos), the place buzzed with an undercurrent of violence. Several full-patch Vagos huddled together, beers in hand. The bartender, a rough-looking troll of a woman, slid a cold Bud across the counter toward me with hands that resembled slabs of meat. Green fluorescent lights flickered above the bar. Paraphernalia advertising Vagos’ parties (we called them “runs”) littered one corner. Conversation punctuated the noise like grunts.
My attention focused on an attractive brunette draped around a worn denim-clad biker who looked like something recovered from the trash. Dressed in black jeans, shirtless, with tattoos covering every inch of his arms and a green swastika tattoo across his protruding belly. A grisly handlebar mustache framed his mouth. A green bandanna covered his tightly cropped hair. The number 22 was displayed prominently on his left arm, for the twenty-second letter of the alphabet: “V” for Vagos. The woman glanced at me, and her expression lacked the haunted, vacant look of an addict. Color washed her cheeks. She had glossy hair and teeth. I wanted to rescue her. What was she doing with him?
“That’s Vinny’s old lady,” a tweaker (meth addict) next to me volunteered over the noise. The woman offered a startling contrast. She was clearly a misfit among misfits, strangely protected as the property of Vinny. No random bikers pawed her or passed her around their laps, unlike the tweaker, a waiflike bleached blonde, who fluttered in the shadows like a fly, landing randomly on bikers who cruelly swatted her away. I snapped my fingers at the troll bartender. I had found opportunity: women.
“Can I buy you a beer?”
My heart raced as I approached Vinny’s table. He frowned menacingly at me and left the chilly bottle sweating next to him. He resembled a bull—stocky, spun tight, and ready to charge the gate at the first sound of gunfire. Young, maybe midthirties, he had the hardened look of tough leather. I eased the tension between us through flattery, told him I admired the Vagos, especially after one had defended me in jail. Vinny bought the lie and drained his beer. His girlfriend also approved. She smiled at me and introduced me to her pals at the table: Bandit, Cornfed, Spoon, Truck. They formed a green blur of patches. We exchanged few words. Mostly we stared at each other. The woman smiled. I smiled at her. Truck spread over two seats. I struggled for an opening, something that might connect us. It was a little like being at a table with large blow-up dolls.
Then action broke the awkward silence. Vinny scowled and motioned to a patron seated at the bar. The letters “IE” (for Inland Empire in the Riverside–San Bernardino area) were prominent on the back of his neck. Clearly an outsider. Vinny’s face flushed and he stood without a word, curled his hand into a fist, and slammed it into the man’s temple. The startled gang member fell backward, grabbed his head, stumbled outside with his wife in tow, and climbed into his white Suburban. The sound of tires peeling made my heart race. And then the scene outside played in slow motion as the Suburban plowed through the Vagos’ motorcycles, knocking over Vinny’s in the process.
The kickstand gouged the asphalt. Game on. Just like that, my first meaningful night of Vagos infiltration was over before it even began. As bikes hit the pavement, Vagos emptied the bar like so many roaches and chased the Suburban into the street. Truck puffed to the curb and jotted down the license plate. Sweat poured from his temple.
“We’ll find out where he lives.” He slipped the note into his pocket. Undeterred by the cops’ presence, he added, “We’ll take care of business.” Instinctively I knew what that meant. The Vagos planned to hunt down the gang member, drag him to a desolate place, and show him the meaning of respect. No exchange of insurance information or beating. The Vagos, if they found their victim, likely intended to stomp the driver, demolish his Suburban, smash the headlights, kick in the car doors, break the windows, and gut the engine. There would be no “victim” and no police report, no prosecution. Fear of retaliation by club members would silence him.
Later, sitting on the edge of my bed, Hercules’ head on my knee, I reported the threat to Kiles but knew even as I did that there was little hope her department could stop the certain violence. The victim would become part of the human debris, another nameless figure in a terror war without rules. I realized then that I didn’t want just to report intelligence to Kiles. I wanted to make a dent, to get inside the Vagos’ organization, befriend the leadership, be a Vago.
But how did I do that without a bike, protection, or money?
After the incident at the Motherlode, the troll banned the Vagos from her bar. Vinny regrouped at Hustlers, a dive thirty miles from my apartment. The place resembled a sweaty cave. Smoke lingered in the air and cast a ghostly glow over the members’ faces as they huddled over beer and discussed their next motorcycle run. Their goal was always to “black out” police surveillance and to party uninhibited in deserted areas. But even serious discussion yielded to distraction, to Terrible, a neo-Nazi lowrider and longtime hang-around for the Victorville Vagos chapter. He personified violence: chiseled features, tattooed .22 on his neck, pierced forehead, and two protruding flesh devil horns. He had already consumed five beers in the span of an hour when he boasted that his brother, Robbery, had shot a man in the face. The confession sputtered out of him like a defective spark. My recorder clicked inside my jockstrap. I had removed the cup and tucked the device into the flap between my legs. My underwear secured it in place, and unless someone grabbed me in the crotch, I was fairly sure I was safe from detection.
Terrible gave me a swift lesson in payback. “A guy owed him money. He fell asleep behind the wheel, wrecked his car, and spent two months in the hospital in back traction.” His laugh strangled out of him as if he were unused to talking. I nodded. Payback. Terrible twitched beside me, growing increasingly agitated by the sudden lull in the conversation, the irregular gaps. He seemed unaware that his story about his brother began in the middle, as if we had met before, as if I had asked, as if I knew that Terrible once belonged to a family. Lost in a drug fog, his world rushed at him in fragments, bits and pieces of speech, flashes of memory, wide desolate spaces that left him confused and panicked. He struggled to make sense of things that made no sense at all.
Maybe it was tension that propelled him, maybe a need to restore order to his chaos that made him spring without warning from his stool, ball his hands into fists, and move like a wrecking ball through the bar, targeting any patron who looked at him sideways. His improvisational style had a cartoonish flair as he knocked bodies to the floor and slipped in rancid grease and broken glass. Warm beer spilled over my hands. My first test: Would I jump in or back off? Either way, I was screwed. If I punched too hard and hurt someone, I might gain the approval of the Vagos but the reprimand of the sheriff’s department. Not that I had a noose, really. I wasn’t bound by government strictures, but I had to stay clean, participate carefully, and weigh the pros and cons of being too much a gentleman. The government wanted measured success: arrests, kilos of dope, useful intelligence. But bait, like me, required patience.
I was on the hook, in swift white water, waiting to be eaten.
I swung. A patron rode Terrible’s back like a growth, his hands circling Terrible’s throat. I punched the man off. He hit the floor, staggered at the impact, caught his breath, and rebounded. I played fair, not mean, conscious that eyes watched me, judged me, and assessed my allegiance. And after several rounds of punch, wait, punch, wait, an invisible bell chimed and the boxing match ended. The back of my hand swelled red and glossy. Blood trickled through slits in my victim’s eyes as he crawled away in defeat. For what seemed like several moments, I heard nothing but heavy breathing. Then, like a stampede, full-patch members scrambled to the doors ready to continue the fight in the street.
Terrible swatted me on the back, looking relieved. He snapped his fingers at the bartender, “Beer for the hang-around.” Just like that, I had advanced in rank, relegated one level above women and dogs. Like the Mafia, the Vagos and other OMGs had their circle of criminal followers called “prospects” and “hang-arounds,” mob associates willing and ready to carry out the gang’s dirty work, using the club as a conduit for criminal enterprises. Terrible made me his official chauffeur, grateful that someone else lacked the quintessential biker accessory, a motorcycle.
* * *
Days later, the Vagos reserved a bar in the middle of nowhere and planned their next run. The destination, always a secret among members to keep cops guessing, had more hype than delivery. In the end, surveillance always knew the Vagos’ locations. In fact, most law enforcement made a production of videotaping the gang, snapping their photos, recording intelligence. When we arrived at the bar, a crumbling shell of a structure against a black, empty landscape, the members straddled chairs and stools in the mostly blank space and looked at each other with glazed eyes. No one drank. Cops might be stationed along the stretch of dirt road, hidden in the sandy ditches, waiting to initiate arrests for drunk driving.
General paranoia settled in. And boredom led to recklessness: women.
They flickered in the dark like dying bulbs, some partially nude, others barely dressed. Without rules or limits, men pawed them randomly, pinched a butt cheek, twisted a nipple, and sampled them as if they were snacks on the table. In a corner, Vagos climbed one after the other onto the pool table, straddled another nameless body. I saw legs quivering like slippery white meat. I was in trouble. It was one thing to knock the wind out of some unsuspecting victim, knowing the man might be sore for a few days, might bruise, but otherwise recover. It was another thing entirely to watch the brutalization of women or, worse, to be forced to participate. When the human auction began, I bolted for the bathroom.
The foul-smelling urinals nearly made me gag. The walls, smeared with excrement and marked by graffiti, formed a tiny refuge. I splashed cold water on my face, afraid the bowl might breed bacteria. My reflection in the rusty mirror distorted. Dark circles surrounded my eyes. The emotional drain of being two people had taken its toll: I was no monster, no sociopath, nothing remotely like the Vagos I pretended to admire. Behind my mask of calm, I imploded, suddenly unsure whether I could really do this, become a bona fide member of an outlaw motorcycle gang. With no gun, no backup, and no relief, I had nothing but raw instinct to guide me.
Would that be enough?
I expected they would test me: Would I fight, do drugs, do women, do crimes, kill for the club? When I returned to the table, the members focused on a more pressing goal, red wings: cunnilingus with a menstruating woman. Surrounded by former Marines from both the Victor Valley and Victorville chapters of the Vagos, Rhino, the sergeant at arms, a stocky tank of a man with massive sleeved arms like loaves of bread and gauges in both ears, and Twist, his young sidekick and a hardened sociopath, selected their target. The woman, a club groupie, volunteered to be the prize, probably hoping afterward to advance in rank to “property” of or “old lady” of a full-patch member.
She had a dirty beauty: I’d seen her earlier, flat against the wall, humped by three Vagos in succession. Her expression stoic, eyes closed, not enjoying the degradation but not protesting either. They mounted her like animals, oblivious of others in the bar, to their public environment. They grunted, covered her face with their large claw hands, and relieved themselves as mindlessly as if they were taking a piss. Her tangled blond hair fell across their shoulders.
Red wings had a protocol, at least two full-patch witnesses. Rhino and Lizard volunteered for the job and I tagged along as a guard, not because I wanted to watch three men pin a poor woman’s head to the toilet rim and spread her legs wide, but because I needed to know she would be safe. Thin and pale, she looked as if she might blow away. Twist tugged her into the girls’ bathroom, a smelly black hole-in-the-wall with two stalls. The toilet bowls, peppered with caked urine, dried feces, and rust streaks, protruded from exposed pipes.
The air stank of rot and stale water. Twist ordered the woman to strip. Lizard, a fifty-five-year-old drug addict, wore a crazed expression that made him look as if he were still lost in an LSD trip. He shut the door in my face. I waited in the sweaty dark listening for jeers, cries, banging. But I heard nothing, as if the room swallowed them, transported them to a dark unspeakable place. When they emerged minutes later, Twist spat several times into his bandanna, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Lizard and Rhino slapped him approvingly on the back. The bathroom door creaked closed. I peeked inside, saw a shape curled at the base of the toilet, and heard a faint sniffle.
Lizard lurked in the shadows, watching me, testing me, waiting for me to do something out of character, to react as anyone with a conscience would. But I didn’t. Instead I watched the woman struggle, the floor beneath her chest gritty with broken glass. Slivers of beer bottles winked like dark ice in the urinal. She crawled to the door where I stood, her jeans balled at her ankles, her torn panties stained with blood.
I pressed into the wall, resisted the urge to help her up, knowing that if I showed any compassion, any human residue, I would be finished, my cover blown.
Copyright © 2013 by Charles Falco and Kerrie Droban