Hells Angels Biker Gang
The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) is a worldwide one-percenter motorcycle club whose members typically ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The organization is “predominantly white male” and is considered an organized crime syndicate by the United States Department of Justice. In the United States and Canada, the Hells Angels are incorporated as the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation. Common nicknames for the club are the “H.A.”, “Red & White”, and “81”.
|Motto||“Angels Forever, Forever Angels” (traditional)“When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.” (unspecific, one-percenter saying)|
|Founded||March 17, 1948|
|Leader title||National President|
|Key people||Sonny Barger|
|Type||Outlaw motorcycle club|
|Region||Worldwide (425 chapters in 50 countries)|
|Abbreviation||HA, 81, HAMC|
The Hells Angels were started on March 17, 1948, by the Bishop family, American war immigrants in Fontana, California followed by an amalgamation of former members from different motorcycle clubs, such as the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington. The Hells Angels’ website denies the suggestion that any misfit or malcontent troops are connected with the motorcycle club. The website also notes that the name was suggested by Arvid Olsen, an associate of the founders, who had served in the Flying Tigers’ “Hell’s Angels” squadron in China during World War II. The name “Hell’s Angels” was inspired by the typical naming of American squadrons, or other fighting groups, with a fierce, death-defying title in World Wars I and II, e.g., the Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group) in Burma and China fielded three squadrons of P-40s and the third Squadron was called “Hell’s Angels”. In 1930, the Howard Hughes film Hell’s Angels displayed extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation, and it is believed that the World War II groups who used that name based it on the film.
Some of the early history of the HAMC is not clear, and accounts differ. According to Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, founder of the Oakland chapter, early chapters of the club were founded in San Francisco, California, Gardena, Fontana, California, Oakland, California and elsewhere, with the members usually being unaware that there were other clubs. One of the lesser known clubs existed in North Chino/South Pomona, California, in the late 1960s.
Other sources claim that the Hells Angels in San Francisco were organized in 1953 by Rocky Graves, a Hells Angel member from San Bernardino (“Berdoo”) implying that the “Frisco” Hells Angels were very much aware of their forebears. The “Frisco” Hells Angels were reorganized in 1955 with thirteen charter members, Frank Sadilek serving as President, and using the smaller, original logo. The Oakland chapter, at the time headed by Barger, used a larger version of the “Death’s Head” patch nicknamed the “Barger Larger”, which was first used in 1959. It later became the club standard.
The Hells Angels are often depicted in semi-mythical romantic fashion like the 19th-century James–Younger Gang: free-spirited, iconic, bound by brotherhood and loyalty. At other times, such as in the 1966 Roger Corman film The Wild Angels, they are depicted as violent and nihilistic, little more than a violent criminal gang and a scourge on society.
The club became prominent within, and established its notoriety as part of, the 1960s counterculture movement in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene, playing a part at many of the movement’s seminal events. Members were directly connected to many of the counterculture’s primary leaders, such as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mick Farren and Tom Wolfe. The club launched the career of “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Criminologist Karen Katz said in 2011 that the Hells Angels were the center of a moral panic in Canada involving the media, politicians, law enforcement, and the public that sensationalized the importance of isolated criminal acts.
Criminal activities and incidents
Numerous police and international intelligence agencies classify the Hells Angels as one of the “big four” motorcycle gangs, along with the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos, and contend that members carry out widespread violent crimes, including drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion, and are involved in prostitution. Members of the organization have continuously asserted that they are only a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, to organize social events such as group road trips, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies, and that any crimes are the responsibility of the individuals who carried them out and not the club as a whole.
The Hells Angels’ official website attributes the official “death’s head” insignia design to Frank Sadilek, past president of the San Francisco chapter. The colors and shape of the early-style jacket emblem (prior to 1953) were copied from the insignias of the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron.
The Hells Angels utilize a system of patches similar to military medals. Although the specific meaning of each patch is not publicly known, the patches identify specific or significant actions or beliefs of each biker. The official colors of the Hells Angels are red lettering displayed on a white background—hence the club’s nickname “The Red and White”. These patches are worn on leather or denim jackets and vests.
Red and white are also used to display the number 81 on many patches, as in “Support 81, Route 81”. The 8 and 1 stand for the respective positions in the alphabet of H and A. These are used by friends and supporters of the club in deference to club rules, which purport to restrict the wearing of Hells Angels imagery to club members.
The diamond-shaped one-percenter patch is also used, displaying ‘1%’ in red on a white background with a red merrowed border. The term one-percenter is said to be a response to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) comment on the Hollister incident, to the effect that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens and the last 1% were outlaws. The AMA has no record of such a statement to the press, and calls this story apocryphal.
Most members wear a rectangular patch (again, white background with red letters and a red merrowed border) identifying their respective chapter locations. Another similarly designed patch reads “Hells Angels”. When applicable, members of the club wear a patch denoting their position or rank within the organization. The patch is rectangular and, similar to the patches described above, displays a white background with red letters and a red merrowed border. Some examples of the titles used are President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Sergeant at Arms. This patch is usually worn above the ‘club location’ patch. Some members also wear a patch with the initials “AFFA”, which stands for “Angels Forever; Forever Angels”, referring to their lifelong membership in the biker club (i.e., “once a member, always a member”).
The book Gangs, written by Tony Thompson (a crime correspondent for The Observer), states that Stephen Cunningham, a member of the Angels, sported a new patch after he recovered from attempting to set a bomb, consisting of two Nazi-style SS lightning bolts below the words ‘Filthy Few’. Some law enforcement officials claim that the patch is only awarded to those who have committed, or are prepared to commit murder on behalf of the club. According to a report from the R. v. Bonner and Lindsay case in 2005 (see related section below), another patch, similar to the ‘Filthy Few’ patch is the ‘Dequiallo’ patch. This patch “signifies that the wearer has fought law enforcement on arrest.” There is no common convention as to where the patches are located on the members’ jacket/vest.
The HAMC acknowledges more than one hundred chapters spread over 29 countries. The Hells Angels motorcycle club founded a chapter in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961 and has since taken over gangs in Wanganui. New Zealand had the first chapter of the Hells Angels outside the United States. Europe did not become widely home to the Hells Angels until 1969 when two London chapters were formed. The Beatles‘ George Harrison invited some members of the HAMC San Francisco to stay at Apple Records in London in 1968. According to Chris O’Dell, only two members showed up at Apple Records, Frisco Pete and Bill “Sweet William” Fritsch. Two people from London visited California, “prospected”, and ultimately joined. Two charters were issued on July 30, 1969; one for “South London”—the re-imagined chapter renewing the already existing 1950 South London chapter—and the other for “East London”, but by 1973 the two charters came together as one, called “London”. The London Angels provided security at a number of UK Underground festivals including Phun City in 1970 organized by Mick Farren. They awarded Farren an “approval patch” in 1970 for use on his first solo album Mona, which also featured Steve Peregrin Took (who was credited as “Shagrat the Vagrant”).
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major expansion of the club into Canada. The Quebec Biker war was a violent turf war that began in 1994 and continued until late 2002 in Montreal. The war began as the Hells Angels in Quebec began to make a push to establish a monopoly on street-level drug sales in the province. A number of drug dealers and crime families resisted and established groups such as the “Alliance to fight the Angels”. The war resulted in the bombings of many establishments and murders on both sides. It has claimed more than 150 lives and led to the incarceration of over 100 bikers.
Members of the Spanish Chapter were involved in a killing and tried.
A list of acknowledged chapters can be found on the HAMC’s official website.