In 2010, the small, rural city of Hemet, California, made headlines when its tiny police department was besieged by a series of booby traps aimed at killing gang task-force officers. The police quickly focused their attention on a local gang of skinheads and an outlaw band of bikers known as the Vagos. It turned out that the alleged attackers had an axe to grind with a local anti-gang detective, and had no connection with the two groups.
Now, the Vagos International Motorcycle Club has filed a lawsuit claiming their reputation was tarnished by the investigation. The 14-page lawsuit, filed March 17, alleges that law-enforcement officials defamed the 42-year-old club by referring to them at a press conference as "cockroaches" and "terrorists" who pose "an extreme threat to law enforcement."
"It is the first time a motorcycle gang has sued me," said Richard Dana, former chief of police of the Hemet Police Department. Named defendants in the lawsuit include former Riverside County District Attorney Rodric Pacheco, a Riverside County sheriff's captain, and Dana.
The attacks rattled the city of 88,000 once known for its mobile-home parks, retirement communities, and the "Ramona Pageant," California's longest-running outdoor play. In recent years, Hemet, which is located 40 miles west of Palm Springs, has been plagued by foreclosures, marijuana grow houses, meth labs, and an influx of gangs. About 25 chapters of the Vagos call the rural cities and counties of California's Inland Empire home.
The police have long thought the Vagos—known for its burly bikers who sport green jackets and patches with the image of Loki, the Norse god of mischief—were involved in the illicit drug trade and weapons trafficking. Over the years, members of the Vagos have been implicated in assaults, extortion, insurance fraud, vehicle theft, witness intimidation, weapons violations, and murder.
“It is the first time a motorcycle gang has sued me,” said the former chief of police.
Last December, two Vagos members, including the president of the Vagos' San Bernardino chapter, were found guilty of the brutal murder of a Fontana man over the sale of a motorcycle. The man's badly beaten body was found bound with zip ties and duct tape in April 2003. In January 2010, a Vagos member and his wife were convicted of the slaying of a former Marine who disappeared in 2007. The man had been shot, bludgeoned, and suffocated with duct tape.
Law-enforcement authorities consider the Vagos to be "one-percenters," a subculture of motorcycle gangs that enforce a set of written bylaws upon their members, maintain websites, sell biker memorabilia, and trademark their names and logos. Prospective Vagos members are put through an extensive background check and participate in a "hangaround" phase in which they have to complete a series of tasks and hazing-style rituals before they are accepted into the club, law-enforcement sources say.
"They have the same propensity for violence as the Mongols and Hells Angels," said a former federal law-enforcement source who didn't want to be identified. They are classified as a criminal street gang, so judges can give stiffer penalties if members are convicted.
"The criminals in these gangs pose a threat to public safety in the local communities in which they operate because of their wide-ranging criminal activity, propensity to use violence, and ability to counter law-enforcement efforts," said John A. Torres, special agent in charge of the ATF in Los Angeles.
But the club doles out another form of vigilante justice, as well: lawsuits. In 2006, local and federal authorities raided over 70 homes of Vagos members. Some of the members were arrested for firearms and drug violations. In 2009, five Vagos members who were not arrested in the raid, dubbed Operation 22, filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging that some Vagos members and their families were threatened, intimidated, and had machine guns pointed at their heads. In one instance, 3-year-old twin boys were carried downstairs in their diapers by officers wielding 12-gauge shotguns. In another case, a four-month-old puppy was pepper-sprayed.
"They file lawsuits all the time," scoffed the federal law-enforcement source. "It is just their nature. They are trying to get money any way they can."
Beverly Hills lawyer Joseph Yanny, who represents the Vagos in the two lawsuits, said the group is misunderstood. A large number of its members are upstanding citizens who work as contractors, business owners, lawyers, and teachers, he said. Eighty percent are clean and sober. One is an ordained pastor.
Former longtime Vagos President Terry Orendorff told The Daily Beast that he has had his home and business raided numerous times by federal authorities. He said he has never been charged with a crime.
"Over the years law enforcement had problems with us mainly because I guess they just don't like us," said Orendorff. "We get accused of a lot of things we don't have a part of."
Orendorff said the group gets a bad rap because of a few bad apples. "There are things that happen in the club you don't know about till it's on the news," he said. "You find out someone had a bar room brawl and they don't tell even your own president. By the time the officers find out, it's almost too late to do something about it. I am not going to say the club is goodie-two-shoes—out of a few thousand guys you will have some bad apples—but it is no different from the sheriff's department or the Masons."
Orendorff, who is writing a book about his 26 years as international president of the Vagos, also blamed TV shows like Sons of Anarchy for perpetuating the violent bad-boy stereotype. "It's stuff that makes outlaw clubs look really bad," he said. "Who shoots it out with the cops? Who has the cops on the payroll? That stuff went out in the '20s."
The latest rift between the burly bikers and local law enforcement began on December 31, 2009, when natural gas was rerouted into the office of the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force office. In February, a homemade gun was attached to a gate outside the task-force office. When an officer attempted to open the gate, the gun fired a single shot that whizzed by his head, missing him by inches. The brazen attacks, which included a botched attempt to blow up the police station with a World War II-era bazooka training rocket and an arson fire that gutted the Hemet Police evidence-storage facility, put the police department on high alert.
"We were going everyplace we could go," said Dana. "Frankly when it started we didn't know who it was."
Over a six-month period, officers routinely checked their squad cars for explosive devices. Roadblocks, barricades, and fences went up around the station. California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced a $200,000 reward for those responsible for the "urban terrorism" in Hemet.
Eleven days after a gang officer found a pipe bomb attached to his unmarked car, local police, with the aid of federal agents, raided some of the homes and businesses of Vagos members in a sweep dubbed "Operation Everywhere." In the end, no one was charged with the attacks. Amid the intense efforts to find the culprits, Riverside DA Pacheco referred to the Vagos at a press conference as "an extreme threat to law enforcement."
One of the businesses raided was the dental office of Harry Hart, a member of the Vagos. Hart said his business was tossed in the middle of the afternoon by a team of law-enforcement officers. "I am a combat veteran," said Hart. "I was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star. They had people come in my office when I had patients. We have had enough of it and we are fighting back… I earn the right to be respected and I have been disrespected by the same police department I gave donations to."
Police said they became suspicious of the Vagos after gang task-force officers questioned club members leaving a funeral near the task-force headquarters two days before the sabotage. A few weeks later, a Vagos member was arrested after he was found loitering by the scene of an arson fire that destroyed four code-compliance vehicles near the police station. Dana said the biker was released because he didn't have anything to do with the attacks.
Suspicion spread to a local white-supremacist group after officers discovered a handbook on the Internet by the skinheads that detailed how to make deadly booby traps. In another raid, 16 people linked to the white-supremacist group were arrested, but again no one was charged with the attacks. Then, in July, Nicholas John Smit and Steven Hansen were charged with the bulk of the attacks after police detectives discovered that Smit was allegedly harboring a grudge against an anti-gang detective who busted him in June 2009 for cultivating marijuana. The two men were not members of the Vagos or the skinheads.
"It was very clear they were blaming the Vagos for what happened in Hemet," said Yanny. Because of the attacks on the clubs' reputation, Yanny said that some of the bikers have lost their jobs, have been refused entry to clubs and bars, and have been barred from attending church activities.
Former DA Pacheco could not be reached for comment. Dana, who is now retired from the Hemet Police Department, said he was very careful to not to accuse the Vagos at the press conference. "Frankly, my hesitation was we would eventually catch the bad guys and I didn't want to make a premature statement about who it was and then have to explain it later."
Orendorff begs to differ. "It was a witch hunt," he said.
Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.