Ontario busts reveal Angels' grip on national drug trade
Globe and Mail - July 17, 2004.
Globe and Mail - July 17, 2004.
So did the cocaine.
Tucked into a nondescript commercial plaza on
Or so the patrons thought.
One of the skimpily clad waitresses had more on her mind than flirting and serving suds. She was also an agent for
In the four years since the Hells Angels expanded into
With guile, determination and stealth, it has eschewed the murderous bombings, and escaped the public outrage, that proved the gang's undoing in
As a result,
Penetrating that network poses major difficulties.
"We call it the power of the patch," says one veteran biker cop. "They don't even look at the possibility of that full-patch [member] being an informant. I don't even know how you'd question him."
In one sense, nothing is new. The RCMP's criminal intelligence service has said for years that
But the gang's primary moneymaker in
"When you arrest someone for drugs and ask who it's from, they say it's HA coke. Ninety per cent of the time it's HA coke," says a police officer in the
The three-year police operation barely made a dent in the biker gang's interests in the lucrative trade. The market here is simply too big. And the Angels here are simply too powerful.
Deploying wiretaps, surveillance and drug buys in and around Country Bebops, police arrested 84 people in April of 2003, a staggering prosecutorial load still working its way through an overburdened court system. Heading up the drug network, police allege, was a full-patch member of the downtown Toronto Hells Angels chapter based at
The man's case is pending, and a court order bars publication of his name.
But from public court filings, guilty pleas entered by several of his associates and interviews with investigators and biker insiders, The Globe and Mail has pieced together a picture of the network, a rare glimpse into the underground cocaine economy that thrives in
A Colombian drug trafficker named Reinaldo Trujillo supplied some of the cocaine that passed through the Bebops bar, according to court documents. But most of it came from the bikers' "
Times have changed.
Five years ago, Ontario's outlaw bikers were scattered among a handful of gangs, such as the Satan's Choice, Outlaws and Para-Dice Riders, whose interests lay chiefly in motorcycle runs, small-scale drug trafficking and extortion. They jousted for position and occasionally clashed, but for the most part kept to themselves.
The ground began shifting in the late 1990s, when emissaries from the
Blending intimidation and violence with the allure of the HA global brand, the campaign succeeded brilliantly. On Dec. 29, 2000, at the Angels' clubhouse in Sorel, Que., 179 Ontario bikers became instant Hells Angels, bypassing the gang's normal recruitment process, which typically takes up to four years.
The patchover was a masterstroke, forging, for the first time, a geographic link between the powerful
Court records from recent biker-related trials across
Squaring off against the 15
Both sides are scrambling to learn lessons from drug busts, police infiltrations and all-too-often botched court cases in other provinces.
For the Hells Angels, a key objective is to sanitize their operations and lower their profile, police say. Club members have been ordered not to use HA symbols in the commission of extortions. They've been instructed not to plead guilty to charges of belonging to a criminal organization, under the federal anti-gang law, on pain of being expelled.
"The greatest myth the public has is that these individuals are motorcycle enthusiasts; they are not," says Detective Inspector Don Bell, head of the BEU. "This is sophisticated organized crime, people that you do not want in our community."
The bikers present things differently.
"I'm not saying we're all angels," counters Donny Petersen, intending no pun. "I'm just saying there's no level playing field."
Mr. Petersen is the designated spokesman for the Hells Angels in
"If a Hells Angel gets charged with any crime, the automatic assumption is that there's guilt," he says in the office of his
Mr. Petersen, like many of
The Hells Angels promised at the time of the patchover that there would be no reprise of the violence that marked their bloody history in
"You will find us courteous and accommodating," Mr. Petersen said at the time, insisting they were "a motorcycle club and not a 'gang.' " After a showy first anniversary party in downtown
"They don't try to take over a bar like they do in
Also gone, for many, are the trademark bushy beards and greasy hair. Some Hells Angels these days sport fashionable crew cuts, part of the new corporate image.
No single crime organization controls the cocaine trade, says RCMP Superintendent Ron Allen, who oversees drug enforcement in the Greater Toronto Area. "The different groups work the same way the police do; they integrate.
"But in the majority of major shipments of cocaine we find -- meaning loads of say, 20 kilos or 60 kilos -- when we peel back the layers we constantly find some level of involvement by the bikers. They have their hands in it at all levels: shipment, distribution, money collection."
That's in Southern and Central
"In the north, the HA more or less control the market. It's red-and-white coke or no coke," says the BEU's Det. Insp. Bell, referring to the Hells Angels' colours.
That monopoly is reflected in the quality of the product. In
The number of cocaine-related deaths in
But data compiled by
In 1997, the figure had edged up to 2.7 per cent -- roughly the same as with ecstasy use -- while the figure for marijuana was 25.9 per cent. By last year, among that same group, both ecstasy and marijuana use had increased slightly. But the rise in cocaine use was much more pronounced, almost double the 1997 figure, reaching 5.1 per cent.
Ed Adlaf, a research scientist at the centre, offers a twofold explanation for the recent jump. One is a diminished realization of the damage cocaine causes. The second, he says, is that there's far more cocaine on the street than there used to be. "More and more students are reporting easy availability, compared to the early 1990s."
Detective Constable J. D. Lapell, a veteran drug officer with the
"And the information we're getting is that a lot of this goes back to the bikers, channelled through many sets of hands."
The Country Bebops sting originated in 2000 when Detective Duncan MacIntyre of the province's Special Squad (now the BEU) began investigating what looked to be a small drug operation. But as he identified networks and cells, the project quickly grew. By January of 2002, with the waitress-agent firmly in place, extensive wiretaps and surveillance were under way.
The investigation was code-named Operation Shirlea, a reference to the Hells Angels chapter based on Shirlea Avenue, in Keswick north of Toronto. Up to 25 officers were deployed full-time, with a budget exceeding $4-million.
Like any other retail product, cocaine must be bought, packaged and delivered to market. Around the Formica tables at Country Bebops, the biker patrons made deals, set prices and arranged deliveries. The police agent became so trusted that her apartment was used as a stash house, with the drugs stored in a strongbox.
Periodically police disrupted the supply lines with arrests. But they were impressed by the ease with which the network's organizer could adapt and find new suppliers.
"We can take down 2½ kilos on a Saturday shipment from
Court files provide a particularly detailed account of the waitress's dealings with one biker named Carson Mitton. Mr. Mitton, 55, was a full-patch member of the Hells Angels' Simcoe chapter, and a frequent Bebops visitor, dropping by two to three times a week.
"On these occasions Mitton would typically meet with other members of the Hells Angels," a court synopsis says.
In late November 2002, for example, he stopped by his stash house on
One day in late January, 2003, Mr. Mitton asked the waitress if she wanted to go for "lunch" the next day at January's Bar, a prearranged code for a one-ounce coke deal. The next day, at , Mr. Mitton showed up at the bar; the waitress passed him $1,400 concealed in a newspaper.
It was the last deal the agent made with Mr. Mitton or the other Hells Angels. Police were getting ready to pounce.
On the morning of
Police seized 193 marijuana plants, 16.7 kilograms of harvested marijuana, 6.2 kg of cocaine, 441 grams of hashish and about 2,400 prescription pills used as heroin substitutes. They also found 16 handguns, six sets of Kevlar body armour and a crossbow.
At Mr. Mitton's Uxbridge home, police found a Browning A500 shotgun, brass knuckles, a zip gun, a bulletproof vest and large amounts of money. He pleaded guilty on
In all, charges were laid against 14 full members of the Hells Angels from five chapters:
The Angels were rattled.
"They figured they had everything wrapped up security-wise, left, right and centre," says a source who used to run drugs for the Angels and now holds an interest in several
"They thought: 'There's no way in the world we should have got busted.' They were shocked."
But the police have not emerged from Operation Shirlea with all they'd hoped. They found that arresting large numbers of accused drug dealers was one thing. Getting them to trial, much less convicted, was another. Within a year, more than half of those arrested were set free.
In March of 2002, police in the mid-sized city of
Mr. Guay, who had links with Hells Angels in
The Road Warriors, part of a multipronged Hells Angels thrust into
Threats, intimidation and assault were common. In one instance, recounted last summer by an OPP officer at a bail review, members of the network kidnapped and tortured a
"He was restrained while his toenail was removed with pliers, and then bleach was poured into the open wound," the officer said. "He was also beaten with a blunt object, whipped and kicked repeatedly."
As in downtown
The group was also connected to the
On "takedown day," April 24 of last year, police seized one dealer's storage locker and found not only 700 grams of cocaine and 150 grams of marijuana but also rifles, handguns and explosives, including dynamite and blasting caps.
Meanwhile, another 18-month police operation was showing the Ontario Hells Angels extending their control westward.
George Siciliano, a Hells Angels "hangaround," made extensive use of his contacts with the gang to establish a drug network in
Distribution was through the
In August of last year, police arrested Mr. Siciliano and seven other people in
But the full scope of the Hells Angels' international ties, and the scale of their cocaine business in
The RCMP operation began with the recruitment of independent drug importer Sean Callen. His task was to infiltrate a Kingston-area drugs network operated by Quebecker Normand Denault.
Mr. Callen and Mr. Denault travelled to
The pair then scouted landing sites on the
On June 13 of that year, on the open ocean near the
Mr. Denault and a co-conspirator both told Mr. Callen the huge drug haul was destined for the Hells Angels, prosecutor Ron Sonley said before Mr. Denault was sentenced to a 15-year penitentiary term.
No one should be surprised.
"Recently, in the last few years, there has been an increase of the Hells Angels involvement with importation," says author and organized crime expert Antonio Nicaso.
Back at his motorcycle shop in east Toronto, Donny Petersen shrugs off the mounting number of arrests of his associates across the province for cocaine trafficking.
"As for drug shipments coming into
Police and prosecutors say the Hells Angels' insulated, cellular structure makes them a difficult legal target. In his own way, Mr. Peterson agrees.
"The Hells Angels structure is not a pyramid structure, with Mr. Big at the top directing," he says. "It's horizontally integrated. Each charter is autonomous. Each region is autonomous from the next. It's one man, one vote."
Arrests in one chapter, or one region, thus have only a small impact elsewhere. Which explains, in part, why the successful prosecution of the bikers has been so uneven from province to province. Only in
In Ontario, where the largest group of bikers and biker cops in the country face off, the game remains too early to call.Phrase is 'too close to call', not 'too early to call'.
It's a battle Donny Petersen is confident he and his fellow Angels can win. "I'm not a criminal, never have been, never will be. So why should I be treated differently than anyone else?" he says. "I've never really cared what people thought about me because I am what I am. I'm proud of what I am."
Hells Angels in
Outlaw motorcycle gangs are involved in 'an array of criminal activities such as murder, drug trafficking, prostitution, illegal gambling, extortion, intimidation, fraud and theft,' Criminal Intelligence Service Canada says. The Angels are by far the most powerful biker group in
Total Hells Angels in
_Total estimated world membership: 2,500 -
Outlaw biker hotline 1-877-660-4321; If you have tips for the police, you can make an anonymous call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day
'The greatest myth the public has is that these individuals are motorcycle enthusiasts -- they are not.' Detective Inspector Don Bell
'We get unjustly accused of a lot of stuff. Society needs whipping dogs.'
Donny Petersen, spokesman for the Hells Angels in
'In the north, the HA more or less control the market. It's red-and-white coke or no coke.' Det. Insp. Don Bell
'They thought: "There's no way in the world we should have got busted." They were shocked.' Former Hells Angels drug runner