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Ontario busts reveal Angels' grip on national drug trade


By Julian Sher, Michael Den Tandt and Timothy Appleby

Globe and Mail - July 17, 2004.

 

TORONTO -- The carpet was frayed; the coin-operated pool table in the corner was rickety, and the cheap beer flowed freely.

So did the cocaine.

Tucked into a nondescript commercial plaza on Kennedy Road in Scarborough, Country Bebops is the type of slightly seedy haunt that normally draws little attention. And that's the way its tattooed, leather-clad patrons wanted it. In the unlikely event that a stranger dropped in for an after-work drink, he'd be "made" instantly. Undercover cops or informants would stand out a mile.

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 Ontario's Biker Enforcement Unit and the linchpin of a three-year drug investigation. Her job was to buy, sell and deliver cocaine, gathering evidence that would help police disrupt a drug network involving members of five Toronto-area chapters of the Hells Angels.

In the four years since the Hells Angels expanded into Ontario -- their presence stirring scant public concern until Mel Lastman's notorious public handshake, as Toronto mayor in 2002, with a beaming biker -- the world's most powerful and violent outlaw motorcycle gang has quietly consolidated its grip on the province's criminal underworld.

With guile, determination and stealth, it has eschewed the murderous bombings, and escaped the public outrage, that proved the gang's undoing in Quebec.

As a result, Ontario, with 15 active chapters, has one of the highest concentrations of Hells Angels in the world. Beyond its heartland of Toronto, the gang is solidly established in cities as far flung as Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Niagara Falls, Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Nowhere in Ontario is there significant competition from rival bikers.

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 Canada's Hells Angels are involved in murder, drug trafficking, prostitution, illegal gambling, extortion, intimidation, fraud and theft. Much of that goes unreported, reflecting the enormous fear factor.

But the gang's primary moneymaker in Ontario is narcotics -- cocaine especially, but also homegrown marijuana and prescription drugs. Indeed, the Hells Angels bring to the drug trade what Wal-Mart brings to retailing -- economies of scale, better access to suppliers, a broad distribution network, an unbeatable brand -- and are funnelling more cocaine to the province's streets than ever before, police and drug-treatment experts say.

"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 Kitchener area, a Hells Angels stronghold. "I see more cocaine in our town."

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 498 Eastern Ave.

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 Toronto and across the province, much of it under the control of the Hells Angels.

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' "Quebec connection," a steady stream of coke brought by car along Highway 401 from Montreal, where the Angels have long had a power base.

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 Quebec branch of the Hells Angels launched a methodical campaign to gather all of Ontario's bikers under the Angels' death's-head emblem. Heading up the membership drive was Hamilton-born Walter (Nurget) Stadnick, who was convicted in Montreal last month of drug trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder and gangsterism.

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 Quebec chapters, led by Sherbrooke, and the Hells Angels strewn across the Prairies and British Columbia.

Court records from recent biker-related trials across Ontario reveal a stunning pattern. Within a year or two of the mass baptism in Sorel, Hells Angels or their associates were running sophisticated narcotics operations from one end of Canada's most populous province to the other: in the economic core of Toronto, but also east to Kingston and Belleville, southwest to London and north to Thunder Bay.

Ontario has thus become the front line in the war between Canada's Hells Angels and police.

Quebec's bikers are reeling from the sweeping raids and prosecutions in 2001 that led to 84 of them either pleading guilty or being convicted. Another three are still facing trial, and two are on the run.

The Halifax chapter collapsed last year after key members were jailed on drug and murder charges. Bikers remain active in the three Prairie provinces -- this weekend, two Alberta chapters of the Bandidos biker gang are to patch over to the Hells Angels -- and British Columbia boasts close to 100 flourishing and often wealthy Angels. Countrywide, there are an estimated 570 Hells Angels members and supporters.

But Ontario is home to almost half of them -- 184 full-patch members and 60 close associates -- with only five behind bars and another 33 facing various charges.

Squaring off against the 15 Ontario chapters is the continent's biggest police squad dedicated exclusively to criminal motorcycle gangs: the 107 members of the joint-forces Ontario Biker Enforcement Unit.

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 Ontario, and a leading actor in the gang's effort to portray itself as a social club for independent-minded motorcyclists, some of whose members have perhaps occasionally run afoul of the law.

"If a Hells Angel gets charged with any crime, the automatic assumption is that there's guilt," he says in the office of his Toronto shop, Heavy Duty Cycles Ltd. "We get unjustly accused of a lot of stuff. Society needs whipping dogs."

Mr. Petersen, like many of Ontario's new Angels, had been a lifelong member of one of the many local gangs in the province, the Para-Dice Riders. Unlike more than 80 per cent of the Ontario Angels, he has no criminal record.

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 Quebec, where a drug war with the rival Rock Machine gang left more than 160 people dead.

"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 Toronto in early 2002 -- site of the famous Lastman handshake -- the Angels have tried, with some success, to fly under the radar.

"Here in Toronto it's low key, playing it cool," says "Ears," a biker associate who declined to use his real name. At favourite hangouts such as Jilly's, a strip bar at Queen Street and Broadview Avenue, discretion is the rule.

"They don't try to take over a bar like they do in Montreal," he says. "Hells Angels rings, chains, a belt buckle: that's all they flash."

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 Ontario. Elsewhere in the province, there's less sharing.

"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 Toronto, cocaine seizures commonly yield a drug that is 85-per-cent or even 90-per-cent pure. In Sudbury, Thunder Bay or Timmins, the purity can be as low as 25 per cent.

The number of cocaine-related deaths in Ontario has remained fairly steady at 30 to 35 a year, Ontario deputy coroner Jim Cairns says.

But data compiled by Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health paints a more disturbing picture. Cocaine abuse among Ontarians in Grades 7, 9 and 11 peaked in 1979, when 5.3 per cent admitted using the drug in the previous 12 months. Then came a steady decline, to a 1993 low of 1.5 per cent.

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 Guelph detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police, says police across Southwestern Ontario are for the first time seeing an increase in the use of methamphetamine and powdered cocaine at high schools.

"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 Montreal, and the following Tuesday he's right back at it," Det. MacIntyre says. "Business as usual."

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 Eglinton Avenue East for two minutes, then headed to Bebops to pick up $1,400 from the waitress, payment for an ounce of coke. He then stepped outside to leave the drugs in the trunk of her car.

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 3:18, 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 April 24, 2003, hundreds of officers from the BEU, the RCMP and local forces conducted raids, wielding 73 search warrants and arresting 84 people.

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 Feb. 16, 2004, to four counts of trafficking in cocaine. He received a penitentiary sentence of two years and a lifetime weapons prohibition and was ordered to forfeit more than $35,000 in cash.

In all, charges were laid against 14 full members of the Hells Angels from five chapters: Toronto, East Toronto, Keswick, Simcoe County and North Toronto. Also accused were three members and two ex-members of the Red Line Crew, an affiliate biker gang.

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 Toronto strip bars.

"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.

Beyond Toronto, eastward toward Kingston and northward to Thunder Bay, the Ontario Hells Angels have been no less ambitious.

In March of 2002, police in the mid-sized city of Barrie pulled over Montrealer Ghislain Guay in a routine traffic stop. They found a ring bearing the insignia of a new biker gang, the Road Warriors, a Belleville-based Hells Angels "puppet club" formed in 1999 for the purpose of seizing control of Eastern Ontario's trade in cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana.

Mr. Guay, who had links with Hells Angels in Quebec, Toronto and Simcoe, was a founding member. An investigation was launched.

The Road Warriors, part of a multipronged Hells Angels thrust into Ontario, were characterized by ruthless efficiency. By late 2002, court records show, the Warriors were receiving weekly cocaine shipments on the order of 3 kg, worth up to $270,000 at street level. The gang's "soldiers" did the hands-on work of trafficking and debt collection. At least one member of the conspiracy had his home phone rigged with a bug detector to guard against police surveillance.

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 Cornwall man over a drug debt.

"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 Toronto, the Road Warriors network revolved around a single location: a garage on the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve, east of Belleville. Cocaine and other drugs were shipped to the garage in bulk, divided among the soldiers, then distributed to street-level dealers.

The group was also connected to the Toronto bikers. Two main police targets of the probe, Mr. Guay and Leo Brien, a native of St. Jérôme, Que., were seen meeting with two Toronto Hells Angels later charged in Operation Shirlea.

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 Thunder Bay, court documents show. He bought cocaine and marijuana in British Columbia's Lower Mainland and shipped it east on cars, buses and airplanes.

Distribution was through the Thunder Bay chapter of the Hells Angels and their associates.

In August of last year, police arrested Mr. Siciliano and seven other people in Northern Ontario and Vancouver. In January, he pleaded guilty to three drug-related charges in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence.

But the full scope of the Hells Angels' international ties, and the scale of their cocaine business in Ontario, came to light only in June of 2002, in the Kingston area, when police seized as astonishing 600 kg of cocaine. Destined for the Hells Angels distribution network before it was intercepted in the Caribbean, the shipment amounted to 10 million individual doses, worth up to $60-million.

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 Panama, where they met a Colombian contact. From there, Mr. Callen was sent to the Caribbean to buy a suitable boat, later equipped with a satellite phone.

The pair then scouted landing sites on the Nova Scotia coast.

On June 13 of that year, on the open ocean near the Grenadines and St. Vincent, RCMP agent Callen took delivery of the 600 kg of cocaine, compressed into book-sized bricks. The shipment had originated in Venezuela but was delivered by two well-dressed Colombians in a war canoe, guarded by a dozen men armed with Mac 10 and Uzi submachine guns.

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.

"Especially in Quebec, where there has been documentary evidence of a direct link between the Hells Angels and the Colombian cartels. The same situation now applies more and more in Ontario: importation and the production of marijuana. They're not just the pushers of drugs any more; they've moved to a different level."

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 Ontario, it's not been the Hells Angels involved in the last three years," he insists. "If you examine all the charges that have been laid since we became Hells Angels here, there's three times as many withdrawn, dismissed, found not guilty, as there are currently charges."

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 Eastern Canada has there been steady progress against the bikers; in the West they are largely unchallenged.

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 Canada:

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 Canada, especially in Ontario, where they face minimal competition from other gangs.

British Columbia: 7 chapters 11 members in jail or before courts

Alberta: 3 chapters 3 members in jail or before courts

Sask.: 2 chapters 1 members in jail or before courts

Manitoba: 1 chapter 9 members in jail or before courts

Ontario: 15 chapters; 4 members in jail; 1 prospect/hangaround in custody; 28 members and five prospects/ hangarounds facing charges.

Quebec: 4 chapters; 84 members in jail; 3 facing charges; 2 at large

Nova Scotia: 1 member in jail

Total Hells Angels in Canada: 453 full-patch members, 63 prospects and 53 hangarounds in 32 chapters

_Total estimated world membership: 2,500 - Canada has about one in five Angels

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 Ontario

'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