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Hells Angels have outlaw image -- and a penchant for litigation

Serge F. KovaleskiThe New York Times

PHOENIX -- Fritz Clapp, a 67-year-old lawyer with a bright red mohawk, practices intellectual property law. Years ago, his clients were "small-time businesses that nobody had ever heard of." Then he found something bigger.

Today, Clapp represents the interests of a group not commonly associated with intellectual property -- the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. His main role is not as a bulldog criminal defense counsel for the notorious group but as a civilized advocate in its relentless battle to protect its many registered trademarks.

Just in the past seven years, the Hells Angels have brought more than a dozen cases in federal court, alleging infringement on apparel, jewelry, posters and yo-yos. The group has also challenged Internet domain names and a Hollywood movie -- all for borrowing the motorcycle club's name and insignias. The defendants have been large, well-known corporations like Toys R Us, Alexander McQueen, Amazon, Saks, Zappos, Walt Disney and Marvel Comics. And they have included a rapper's clothing company, Dillard's and a teenage girl who was selling embroidered patches on eBay with a design resembling the group's "Death Head" logo.

The Hells Angels remain etched in the popular imagination as sullen, heavily muscled men in leather vests who glare from behind raised handlebars, ready to take on anyone who crosses them. But over the years, the group made a leap from image to brand, becoming a recognizable marque and promoting itself on items as varied as T-shirts, coffee mugs and women's yoga pants. Sonny Barger, 75, the longtime Hells Angels leader, at times has offered his own online bazaar of goods that bear his name.

With more to sell and more to protect, the Hells Angels' turn toward the litigious comes with a twist: The bikers are increasingly calling on the same legal system they deride as part of the machinery that has unfairly defined them as criminals.

In fact, they have become more conscious of protecting their image from misuse even as law enforcement officials have cracked down on the Hells Angels, saying they represent a criminal gang on six continents, trafficking drugs and guns and engaging in money laundering, extortion and mortgage fraud.

These conflicting portraits -- biker club versus biker mafia -- took shape in numerous interviews with Hells Angels members, defense lawyers, prosecutors and federal agents and in a wide review of legal filings and internal Hells Angels documents. The group's less confrontational side has emerged as its aging membership has been refreshed by new members from a historically familiar source -- recent military veterans -- and as motorcycling in general has risen in popularity across the country.

"We stabbed and slabbed people left and right in the day, but that way is less common now," said Richard Mora, known as Chico, a Hells Angels member in the Phoenix chapter.

In its rule-bound world, only full members are permitted to wear the provocative Death Head patch or the two words of the club's name, which, like the logo, is trademarked by the organization.

Designations such as 81 (H and A are the eighth and first letters of the alphabet) and Big Red Machine (Hells Angels' colors are red and white) are on an array of goods, including T-shirts, tank tops, bikinis, underwear, key chains and calendars.

The bikers generally settle their lawsuits on favorable terms, extracting concessions from the accused parties by getting them to stop using the trademarks, destroy and recall merchandise and, in a few instances, pay some damages.

Clapp's first case for the Hells Angels was a 1992 lawsuit against Marvel Comics, which had named a comic book and its lead character Hell's Angel. The company changed the name to "Dark Angel" and agreed to donate $35,000 to a children's charity.

Safeguarding the club's trademarks has been Clapp's job ever since. He is counsel for Hells Angels Motorcycle Corp., a nonprofit established in California in 1970 that owns and protects the club's intellectual property. The corporation, which has board members, is controlled by the hundreds of chapters that make up the Hells Angels club.

AT THE CLUBHOUSE

The squat red and white building, with a large death's-head and the words "Hells Angels Motorcycle Club" emblazoned on the side, sits on a quiet street on the fringes of downtown Phoenix, fenced off from nearby public housing and some bail bond offices. This is the Phoenix chapter. Inside, about 10 Hells Angels mill around a long bar, sipping drinks and laying out food for their regular, highly secretive meeting, known as "church."

With its patchwork of memorabilia, the clubhouse resembles a Hells Angels museum. The death's head is plastered on cushions and light shades. There is a stripper pole in the front room and slot machines in the back. Hells Angels slogans and photos cover the walls. In the yard, 81 is spray painted on a rusted garbage can next to a Highway 81 sign.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighing about 350 pounds with long, stringy hair, Mora is a longtime Phoenix Hells Angel.

"The new members are younger, smarter and savvier, and they have better bikes," said Mora, a construction worker in his mid-60s who many years ago served time in prison for murder. "They are better at reading the streets, seeing our enemies and spotting patterns and changes. They are also more clean-cut."

Andres Ospina, 33, known as Oz, who fought with the Marines in Iraq, is a recent addition to the Hells Angels in Arizona. He has struggled with post-traumatic stress and depression, but said he found solace in the camaraderie of the club, which he likened to "going back to your platoon, your safe place."

"I credit the club with saving my life," said Ospina, who receives disability benefits from the military. "I had two choices: I could have become anti-social and locked myself in an apartment and cried about things that upset me, or I could be social with people who are like-minded."

Clutching his Hells Angels vest, Ospina, a father of two, said, "In a sense, this is my armor now. It keeps people away. I am literally fighting for my own right to be who I want to be, and to be left alone."

ATTRACTING SUSPICION

In Black Canyon City, Ariz., Howie Weisbrod, 65, a member of the Cave Creek chapter, was helping with security at a bar where some 100 Hells Angels in club vests and jackets mingled at a celebration in honor of Barger.

Weisbrod, a burly Brooklyn, N.Y., native, said law enforcement "is obsessed with us because we are the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and a visible target," adding: "They see us as some kind of symbol. They think that by controlling us they can control the other clubs. But that ain't true."

A Hells Angel for four decades, he has had his encounters with law enforcement, having spent about 10 years in federal prison on a drugs and weapons conviction.

What he calls an obsession, law enforcement views as a necessity. State and federal agents reject the notion that the Hells Angels and some rival bikers clubs are merely hangouts for anti-social tough guys. Instead, they say, Hells Angels chapters are dens that forge dangerous criminal conspiracies.

Weisbrod and other Hells Angels acknowledge that federal and state gang enhancement laws, which can significantly lengthen prison sentences, have been a deterrent to more criminality.

Since 2002, there have been about a half-dozen cases in Ventura County, Calif., in which juries have convicted members for being part of a street gang. In the same period, a similar number of Hells Angels have pleaded guilty and admitted to belonging to a gang.

Derek Malan, a senior deputy district attorney in the county, said those convictions had hobbled the club's chapter there. "The national prominence of the club in Ventura is done," he said. "There have been more convictions in that chapter than in any other Hells Angels chapter in California."

The visibility of the Ventura chapter has also been diminished since the departure about two years ago of its longtime president, George Christie Jr., a gregarious man who had been a spokesman for the Hells Angels. Christie, 66, who owned a tattoo shop, the Ink House, in Ventura and has a consulting business to help felons handle incarceration, was probably the best-known Hells Angel after Barger.

In 2011, Christie, who had served two prison terms of about a year each, was indicted on federal charges stemming from an extortion plot and the firebombing of two competing tattoo parlors in 2007. He faced a statutory maximum of 120 years in prison. But the prosecution and his lawyer struck a deal; he recently started serving a third prison term, 10 1/2 months.

Christie takes issue with law enforcement's position that organizations like the Hells Angels are gangs that operate as underworld criminal enterprises.

"I am not foolish enough to say that crimes have not been committed, but there is no nexus between all of them or many of them," he said.


By SERGE F. KOVALESKI
The New York Times