Laughlin Six allow Hells Angels to lay scratch out of court relatively unscathed
October 18, 2006
The Laughlin Six stood in U.S. District Judge James Mahan’s courtroom last week and took one for the team – their team being the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
With their guilty and no-contest pleas, six of the 11 defendants accused of racketeering offenses once again illustrated the power of America’s most notorious motorcycle outfit. Courtroom observers then watched as the ATF’s wide-ranging racketeering case against 42 Hells Angels members vaporized like a cloud of Harley exhaust.
Three bikers died in the brawl at the 2002 Laughlin River Run. Dozens of Hells Angeles and Mongols were caught on 16 security cameras shooting, stabbing, hammering, wrenching, punching and kicking each other. It was the stuff of a Peckinpah splatter flick with unprecedented camera angles.
But in the end, after so much of the federal government’s case crumbled under the weight of rotten witnesses and rapier defense attorneys, there was no choice left for the U.S. attorney’s office but to cut one of the sweetest, strangest deals in Hells Angels’ history.
Check it out: Although three of the Laughlin Six wore their Hells Angels colors during their guilty pleas, and the rest are proud members of the club, and the men represent chapters from several states, the Hells Angels as a corporation was not mentioned or impugned in any way in the deal.
Six Hells Angels pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering, but the racketeering enterprise officially consists of only those six as individuals. The rest get back on their bikes and ride. Amazing.
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But that’s what happens when you swing for the fences, using shaky witnesses who didn’t deliver and even lied on the witness stand. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Johnson and Andrew Duncan wanted a grand slam but settled for six bunt singles.
“There’s an inherent difficulty in their prosecution because in fact the Hells Angels are not a racketeering enterprise,” defense attorney David Chesnoff said, managing not to gloat over arguably the biggest courtroom victory of his career. “They are a motorcycle club. Just like any other organization, they have people who’ve done things they shouldn’t do. But the purpose of the Hells Angels isn’t criminal, and you can’t get beyond that.”
Better prosecution witnesses no doubt would have helped, as would a narrower pool of defendants. Hells Angels member Donald Smith was charged with racketeering, as defense attorney Chris Rasmussen put it, for “stepping up to a bar and having a drink.” Smith’s charges were dismissed.
But others did a lot more. Those caught on tape agreed to pay a bargain price.
The trial is important on many levels. At least temporarily, it knocks the wind out of the ATF’s much-publicized infiltration of the Hells Angels at a time the club has established a headquarters in Las Vegas. The Hells Angels Las Vegas outfit, with its flashy high profile, is sure to continue to be watched closely by law enforcement. But the sputtering end to the Laughlin case can’t help but make the Vegas guys feel pretty good.
Now that the case is over, perhaps someone will tell me why charges weren’t first brought at the state level, where it arguably would have been easier to convict.
Only months ago, defense counsel scrapped and clawed and won a temporary dismissal of the state’s indictment, but a rewrite of the charging document would have cured that. District Attorney David Roger has taken the high road and downplayed any static that might have existed between his and the U.S. attorney’s offices, but I have to wonder whether he’s tempted to remind skeptics that his prosecutors have a lot of trial experience, too.
“The defendants were facing multiple life sentences in different courts for the exact same conduct,” defense attorney Pete Christiansen said. “To walk away with probationable offenses is a complete victory.”
By Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Kennedy’s count, the 11 defendants were facing 680 total counts in state and federal court. Convictions would have carried a sentence of life plus 280 years.
Thanks to the amazing deal with the Laughlin Six, the rest will get to ride into the sunset.
Not that anyone really expects them to stay out of trouble.
They are, after all, Hells Angels.
• John L. Smith’s column appears by permission of the Las Vegas Review Journal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (775)383-0295.