Police, bikers both watching legal wars in B.C.

Canadian Press
Updated: Mon. Jul. 25 2005 6:40 AM ET
VANCOUVER — The "legal warfare'' that has pitted police and justice officials against the Hells Angels in other areas of Canada has now shifted to British Columbia with a flurry of arrests, charges and a renewed attempt to designate them as a criminal organization, says an expert on the notorious organization.
"All eyes in the biker world and in the police world are going to be looking towards British Columbia,'' says Julian Sher, an investigative journalist who co-wrote with William Marsden the book The Road to Hell: How Biker Gangs Conquered Canada.
Earlier this month, police raided a Hells Angels clubhouse in east Vancouver, using battering rams to gain entry.
Police have not said what, if anything, they found inside the clubhouse but used a news conference to display piles of marijuana, cocaine, crystal meth, guns and cash they said had been seized elsewhere during a 23-month Hells Angels investigation.
Some of the men arrested in connection with the latest raid are charged with drug trafficking, assault and extortion.
The raid came not long after a judge in Barrie, Ont., convicted two Hells Angels for extortion -- a judgment that also set a national precedent by branding the Hells Angels a criminal group and its members criminals.
That federal anti-gang legislation feared by the Hells Angels was first enacted in 1997 and strengthened in 2001.
Police allege the Hells Angels east Vancouver chapter is a criminal organization, which could mean longer sentences for convicted members under a new law. Six of those arrested are full-patch members while the remainder are associates and hang-around members.
Sher says British Columbia is now seeing the start of the battles between police and Hells Angels that have occurred in Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
"The most important impact is that it has shifted the political focus in the battle against organized crime from Quebec to the West Coast where the Hells Angels has always been the richest and most powerful,'' he said.
"The same legal warfare is going to shift westward as the police and prosecutors try to take on the Hells Angels as a gang.''
Rick Ciarniello is a Hells Angels member who has been conducting a one-man public relations crusade for months, telling anyone who will listen that the Angels are not a criminal organization.
"The club is not about criminality,'' said Ciarniello. "It's about being in a motorcycle club and that's all there is to it.''
"Yes, we've had some convictions in the past a@d some of those people were involved in criminal activity. But they weren't doing it for the Hells Angels. They were doing it for themselves.''
Ciarniello has been on radio talk shows sending the same message -- a claim that most callers scoffed at, as do Sher and the police.
"We've made the Hells Angels a priority here for law enforcement in B.C.,'' says RCMP Insp. Bob Paulson, who is charge of outlaw motorcycle gang investigations.
Paulson says the east Vancouver chapter was targeted because it was considered the biggest threat of all the Angels clubhouses in the province.
"In this case we felt the east end was the highest threat and we targeted it,'' he said.
The Ontario convictions have no effect in B.C. and the case here against the Angels must be tried on its merits.
But Paulson says the decision in Ontario is a start.
"We can't point to those (Ontario) decisions and rely on that to establish our Hells Angels as a criminal organization. But what it does is demonstrate a recognition by a superior court in this country that, on the evidence, the Hells Angels in their area were deemed to be a criminal organization.''
Ciarniello says the anti-gang legislation attacks freedom of association but Sher rejects that.
"It's not illegal to join the Hells Angels and it's not illegal to ride around with a patch on your back,'' says Sher. "You have to commit a crime and do that crime for the benefit or behest of the organization.''
Sher says he has no doubt there are some Hells Angels who are not involved in crime.
But he also points out that the organization carefully screens anyone who wants to join -- and police officers and prison guards are excluded.
"If you were from Mars and decided to try to join the Hells Angels that would be your first big clue that this wasn't just a recreational motorcycle club.''
Sher believes law-enforcement agencies may now be rattling the Angels.
"It's clear that . . . the police know the momentum has shifted to them,'' says Sher, who with Marsden will release another book on the Hells Angels next year entitled Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers' Global Crime Empire.
"The police know every bust like this rattles the Hells Angels and shakes some of the loose branches such as informants and dealers who might be angry at being squashed by the Hells Angels.''