Dozens of Hells Angels motorcycle gang members were indicted on racketeering and other federal charges stemming from a deadly 2002 casino brawl and other violent crimes in the West, authorities said Thursday.
The two-year federal investigation culminated Thursday with the announcements of indictments in Las Vegas and Phoenix. The day before federal agents swarmed Hells Angels headquarters and clubhouses in California, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Washington state.
In all, 57 arrests were made, some for charges not related to the casino brawl. Authorities seized drugs, bulletproof vests, stolen vehicles, explosives and more than 100 weapons.
"These individuals thrive on a culture of violence," said Stephen Herkins, assistant special agent-in-charge of the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"Our streets are safer today as a result of these indictments," Herkins said at a Las Vegas news conference.
In the Las Vegas indictment, 42 Hells Angels members face 10 federal counts of violence in aid of racketeering and one count of using and carrying firearms in the deadly incident at the 2002 Laughlin River Run, an annual motorcycle rally near the Nevada-Arizona border.
Daniel Bogden, U.S. attorney in Nevada, said 34 of the men have been arrested. The rest were being sought.
Sixteen Hells Angels members were indicted in Phoenix on federal racketeering charges.
The grand jury indictments had been sealed to allow authorities to make arrests.
The Las Vegas indictment outlines what prosecutors describe as a "highly organized criminal enterprise" in 23 states and 25 countries involved in threats, violence, murder, robbery and conspiracy to distribute drugs.
Federal prosecutors alleged the Hells Angels created a "climate of fear" by assaulting members of rival motorcycle clubs, including the Mongols.
"They try to put forth an image to the public with these Toys for Tots (events)," said ATF special agent Carlos Baixauli. "In reality, they deal in drugs, guns and death."
In the April 2002 brawl at Harrah's Laughlin hotel-casino, Hells Angels and Mongols club members fought with guns, knives, hammers and wrenches. Two Hells Angels and one Mongols motorcycle gang member were killed and at least 12 other people were injured.
Another Hells Angels member was shot to death on Interstate 40 in California, about 115 miles west of Laughlin.
"This indictment looks like allegations about a bar fight. It certainly doesn't look like a racketeering indictment," said lawyer David Chesnoff, who represents Arizona resident Calvin Schaefer, who was named in both indictments.
"All Mr. Schaefer did was defend himself and others," Chesnoff said by telephone from Arizona.
ATF agents characterized the deadly melee as playing a "big part" in moving the investigation forward, but did not elaborate.
Bogden declined to say why there were no Mongols indicted and said the investigation was continuing. Herkins said elements of the investigation began before the casino melee, which also was cited in the Phoenix indictment.
As part of the racketeering charge, federal prosecutors in Phoenix allege three of the 16 men, including Schaefer, attempted to kill Mongols at the motorcycle rally. The Phoenix indictment also details at least two other murder conspiracies against rival bikers this year, witness tampering and a 2001 murder.
The two-year federal investigation took federal agents throughout the West, including Los Angeles, where stolen military explosives, about 50 firearms and a quarter-pound of suspected methamphetamine were seized Wednesday.
About 15 federal search warrants were issued out of Los Angeles as part the Hells Angels investigation, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. The search warrants remain sealed, and Mrozek said he could not provide details.
Prosecutors with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office have been working with the ATF on a case linking people arrested in Wednesday's raids to a kidnapping in the San Fernando Valley, said spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons. As of Thursday afternoon, no charges had been filed.
Federal prosecutors said the men charged in Las Vegas will make initial court appearances where they were arrested and then be brought to southern Nevada for arraignment and trial.
Each assault charge carries either a five or 20-year maximum prison sentence, and each firearms charge carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.
Some could face charges in state court stemming from the deadly casino brawl, said Clark County District Attorney David Roger. He said he plans to seek murder charges in coming months.