HELL'S ANGELS -- A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA OF THE OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS
The Hoodlum Circus and The Statutory Rape of Bass Lake
How did the Angels grow to be
such disliked hell-raisers? The
answer is that it wasn't easy.
They worked overtime at being
crafty, cruel and cowardly.
I went through all that school
and family jazz. It's all crap.
Boy, am I glad the Angels took
me in! I don't ever want to be
anything but an Angel and that's
By midsummer of 1965 the Hell's Angels were already the subject of at least two scholarly theses, and no doubt there were others in the works. Yet all over California there were people whose real or imagined dealings with outlaw motorcyclists had been much too personal to allow for any abstract, sociological perspective on the menace. For every one who'd ever seen a Hell's Angel in the flesh, there were half a thousand more who'd been frightened silly by the whooping of the news media. So it came as no surprise when a certain amount of public tension built up as the Fourth of July approached.
On the Friday night before the Fourth, I called the Box Shop. I'd never been on a holiday run, and since this one had the makings of a real boomer, I decided to go along. Frenchy wanted to make sure I wasn't planning to bring anyone with me before he confirmed the site: "Yeah, it's Bass Lake," he said. "About two hundred miles east from here. I'm a little worried about going. There might be trouble. We're hoping we can just get together and have a good time, but with all this publicity I'm afraid every cop in the state will be there."
There was good reason to expect a police presence: the press had been sounding the alarm for weeks.
On June 25 a United Press International bulletin out of Los Angeles said: COPS WORRY ABOUT HELL'S ANGELS JULY 4 BREAK-OUT. It quoted Attorney General Lynch to the effect that his office had received "various reports" on what the Hell's Angels had in mind for their annual mid-summer picnic. (One of these "reports" stemmed from the futile attempt to sell coverage of a July Fourth rumble to The New York Times and other interested parties. The rumble rumor spread quickly and even got a plug on NBC's Monitor newscasts from New York.)
Then, in late June, a motorcycle riot in Laconia, New Hampshire, made front-page news all over the nation. The California press gave it prominent play because the mayor of Laconia blamed the whole thing on the Hell's Angels. The July 2 issue of Life carried a big Laconia story, with pictures of a burning car, National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, and a collection of confiscated weapons including hatchets, crowbars, machetes, brass knuckles, chains and bullwhips. Some fifteen thousand motorcyclists were said to have run wild in the little New England resort, battling police and setting fire to various buildings while the Hell's Angels egged them on. The warning to California was clear. If a handful of Hell's Angels could cause that much trouble three thousand miles from home, it was dreadful to contemplate what the whole clan might do in their own West Coast backyard.
Bass Lake is a tiny resort near Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada. The Angels made a half-hearted attempt to keep the destination a secret, but the vanity of the many swamped the discretion of the few, and once the word leaked out, there was no stopping it. The police got the fix from "unnamed sources," the press picked it up from the police, and by the time it reached the air waves it sounded like an Orson Welles radio drama. Early newscasts on Saturday, July 3, gave the impression that the citizens of Bass Lake were about to make a last-ditch stand against hopeless odds and a fate too vile for description.
But not even the radio newscasters seemed certain of the outlaws' destination. They were careful to attribute their information to police reports, which also said -- according to the newspapers that morning -- that the Hell's Angels were expected to strike just about everywhere between Tijuana and the Oregon state line. The Los Angeles Times speculated that nearby Malibu Beach might be the scene of a latter-day version of The Wild One, but this time with real blood and without Marlon Brando. The San Francisco Examiner reported a Hell's Angels plot to terrorize the annual Lions' Club bean feed in suburban Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate. And the Chronicle uncovered a heart-wrenching Hell's Angels plan to "bust up" a charity benefit for the Guide Dogs for the Blind, also in Marin County.
HELL'S ANGELS MASSING
At least a dozen communities all over the state were said to be "braced for invasion." It added real zest to the holiday atmosphere. Here were all these weekend mountaineers, solid nine-to-five types with a yen to cut loose, bugging off for distant campsites with cars full of hot dogs and charcoal and badminton rackets ... and all of them wondering if they would get through the weekend without being traumatized or chain-whipped.
Prior to the Bass Lake Run all the outlaws' publicity had been after the fact, lurid tales from police blotters, victims and bystanders. Now, for the first time, it was possible to actually attend a Hell's Angels rally. All you had to do was sift through the grab-bag of rumors and choose the right location. 
The California Highway Patrol had announced the existence of a new and elaborate tracking network, a radio communications system designed to pinpoint any gathering of motorcycle outlaws and broadcast their movements to police all over the state so that no community would be taken by surprise. But there was no announcement of any plans to neutralize the threat. A widespread misapprehension about the Hell's Angels is that they are prima facie illegal, and that every one of their potentially explosive runs could be nipped in the bud by simply arresting the whole gang the moment they appeared on the highway. This would set up an interesting legal situation, for the arresting officers would be hard pressed to find a valid charge to book them on. There is nothing illegal about riding a motorcycle from one town to another; a thousand Hell's Angels could ride from New York to Los Angeles without risking arrest until they violated at least one law or local statute. The Angels are well aware of this, and before setting out on a run, they go over their route on a map and exchange information about which towns along the way might be dangerous ... because of abnormally tight speed limits, lack of signs, unusual laws, or anything else that could get them hung up. Most have been riding motorcycles all over California for years and they know from experience which towns are likely to be unfriendly. About thirty miles south of San Francisco, for instance, is a village called Half Moon Bay, where motorcycle outlaws are arrested on sight. The Angels know this and try to avoid the place. If they wanted to make an issue of such an obvious harassment policy they could almost certainly get any arrest thrown out of court, but to do that would take time and money, and Half Moon Bay isn't that important to them. It is not much of a party town.
Reno is in a different category. For many years the Angels made their July Fourth Run to Reno, but after a dozen Angels destroyed a tavern in 1960, the "Biggest Little City in the World" passed a law making it illegal for more than two motorcyclists to ride together inside the city limits. There are no signs proclaiming this along the many approaches to town, and the law would surely be knocked down in court if a trio of touring cyclists from the East was ever clapped in jail for simply riding together through the city, but that isn't likely. The law was designed to give Reno police a legal weapon against the Hell's Angels. And even the Angels could probably beat it in court if anyone of them were willing to (1) spend a holiday weekend in jail, (2) post a minimum of $100 in bail money, (3) return to Reno several weeks later, with a lawyer, to plead not guilty and be advised of a trial date, (4) make another trip to Reno, again with a lawyer, to argue the case in court, and (5) in all likelihood return for a third appearance in either Reno or nearby Carson City to appeal the conviction in a higher court, and (6) come up with enough money to pay a lawyer for the time and effort it would take to prepare a brief with enough impact to convince a Nevada state court that one of Reno's local statutes is unconstitutional, irrational and discriminatory. 
Justice is not cheap in this country, and people who insist on it are usually either desperate or possessed by some private determination bordering on monomania. The Hell's Angels are not of this persuasion, not even when it means giving up the pleasures of Reno. They try to avoid places where the odds are stacked against them, legally or otherwise ... and they are usually pretty shrewd about knowing what the odds really are. Runs are primarily parties, not war games, and small-town jails are dull.
Consider the alternatives available to a chief of police in a remote town of twenty thousand -- with a police force of twenty-five men -- when he gets word that anywhere from three hundred to five hundred motorcycle outlaws are due to converge on him in a matter of hours. The worst thing he's had to contend with in nine years was a bank holdup involving an exchange of a dozen shots with two hoods from Los Angeles. But that was a long time ago, and since then his job has been placid ... highway accidents, teenage rowdies and weekend drunk fights in some of the local bars. Nothing in his experience has prepared him to face an army of half-human hoodlums, a modern-day James gang ... infamous thugs who would just as soon stomp on a cop as they would on a toad, and once they get out of hand, the only way to handle them is with brute force.
Even if he has emergency legal powers and a jail big enough to hold them all, there is still the problem of forcing them into submission. Two of his men are sick, two are on vacation, so that leaves twenty-one. He jots down some figures on a desk pad: twenty-one men, each with a pump-action shotgun (five shots) and a revolver (six shots) gives him an outside chance, in a carefully staged ambush, of taking out two hundred of the enemy, leaving hundreds more suddenly gone wild with fear and rage. They could do incredible damage, and an ambush is out of the question anyway because of the nightmarish publicity. What would the Governor of the nation's most progressive state have to say about the deliberate massacre of two hundred citizens by a backwoods police force on Independence Day?
The alternative is to let the outlaws enter the town and try to keep them under control, at least until they start something ... but that might lead to a close-quarters struggle without warning: the enemy would have time to get doped up and drunk, time to unlimber his weaponry and choose his terrain. With an all-night effort, some fifty or seventy-five reinforcements might be rallied from neighboring towns and counties ... but on a holiday weekend no police force has many men to spare, and even these would be subject to instant recall in case the outlaw pack suddenly veered off course and stopped for a beer break at some unexpected place. The whole battle plan would have to be changed on the spur of the moment.
The Angels have never fought a pitched battle with the forces of law and order, but they have attacked individual cops or as many as three and four so often that police in most towns either treat them gently or confront them with as much force as possible. The outlaws don't share the middle-class respect for authority and have no reverence for "the badge." They measure a cop's authority by his power to enforce it. Some of the stories from the original Hollister fracas, in 1947, tell of local police being locked in their own jail by rampaging cyclists who then "took over the town." But the only Hell's Angel now riding who was actually present at Hollister discounts most of the tales that have grown up over the years. "We were just there for a party," he explains. "As far as punching on the citizens and stuff like that, we didn't do it. Sure, we made a lot of noise, and we chased some people who started throwing rocks at us. When the cops got panicky we put a couple of them in garbage cans and stacked their bikes on top of them, that's all."
In 1948, a year after Hollister, a thousand or so motorcyclists had a party in Riverside, near Los Angeles. They raced through the streets, hurled firecrackers at the cops and generally terrorized the citizenry. One grinning pack halted the car of an Air Force officer in the middle of town. When the airman honked his horn the cyclists jumped on the hood of his car and caved it in, smashed every window, slugged the driver and pawed his terror-stricken wife before letting them go with a warning not to honk at pedestrians. Sheriff Cary Rayburn cornered one bunch of invaders and ordered them out of town, but they contemptuously slapped him around, ripped off his badge and tore his uniform. When the sheriff called for reinforcements the outlaws fled.
Long before the era of mutual-assistance pacts between neighboring police forces, the embryo wild ones had better sense than to fight seriously with armed cops. Even now, they will only challenge police if the situation obviously calls for restraint on the part of the law ... a riot in the making, a roust in front of TV cameras, or any confrontation that draws a crowd and makes shooting out of the question.  Because of this, a pack of Hell's Angels on a run to a resort area is a hellish thing for rural cops to deal with. The trick is to control them without any provocation, but outlaws are very easily provoked. Once a showdown gets out of control, there are bound to be injuries, bad publicity, and the chance of a career-tarnishing reprimand for any cop who loses his head and takes extreme measures, like shooting into a melee and hitting the wrong person.
American law enforcement procedures have never been designed to control large groups of citizens in rebellion, but to protect the social structure against specifically criminal acts, or persons. The underlying assumption has always been that the police and the citizenry form a natural alliance against evil and dangerous crooks, who should certainly be arrested on sight and shot if they resist.
There are indications, however, that this "natural alliance" might be going the way of the Maginot Line. More and more often the police are finding themselves in conflict with whole blocs of the citizenry, none of them criminals in the traditional sense of the word, but many as potentially dangerous -- to the police -- as any armed felon. This is particularly true in situations involving groups of Negroes and teenagers. The Watts riot in Los Angeles in 1965 was a classic example of this new alignment. A whole community turned on the police with such a vengeance that the National Guard had to be called in. Yet few of the rioters were criminals, at least not until the riot began. It may be that America is developing a whole new category of essentially social criminals ... persons who threaten the police and the traditional social structure even when they are breaking no law ... because they view The Law with contempt and the police with distrust, and this abiding resentment can explode without warning at the slightest provocation.
Some of the Hell's Angels' most spectacular crimes are technically misdemeanors, such as "lewd and lascivious behavior" and "disturbing the peace." These are routine offenses, generally appearing on police blotters as "vag lewd." Thousands of people are booked every year for obscenity in public places, for fighting in bars, and racing vehicles in populous areas. But when five hundred delegates from some apparently subhuman species converge on a peaceful community and begin pissing in the streets, hurling beer cans at each other and racing loud motorcycles around the village square ... the shock effect on the citizenry is more severe than a Dillinger-style machine-gun assault on the local bank, which is, after all, insured. Few men will break down and weep at the prospect of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation having to payoff a claim ... but reports of a hundred filthy thugs en route to a mountain resort can throw the whole population into armed panic.
This was the situation on July 3, 1965. Bass Lake had been tense for days. Copies of the July 2 Life, featuring Laconia, were prominently displayed on racks at the village markets. The locals were expecting the worst. Judging from all the publicity, the most optimistic forecast called for drunken brawling and property damage, civic fear, and possible injury at any moment. It was also probable that the outlaws would buy up the town's entire beer supply, as is their wont. And if the brutes lived up to their reputation there was every reason to expect a holocaust of arson, looting and rape. As the weekend began, the atmosphere at Bass Lake was reminiscent of a Kansas hamlet preparing for a tornado.
1. Or call the Box Shop ...
2. The Angels understand the popular bias against them well enough to avoid court appearances whenever possible. An outlaw faced with a jury trial knows he will have to chop off his hair, shave his beard and borrow a necktie somewhere. Experience has taught them to play it straight in court. A Frisco Angel once beat an assault charge because the arresting officer couldn't identify him at the trial. Without his hair and his colors, he looked like ten thousand other people.
3. In August 1966 three Angels were jailed for attacking police who broke up a Hell's Angel funeral wake in south San Francisco. "Your conduct can't be tolerated," said Judge W. Howard Hartley as he pronounced sentence. "This business of 'let's get the cops' cannot go unpunished. You have acted like parasites. You show no respect for the public or yourselves. Your hostility to the law is beyond comprehension." The three Angels had pleaded guilty to what was then a new law making it a felony to injure a law enforcement officer ... so instead of copping a minor resisting-arrest plea, they laid themselves open to new and stiffer penalties. One -- Lew Roseberry, twenty-two, of Hayward -- got a year in jail and five years' probation. Ray Hutchins III, also twenty-two, was granted mercy because of his honorable discharge from the Air Force; he received only six months in jail and three years' probation. Twenty-two-year-old Ken Krake cited his record as a former Explorer Scout and got off with ninety days in jail.