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Feds' case vs. bikers slipping out of gear

dpo

By Mike McPhee
Denver Post Staff Writer

Dec. 22 - Two months ago, the federal government made front-page headlines when it announced it had dismantled the Sons of Silence Motorcycle Club on various weapons and drug charges.

"We have disrupted, dismantled and destroyed a major outlaw motorcycle gang,'' U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland said at an Oct. 8 news conference.

But now that the case has moved into the courtroom, it appears the government not only failed to destroy the gang, it committed a number of mistakes along the way.

Records show that:

Half of the people whose indictments were trumpeted by Strickland actually weren't Sons of Silence members. Of the 42 people arrested, only 21 belonged to the club.

 

bulletOne member's house was trashed by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

 

bulletEight motorcycles seized by agents as evidence were ordered returned because they were not listed on the search warrants. One of the Harley-Davidsons, belonging to Sons of Silence member Charlie Jimenez, was returned with the letters "ATF'' scratched into the custom paint job on the gas tank.

 

bulletThe only suspect to be tried by a jury so far was acquitted in less than two hours.

 

bulletThree defendants had charges dropped against them early on.

 

bulletAnother case involving a bar fight in Colorado Springs was dropped by federal authorities to let local authorities prosecute it.

"It's very uncommon to see counts dismissed and evidence suppressed,'' said defense attorney David Lane. "It's indicative of a very slipshod job on the part of the government. They know what's solid and what's not. They don't anticipate losing cases.''

Uncomfortable in a federal courthouse, the bikers have been reluctant to speak out. But at a party held Dec. 11 to raise funds for their legal battles, several bikers said the government was overly aggressive.

"We have rights just like anyone else, yet no one seems too interested in talking about them,'' said one club officer at the party in an Aurora meeting hall. He stepped outside to point out members of the Aurora Police Department SWAT team who were positioned on apartment building rooftops surrounding the party.

But these tactics, in and out of the courtroom, don't surprise some veteran defense lawyers.

"There's an attitude in the federal government that people you dislike have fewer constitutional rights than the rest of us,'' said Larry Pozner, former head of the American Criminal Defense Bar. "They take relatively minor offenses and trumpet them as the crime of the century. This is garden variety stuff made to sound like a major law enforcement coup.'' The Sons of Silence is one of five major outlaw motorcycle clubs in the United States, according to the ATF. Founded in Niwot in 1967, it has 14 chapters in seven states. There are roughly 200 members, with 100 in Colorado. It is the dominant outlaw motorcycle club in Colorado.

Strickland, defense lawyers and other parties to the case are barred from commenting because of a broad gag order issued by U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham.

Twenty-two indictments were handed down, some involving multiple defendants. Ten cases involving 11 defendants have been resolved. Five people have pleaded guilty to four gun charges and one assault charge. Their sentencing will be in February. Charges against three defendants were dismissed and two people were referred to state court. One man was acquitted. The largest case, in which 19 people were indicted for conspiracy to deal drugs, has been declared a complex case that could take more than a year to settle.

The ATF spent two years getting two undercover agents into the club as full-fledged members. According to documents filed in U.S. District Court, the undercover agents, Blake Boteler and Cole Edwards, began recording conversations about weapons, drugs, previous murders and other alleged activities by motorcyclists in Colorado Springs, Adams County and Fort Collins.

But as soon as defense lawyers began to appear in court, Nottingham ruled that much of the evidence had been illegally seized and ordered it returned to the owners. Included were eight Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

In an act that many of the defendants say exemplifies the government's attitude of invincibility and unaccountability, someone deliberately scratched the initials "ATF'' into the custom paint job on the gas tank of Sons of Silence member Charlie Jimenez's Harley.

Evan Biteman, 37, of Fort Collins, claimed in court that the ATF had trashed his house. Every dresser drawer and cabinet was dumped on the floor, antique bed frames were splintered, an armoire was tipped over and an elastic cord holding a freezer door shut was cut, spoiling roughly $800 worth of meat.

His common-law wife, Marsha O'Brien, who was in Iowa during the raid, had all of her stained glass artwork, by which she makes her living, smashed on a table. Biteman's plumbing tools were thrown from his truck into the yard, and the house doors were left wide open, according to O'Brien.

"This happens all the time, especially when big headlines are involved,'' said defense attorney Lane. "I've represented a number of unpopular groups, and the most dangerous gangs in the country are the DEA, the ATF and the FBI.''

"Those three gangs are frequently out of control, and they basically ride roughshod over the Constitution of the U.S. on a regular basis.''

The ATF said it could not comment on the vandalism because of the gag order.

Charges of illegally possessing a firearm were dropped or dismissed against Terry Nolde, 46, of Colorado Springs, William Mason, a retired member of the club, and Charles Corrigan, 48, a Colorado Springs biker not affiliated with the Sons of Silence. The charges against Nolde and Corrigan were based on the fact that both were convicted felons and prohibited from owning firearms. But state law allowed them to regain their right to possess firearms 10 years after conviction. Mason had been convicted of domestic violence but not in a category that kept him from owning a firearm.

In the only case to go to trial so far, a federal jury took less than two hours to find Andrew Dorrance, 37, of Colorado Springs, not guilty of assaulting a federal officer. Dorrance, a Sons of Silence member, was charged with assault for slapping an undercover agent at a wedding for standing around and not serving club members more beer.

One other case, in which members Doug Luckett, 40, and Robert Bryant, 44, both of Colorado Springs, were charged with assaulting federal officers, was dropped and referred to the state for prosecution. Luckett and Bryant are charged with getting into a brawl in a Colorado Springs bar with three undercover ATF agents who came in wearing patches of a rival gang, The Unforgiven, which the ATF made up. Prosecutors said the case would be easier to try locally because of the number of witnesses.

Nottingham, known for his lack of patience with unprepared lawyers, particularly those from the government, erupted in court last month when an ATF agent failed to show up to testify as a government witness in a case. Defendant Kevin Eaton, 45, of Bailey, a member of the High Plains Drifters motorcycle club, was charged with possession of explosive devices.

When Eaton's attorney questioned the evidence against his client, the government failed to produce the ATF undercover agent to explain his case. Nottingham angrily gave the government the rest of the day to find him. When the agent did not appear, the evidence was ruled inadmissible. Nottingham erupted again two weeks later when prosecutors were unable to produce the personnel files of the two undercover agents, as requested by defense attorneys.

"Every time I listen to the government, I get madder and madder,'' Nottingham said. With so many indictments and defendants, he said, "why isn't this their top priority? Why aren't they jumping on this?''

 

Copyright 1999 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.



 

 

 

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