Hells Angels Shootout

Editorial StaffOctober 1, 2011
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Like most of their immediate neighbors in the sparse high-desert town of Chino Valley, Arizona, the Schafmans were familiar  with the two-story stucco house opposite their multi-acre property on Yuma Drive. How could they not be? For many years, it was a well-trafficked Hells Angels hangout. Members of the colorfully named Skull Valley chapter, which was the Angels’ main garrison in north-central Arizona until disbanding in 2006, used it as their clubhouse. A biker still lived there, but he was ailing and infirm, tethered to oxygen tanks and a motorized scooter. The house – which once roared with all-night bacchanals and fleets of hard-revving Harleys – had been silent for years.

Less well known to the good people of Yuma Drive were the occupants of a house about 300 yards down the road. Michael Diecks and his wife, Leslie, had recently moved into the single-family home with their three children – an unremarkable arrangement if not for the fact that Diecks, also known as “Mad Dog Mike,” was a full-patch member of the Vagos motorcycle club.

The Hells Angels and Vagos – also known as “Green Nation” in the outlaw-biker world for their signature color – have a chippy history, to put it mildly. As so-called “one-percenter” MCs, they emerged from the same amniotic Southern California/Inland Empire biker culture to become bitter rivals, with the Angels playing the proud, powerful incumbents to the Vagos’ motivated upstarts. They’ve brawled hard and often. Over territory. Over nasty remarks. Over whatever.

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Photos by Jason Koster

“They’ve been going at it since the late ’60s,” according to Steve Trethewy, a former Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer who served 25 years on the department’s anti-gang unit. “They’ll fight, then go dormant, then fight again, then patch things up. It’s all about power and territory.”

Had they been privy to this information, the citizens of Chino Valley might have been less startled by the pop-pop sound of gunfire that raked across Yuma Drive on Saturday, August 21, 2010, shortly after noon. In an instant, their grassy, wide-open neighborhood took on the guise of a Waziristan warzone. The Schafmans – who declined comment for this article – told investigators they heard “approximately 100 shots fired” during the 10-minute gunfight, but official estimates put the number closer to 50. The battle left five bikers wounded, netted 27 arrests and resulted in nine indictments. One year after the melee, virtually everything else about the case, which has yet to go to trial, is still in dispute. The Yavapai County Attorney accepts the Vagos’ account of the incident – in essence, that the Hells Angels fired on them unprovoked as they rode past the two-story stucco house, triggering the fusillade – while the Hells Angels and their attorneys broadly maintain that it was an ambush on the part of the Vagos.

For the actors involved, the who-shot-first question is paramount. For the rest of us, not so much. In fact, in a case that stokes age-old questions about Arizona’s most powerful bike club, hints at a potentially violent restructuring of the outlaw-biker pecking order and – pursuant to court documents obtained by PHOENIX magazine – reveals provocative details about the crime-fighting methodology of Arizona’s anti-gang units, the question of which band of well-armed hombres shot first seems mostly academic.

By most accounts, outlaw-biker affiliation is on the rise in Phoenix and elsewhere. So the more pressing question is: Will it happen again? And where?

As dozens of Yavapai Sheriff’s Office and DPS vehicles swarmed the neighborhood of Yuma Drive shortly after the shooting, a Vagos biker on the scene described the aftermath in no uncertain terms:

“We’re in a war.”

“We’re not a gang,” Michael Koepke, seated in his lawyer’s office, says evenly. “People always slap that thing on us. We’re about brotherhood and riding bikes. And that’s it.”

Well-groomed, fit and articulate, Koepke is part of the Hells Angels’ new guard. Even with his wrist-to-wrist tattoos, the 28-year-old ex-Army infantryman and aspiring Muay Thai prize-fighter seems more Team America than America’s Most Wanted. If he traded in the leather cuts for a pair of pleated wool slacks, Koepke could pass for a lawyer himself.

He’s also one of the six men – all associated with the Hells Angels’ Arizona Nomads chapter – facing prison time for the Chino Valley shootout, on a menagerie of charges ranging from aggravated assault to disorderly conduct with a weapon.

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Members of the Hells Angels Arizona Nomads chapter gather in Chino Valley, where last year’s shootout with rival bikers the Vagos erupted.

Koepke’s objection to the “gang” label isn’t just a matter of semantics; in fact, it carries very tangible legal consequences for the 2,500-member-strong worldwide organization. Arizona’s law enforcement entities – including its anti-gang task force, the multi-agency Gang & Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GIITEM) – classify the Hells Angels as a criminal street gang, which means courts can apply enhanced sentencing to lawbreakers. Simple assault becomes a multi-year stretch in prison. A bar fight becomes “felony riot.”

The Angels dispute the criteria. They claim to be mischaracterized and misunderstood, victims of a zealous law enforcement camp bent on crushing their authority-averse lifestyle.

Of course, the gang stigma is nothing new for the Hells Angels; it has faithfully accompanied them since the club’s earliest days in the Southern California steel town of Fontana, circa 1948, even as they grew into the world’s biggest and most recognized biker entity. Certainly, they can seem like a gang, with their iconic death-head patches and hard-as-nails mystique, but members readily tick off reason after reason why the “gang” descriptor doesn’t fit. Disavowing the stigma has itself become something of an institutional passion for the bikers; a sort of sacred incantation, like stone-writ Druidic verse. Certainly, the Angels’ larger-than-life reputation can salt the impressions of law enforcement personnel. Last November, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Detective David Zavos – the lead investigator in the Chino Valley case – offered a grand jury the following impressionistic analysis of the combatants: “The Vagos, for the most part, are not a real aggressive gang. They are somewhat family oriented, opposed to the Hells Angels, who are more into criminal enterprise.”

That makes Koepke shake his head. “Family oriented. I’m not sure what that means. I have a 1-year-old son and a wife, and I’m totally devoted to them. Doesn’t that make me family oriented? I’m not sure what it has to do with anything.”

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During an August 2010 gun battle in Chino Valley, the Vagos positioned themselves on this street corner while Hells Angels fired from the two-story house in the distance. Police say at least 50 shots were exchanged. Bullets pierced the home (below left). Some members were shot, but no one died.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge William T. Kiger had similar reservations, kicking the original indictments back to a grand jury after weighing Zavos’ testimony – a short-lived but significant legal victory for the Hells Angels. A defense counsel noted that the Vagos and Hells Angels have near-identical law enforcement profiles; both appear on a Department of Justice list of MCs with suspected involvement in serious crimes such as drug distribution and witness intimidation.

A Vagos member involved in the shootout did not respond to an interview request through an attorney.

From the beginning, the Chino Valley case seemed freighted with special small-town tensions. Ironically, one of the accused Angels – Larry “Scotty” Scott, a former college football player and on-again, off-again thoroughbred racehorse owner – previously coached Zavos’ teenage son in his capacity as the defensive coordinator for a local high school team. “[The detective] told me my days as a coach were done,” Scott, who has since left the team, alleges.

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Privately, the Angels acknowledge that some of their members break the law, perhaps even at a statistical pace higher than non-bikers. But they deny that criminal activity is an institutional part of the Hells Angels culture, or that the club maintains a criminal hierarchy within its ranks, à la the Mafia and other corporatized criminal rackets. Richard Gaxiola, a Phoenix-based attorney who represents Koepke and has defended Hells Angels in previous cases, insists that the seven-point Arizona statute for defining a criminal street gang is “overly broad” and a “crass gambit for GIITEM to justify government funding” by turning the Hells Angels into perennial hobgoblins.

“If you look at the street-gang criteria – self-proclamation, official clothing or colors, written correspondence and so on – then the Blue Knights, which are a national law-enforcement motorcycle club, they’d have to be classified a criminal street gang, too,” Gaxiola says. “At the end of the day, the Hells Angels is nothing more than a group of guys who love to ride motorcycles and hang out with like-minded individuals. Sure, some of them are knuckleheads, but most have jobs and wives and kids. Most of them are veterans. They’re stand up guys.”

Though some law enforcement figures acknowledge the Angels’ improved public image over the years – “I call it their spit-and-polish,” one DPS officer says – others point to ugly incidents, such as the murder of 44-year-old party guest Cynthia Yvonne Garcia by three members of the Mesa chapter in 2001. The Angels disavow the crime. They insist that each of their chapters are semi-autonomous entities with their own bylaws and values, and that applying the crimes of one member to the whole club makes as much sense as, say, penalizing the Phoenix PD for a corruption scandal in the LAPD.

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“We’re not a gang,” insists Hells Angels member Michael Koepke, holding his 1-year-old son. “We’re about brotherhood and riding bikes. And that’s it.”

“Everybody is his own man in the Hells Angels,” one longtime member says. “Each chapter governs itself. That’s what the authorities never understand. I mean, there’s a chapter back east that doesn’t even let its members smoke pot. That’s why those conspiracy charges never stick. There’s no conspiracy.”

Naturally, the authorities tend to disagree. “They’re very well structured,” says Trethewy, now a spokesman for the law-enforcement think tank Rocky Mountain Information Network. “They have bylaws, they go to meetings and pay dues, they use trademarks and copyrights, and they commit crime. I’d say that makes them a criminal organization.”

Trethewy dismisses the “few bad apples” notion, citing a recent internal DPS report that suggests the majority of the Arizona Hells Angels – who number somewhere around 110 – have rap sheets that include felony arrests: “That’s not a cross-section of society. I don’t care what you say.”

Still, federal and local authorities have had mixed success making racketeering and conspiracy charges – the Kanye and Jay Z of anti-organized crime legislation – stick to the Hells Angels over the years. The ATF’s much-trumpeted, multi-million-dollar Operation Black Biscuit – touted as “the most successful undercover operation ever pulled against an outlaw motorcycle club” when it culminated in 2003 – failed to yield any convictions for the 16 Arizona-based bikers charged with racketeering or running a criminal enterprise.

Black Biscuit initiated the demise of the Skull Valley chapter and temporarily hobbled the statewide club by jailing several of its top personnel, but in its aftermath, the Arizona Hells Angels were indistinguishable from their old selves: They were still the unquestioned lords of Arizona’s outlaw bikerdom.

It was hardly routine for the Hells Angels and the Vagos to have more than two dozen combined bikers in Chino Valley on the same weekend. The town was no longer an HA chapter seat, and only one of the Angels charged in the shootout was a Chino Valley resident. Meanwhile, the Vagos were believed to have only a scattered presence in Yavapai County; most of the suspects detained after the shooting were visiting from cities such as Kingman, Phoenix and Bullhead City.

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Larry “Scotty” Scott coached football at Chino Valley High School before the shootout. A Hells Angels prospect at the time, he’s since become a full-patch member.

So what brought them to Chino Valley if not to fight? Both clubs have credible alibis. For the Vagos, it was a bring-your-kids weekend barbecue at the Diecks’ place – a common enough pastime in the biker world. Meanwhile, the Angels were in town to visit Teddy Toth, the ailing ex-president of the Skull Valley Chapter. Sent to prison following the ATF’s Black Biscuit operation several years prior, Toth had gotten “off paper,” or released from parole, just that weekend. After years of state-mandated biker solitude, he was finally allowed to openly fraternize with his HA confreres.

It was undoubtedly a case of wrong-place, wrong-time, but to understand the tensions that led to the shootout, one must first examine the unique history of the Arizona Hells Angels and the band of Harley-riding, hirsute rogues that preceded them – a club called the Dirty Dozen, which ruled the state’s biker community from its inception in the late ’60s to its merger with the Hells Angels in 1997.

Named after the iconic World War II action movie starring Lee Marvin and Jim Brown, the Dirty Dozen – who numbered about 120 during their peak – offer a useful compare-and-contrast study with the current Hells Angels. The Cliff Notes version: The Dirty Dozen were several degrees more ruthless and aggressive, according to longtime member Robert “Chico” Mora, who “patched-over” to the Hells Angels during the aforementioned merger.

“Oh, we were obnoxious assholes,” Mora cheerfully confides when quizzed about the Dirty Dozen. “We did terrible, depraved stuff all the time. Don’t get me wrong: The Hells Angels are every bit as tough. But it was a different culture back then. Much wilder.”

A massive, wise-cracking hulk of a man with the letters
A-R-I-Z-O-N-A tattooed across his belly and a scraggly mane of gray-streaked hair, Mora exudes Falstaffian delight as he recounts his days as a hell-raising, debauchery-crazed Dozen regular. There were orgies, brawls, all-night block parties and balls-out Harley sprints across greater Phoenix.

It was a fast, dangerous life. He points to the extensive scarring on his lower legs where surgeons stitched together the two limbs, including the blood vessels underneath, in a successful gambit to save a foot severed in a bike wreck. He was hospitalized for several weeks until the foot healed and doctors de-conjoined him.

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Photos – From left: Also known as Green Nation, the Vagos motorcycle club was founded in Corona, California, in 1965. According to the DOJ, the club boasts approximately 600 members spanning 24 chapters in the U.S., and 10 more chapters in Mexico. In Arizona, they are concentrated in Mohave County. • Founded in Montebello, California in 1969 by Hispanic Vietnam War veterans, the Mongols M.C. memorably brawled with the Hells Angels in the deadly Laughlin, Nevada, riot of 2002. The Latino-majority club is believed to have a tertiary presence in Arizona, including a Mesa chapter that hosts its own Facebook page.

Dirty Dozen lore is full of wild tales. Old timers recall a weekend evening – sometime in the mid-’80s – when a pair of Dozen bikers cut the fuel lines on a row of rival motorcycles outside a bar in Mesa, creating a sort of daisy chain of flammable spillage. They then lit a makeshift fuse, inducing a spectacular inferno that they admired while munching on Jumbo Jacks down the street.

So the Dozen were hard-core. They were also intensely territorial, boldly confronting and intimidating any rival club that failed to recognize their primacy in Arizona. In the early 1980s, Mora himself served just more than three years in Florence State Prison for the shooting deaths of two members of Bad Company – an outlaw bike gang based in New Mexico that was attempting to set up a chapter in the old mining town of Globe. Mora – who was president of the Dirty Dozen’s Globe chapter at the time – claims that the Bad Company bikers were harassing members of the community and “acting like jerks.”

Mora summoned the two bikers to a popular roadhouse in Globe, where he laid out his ultimatum. “I told them to behave themselves,” Mora recalls. “And respect my authority. Then one of them pulled a gun on me. So I defended myself.”

The Vagos were another out-of-state club that attempted to plant a flag in Arizona during the Dirty Dozen reign, according to Trethewy. In 1990, the Vagos even managed to start a Phoenix chapter in the heart of Dirty Dozen territory, led by a biker named Don “Arizona Don” Halterman.

The honeymoon period was brief.

“From what we know, that was the first time [the Dirty Dozen] and the Vagos squared off,” Trethewy says. “There was some shooting and pipe-bombs. Somebody put a pipe-bomb on Arizona Don’s front door. That was it. There was too much heat on them. The Vagos left Phoenix.”

For the next seven or eight years, the Dozen ran a tight ship in Arizona. They also won the respect of seminal Hells Angels organizer Sonny Barger, who served out a four-year federal conspiracy conviction in Arizona from 1988 to 1992. By all accounts, Barger – who later moved to Cave Creek – took a serious shine to Arizona during his incarceration, which could only have facilitated matters when the Dirty Dozen weighed the Angels’ offer of a friendly merger. In effect, the Dirty Dozen would be trading in their double-six dice emblem for the Angels’ trademarked death-head skull patch.

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Hells Angel Kevin Christensen suffered a gunshot wound in the Chino Valley brawl. He’s also one of six bikers facing prison time for the melee.

In 1997, members of the two clubs convened in the HA clubhouse in Oakland – a converted Arthur Murray dance studio, of all things – and the patch-over was consecrated. The benefits for both clubs were manifest. On one hand, the Hells Angels acquired a big, geographically critical state with lots of wide-open roads and no serious rivals, thanks to the Dozen’s cleansing efforts. Conversely, the former Dirty Dozen bikers scored instant prestige as members of the most powerful and recognizable brand in the biker world – the death-head patch promised them “a bigger playground,” in the words of Mora.

It also meant embracing the Hells Angels’ more image-savvy and disciplined ethos. According to Mora, the stereotype of the meth-slinging, brawl-seeking, recklessly hostile Hells Angel is a vestige of wilder times – something that continues to exist on the pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, but not in real life. “I have a three-part gospel for staying the fuck out of prison,” Mora explains. “One: Don’t commit senseless, needless violence against the citizenry. Two: Don’t sling dope. And three: Don’t print the government’s money. Follow those rules, and the cops will more or less leave you alone.”

Indeed, there’s an adage in the biker world that the safest neighborhood in any city is the one with a Hells Angels clubhouse. After all, the Angels don’t tolerate any petty crime in their immediate sphere and generally endeavor to avoid scrutiny by the authorities.

The Hells Angels-as-neighborhood-watchdog theory may very well have stock – unless they happen to be having a shootout with the Vagos.

The Chino Valley shootout was not the first time the Hells Angels and Vagos warred on Arizona soil. On June 11, 2009, five members of the Arizona Nomads – a roving Hells Angels chapter with no official clubhouse – allegedly mixed it up with a pair of Vagos at Lazy Harry’s Sunshine Saloon in Bullhead City near the Colorado River. Two members of a Hells Angels affiliate club, the Desert Road Riders, were also implicated. It was described by DPS as the biggest “in a series of violent assaults inside several bars” in Bullhead City. Five months later, all seven HA-affiliated combatants were arrested for felony rioting.

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The Dirty Dozen ruled Arizona’s biker community from the late ’60s until its merger with the Hells Angels in 1997.

The spike in biker hostilities in Bullhead City initially puzzled authorities, because members of the Vagos’ Tri-State chapter – based in the string of river towns where Arizona, California and Nevada meet – had been operating in northwest Arizona since at least 2000 with relatively little incident, according to Sgt. Ernie Severson of GIITEM. “I ran the unit for Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City, and the two gangs mostly kept to themselves,” Severson says. “The Angels let the Vagos have Havasu. They didn’t really contest it.”

Ultimately, the uneasy peace collapsed. And the reason? Severson believes it was a matter of patches.

A quick primer on outlaw biker attire: The vests, or “cuts,” favored by most rank-and-file bikers reveal a deep cache of information about the wearer, via the patches affixed to the front and back of the garment. The front patches denote personal details like rank, exploits and chapter affiliation. The back patches, or “rockers,” cover the more organizational stuff. The top rocker indicates the name of the club. The middle patch is the club’s emblem: In the case of the Hells Angels, the famed, winged death-head; in the case of the Vagos, a muscle-bound caricature of the Norse god of mischief, Loki, set against a green field.

The bottom rocker is particularly critical for American outlaw bikers, and the key to the Bullhead City incidents, in Severson’s opinion: It identifies the wearer’s state of residence. But the “Arizona” rockers on the bottom of the cuts worn by the Arizona Hells Angels are more than simple identifiers – they’re also an expression of status; they confer power and authority, and wearing them is historically a privilege that the most dominant outlaw motorcycle clubs reserve for themselves.

Mora, the one-time Dirty Dozen capo and current Arizona Hells Angel, says that he and his Dirty Dozen comrades would scour the streets and bars of Tucson in the early 1990s, looking for rival bike clubs sporting the “Arizona” rocker. Once they made contact, Mora would issue an ultimatum: “I told them to lose the rocker. If they refused, we’d cut it off their backs. If they obeyed, no problem. Let’s have a beer.”

For years, the Vagos in Bullhead City and other parts of Mohave County wore “California” rockers. That changed about two years ago, Severson says. “Then they started sporting Arizona rockers, and that’s when the problems started. That’s more than likely what precipitated the fight in Bullhead City.” Concurrently, the number of Vagos operating in Arizona climbed sharply. Not just in Bullhead City and Mohave County, where Severson currently counts “15 or more.” Also in Yavapai County. And in Phoenix.

It was clear to law enforcement that the Vagos – a rising MC with designs on Mexico and the Southwest – were making a push into Arizona. It seems likely that the Hells Angels noticed, too.

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The issue of Arizona rockers was potentially a contributing factor in the Chino Valley gun battle. So was the curious proximity of the Vagos house to Toth’s two-story stucco dwelling. Outlaw bikers are sensitive to affronts. The Hells Angels could not have been pleased by the symbolic violation of their turf. Asked to estimate the odds that a full-patch Vagos biker would move within three doorsteps of the old Skull Valley clubhouse and not know it, one Hells Angels says, “No chance at all.”

The upshot: Neither side came to Chino Valley on August 21 to brawl, necessarily. But a brawl – somewhere, sometime – was all but inevitable.

According to documents released by the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office in September 2010, Vagos Tri-State vice president Aurelio Figueroa – who witnessed the shootout – had at least some inkling of the trouble to come. After the battle, he told a Sheriff’s Office detective that he asked a group of Vagos from the Phoenix area not to attend the Chino Valley get-together, presumably to avoid a run-in with the Hells Angels, but that five of them came anyway.

On Friday night, the Vagos posted security details at the Diecks’ house. After the shootout, authorities would confiscate a tidy arsenal of weaponry at the residence, including 10 handguns, one Norinco SKS rifle, two fighting knives and numerous boxes of ammunition.

Moreover, Diecks told authorities that for several months leading up to the shooting, a Hells Angels prospect would ride past his house and “[point] his fingers at him simulating a weapon,” according to a news story that ran in the Chino Valley Review on September 15, 2010.

The volatile air-mixture of suspicion and tension almost certainly informed an incident Saturday morning when a group of three Hells Angels prospects – later identified as Scott, Bruce Schweigert and Robert Kittredge – crossed paths at a nearby Circle K with a pair of Vagos associates named Alfred Azevedo and Clay Messina. Yavapai County Superior Court documents show that Azevedo lived in Kingman at the time and was a “hang-around” – that is, a Vagos gadfly with aspirations of becoming a prospect.

Azevedo – whose version of the events figured prominently in a Sheriff’s report – told investigators that one of the Hells Angels “approached him and asked if he was a Vagos.” That was the extent of the encounter – a surveillance video provided to authorities confirms that no physical confrontation occurred – but it evidently rattled Azevedo and Messina to the extent that a phone call was made to the Diecks residence alerting the Vagos to the effect that “the Hells Angels were trying to get them,” according to the report.

Evidently, the summons was taken to heart. Shortly after the phone call, a convoy of Vagos bikers left the Diecks residence and scrambled eastbound down Road 3 in Chino Valley toward the Circle K. Finding no Hells Angels, they continued westbound up Road 4, making a wide loop that would take them past the Hells Angels residence on their way back to the Vagos house.

And that’s when MC mayhem broke loose. According to a report filed by Detective Zavos, a Vagos biker named Bob Blankenship – who held the rank of Sergeant-of-Arms for the Tri-State Vagos – was shot as he executed a U-turn in front of the old Hells Angels clubhouse. The Vagos returned fire, wounding Hells Angel biker Kevin Christensen in the abdomen. (None of the five injuries from the battle was life-threatening.) The outnumbered Angels retreated into the house, where the firefight continued for approximately 10 minutes.

The Yavapai County Attorney’s case against the Hell Angels chugged along in appeals court until May, when a sensational bit of information emerged about one of the key witnesses in the shootout. Alfred Azevedo, the Vagos hang-around who summoned the cavalry after the Circle K incident, was at the time also a confidential informant for GIITEM. And a scorned wannabe Hells Angel to boot.

According to documents filed in Yavapai County Superior Court, Kingman-based GIITEM Detective John Morris started using Azevedo to spy on the Vagos in May 2010. As a “paid reliable informant,” Azevedo had previously worked for law enforcement entities and was known to provide sound information about underworld dealings.

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 “[Azevedo] was hanging out at Bike Night quite a bit, which was a Wednesday night event in Kingman,” Morris told defense attorneys in an hour-long interview. “And he ended up running into one of the Vagos members that lived in Kingman, went to the guy’s shop the next day, and within, I don’t know, an hour… was invited to the international Vagos run in Parker. So that was pretty much how easy it was.” As Azevedo’s control officer, Morris was responsible for monitoring his activity and debriefing him. Consequently, the lawman was alarmed when word trickled up to Kingman about the gun battle in Chino Valley.

“I was worried about [Azevedo] being involved in the shooting,” Morris recalls. Upon hearing the news, he jumped in his car and high-tailed it to the scene of the crime, alerting the lead detective, Zavos, that he had an informant embedded in the Vagos.

Presumably to protect Azevedo’s confidential status, Zavos never disclosed the nature of the hang-around’s involvement with GIITEM during the initial grand jury evidentiary hearing in November. The facts only came to light in May after a court-ordered sheriff’s office report. By that time, Azevedo was no longer useful as an informant, having helped Morris execute a Vagos-related fraud case in Kingman. In other words, his cover was blown. “[The fraud case] pretty much let the cat out of the bag,” Morris says.

Citing ethical rules, both Yavapai County Attorney Dana Owens and defense counsel Gaxiola declined to comment on the Azevedo matter, but the presence of a GIITEM asset in the case does invite some second-guessing. In the wake of the shooting, law enforcement obviously sought to preserve their Vagos informant. Might that have skewed the case against the Hells Angels? And what about Azevedo’s motives? According to Morris, Azevedo tried to “hang out with the Hells Angels” in Kingman before courting the Vagos, but they “kept kind of just shunning him.” Was he bitter over the slight? Could he have lit the powder keg on Yuma Drive by misrepresenting the Circle K encounter?

As reflected in their police interviews, the Vagos maintain that the shootout was a premeditated event on the part of the Hells Angels. Justin Kaufman, a Vagos hang-around from Mesa who was driving his black Range Rover near the crime scene, told Sheriff’s Office investigators that the Angels had been planning the attack “for a while.”

All factors for a jury to weigh in trial, if a trial ever happens. As this issue went to press, the case was still mired in appeal and pre-trial litigation. A joint-motion to dismiss the charges against the Hells Angels was pending.

Whatever the outcome in the Chino Valley case, Arizona will be left with the same uncertain outlaw-biker predicament: One large, entrenched biker brand, very well known to the public, and a smaller but fast-growing challenger, significantly less well known. And neither looks to back down.

“We’ve seen a definite upswing in biker numbers for all clubs,” Sgt. Robbie Milam of GIITEM’s Phoenix office says, citing the popularity of the biker-themed cable show The Sons of Anarchy as one explanation. “The Vagos got a foothold in Mohave County and now they’re in Phoenix, and that indicates they’re trying to make inroads.”

How will the Hells Angels respond? What will happen the next time a group of guys wearing the death-head patch catches sight of a sea of muscular-Loki-green, or vice versa? With Valley-area chapters and clubhouses in Phoenix, Mesa and Cave Creek, the Angels maintain they’re not the belligerent party. Officially, they say the Arizona rocker is a moot issue. “We don’t enforce anything like that,” Koepke says. “That’s the old mentality. People are free to wear whatever patch they like.”

Law enforcement confirms that the Hells Angels appear to have loosened up their bottom rocker policy. Milam reports that members of the Mongols Motorcycle Club – another traditional Hells Angels enemy – have been sighted wearing the Arizona rocker in Mesa, and that two Hells Angels-affiliated clubs, the Hooligans and the Sons of Hell, recently began wearing the Arizona rocker with the Hells Angels’ blessing.

“That occurred in April, so we’ll see if that’s a change in philosophy on the Angels’ part.” Milam says.

Still, Milam – whose declined to estimate the number of Vagos operating in greater Phoenix, other than to say “significant” – predicts that Chino Valley is just the tip of the iceberg: “There’s still gonna be a turf battle regardless of who wears what.”

For the Arizona Hells Angels, the changing outlaw-biker landscape presents an age-old dilemma for powerful men and alpha-dominant organizations, of dynasties stretching from ancient Rome to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls – i.e., the challenge of holding the center. Of staying on top.

How the Hells Angels choose to handle the dilemma may well determine how close the turf battle comes to the Valley’s doorstep. “It’s a tough predicament,” one longtime member concedes. “We’re the only ones with anything to lose in this whole shebang.”