LOSING THE WAR ON BIKERS
More Than 60 Per Cent Of Cases Against Angels Fail, Sun Finds.
An investigation by The Sun's Chad Skelton reveals that Hells Angels facing
criminal charges in B.C. are more likely to walk free than go to prison. By
contrast, most members of the outlaw motorcycle gang in Quebec are either
behind bars or on parole.
More than 30 criminal prosecutions launched against members of the Hells
Angels in B.C. over the past decade have failed, ending in acquittals or
the charges being stayed by the Crown, according to court records reviewed
by The Vancouver Sun.
In fact, while police say the Angels are the province's top organized crime
threat, prosecutors failed to secure convictions against club members in
more than 60 per cent of the cases reviewed by The Sun -- including
allegations of drug trafficking, extortion and even assaults against police
The Sun's research includes most -- but not all -- recent cases against
members of the club because some criminal cases launched against the Angels
are subject to publication bans or restrictions on public access.
In an interview, B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant said his staff are
reviewing their own files to determine if the failure rate is as high as
The Sun's research suggests.
"[But] even if the numbers are off by a significant margin, those figures
are troubling," Plant said.
Insp. Andy Richards, a biker gang expert with the Combined Forces Special
Enforcement Unit, called the high rate of stays and acquittals "startling".
Richards and Bob Paulson, a biker gang expert with the RCMP, said the high
failure rate reflects some challenges inherent to organized crime cases --
such as witnesses being intimidated and the accused having well-funded
But the two said it also highlights the need for a dedicated
organized-crime prosecution team in B.C. such as exists in Quebec -- where
prosecutors have jailed more than 50 per cent of that province's Angels.
However, Hells Angels spokesman Rick Ciarniello said he thinks the figures
indicate that police and prosecutors are unfairly going after member
his club, often with weak criminal cases.
"The fact is it doesn't take much to lay a charge against a Hells Angel,"
he said. "It's a form of intimidation. I think the idea is to get us to
spend our money in court cases."
Using court records and newspaper databases, The Sun identified 53 separate
criminal cases that were launched against full-patch members of the Angels
since 1994, not including cases that are still before the courts.
Of those 53 cases, only 20 -- 38 per cent -- ended in prosecutors obtaining
convictions on at least some of the charges. In 33 of the cases -- 62 per
cent -- the prosecutions failed. Five of those cases involved the accused
being acquitted or the charges being dismissed.
But the vast majority of failed cases -- 28 in all -- were the result of
all charges being dropped by the prosecutor before the trial was even
completed, in what is known as a stay of proceedings.
The list of failed cases includes many minor criminal charges, such as
common assault and simple drug possession.
But a separate analysis of just the 28 most serious cases -- including
charges of drug trafficking, uttering death threats and extortion -- still
found a high failure rate of 50 per cent, with 14 convictions, one
acquittal and 13 cases stayed by the Crown.
In the spring of 1996, East End Hells Angel Lloyd Robinson and Nomad member
Gino Zumpano were charged with extortion -- with Robinson arrested at
gunpoint while driving his car on the Upper Levels Highway.
Prosecutors dropped the charges the following month.
On June 22, 1999, charges of extortion against East End member John Virgil
Punko and Haney member Jose Gonzalez were dropped by the Crown after its
key witness -- the owner of a Richmond seafood company -- refused to return
from his native Japan to testify.
On June 3 of this year, charges of extortion, assault causing bodily harm
and assault with a weapon against Mission member David O'Hara were dropped.
And the very next day, on June 4, charges of assault causing bodily harm
and assault with a weapon against White Rock member Sergio Rodriguez -- in
connection with the beating of a man with a pipe -- were also stayed by the
"The reality is a lot of cases get stayed because they haven't come through
the way we thought they would," said Bob Prior, director of prosecutions in
Vancouver for the federal Department of Justice, which handles most drug
Prior also said that cases can be stayed for reasons other than a weak
case, such as fear that a confidential informant could be identified if the
Police and prosecutors say one of the biggest weaknesses of organized crime
cases is the witnesses -- both those intimidated out of testifying and
those too unsavoury to be believed.
"A lot of witnesses fear for their safety because the people they are
dealing with have reputations," said Mark Levitz, B.C.'s lone dedicated
organized crime prosecutor.
The other problem is that cases often rest on the testimony of fellow
criminals. "Typically, these people are in the criminal subculture and
don't make stellar witnesses," Paulson said.
Last summer, East End member Juel Stanton and three of his associates were
acquitted of assault, robbery, unlawful confinement and extortion in
connection with the alleged beating of a man who stole plants from a
marijuana-growing operation in Coquitlam.
Supreme Court Justice Ron McKinnon said his decision to acquit the group
was based largely on his lack of confidence in the Crown's witnesses,
including the alleged victim, John O'Shaughnessy.
"Two less credible witnesses they could not find," said McKinnon.
"O'Shaughnessy is a manipulative liar."
McKinnon added that, given the weakness of the case, he wondered why police
had spent so much time and effort going after Stanton and his associates --
including paying O'Shaughnessy $50,000 and relocating him, at considerable
"For reasons which may relate more to peripheral events having nothing to
do with this trial, Mr. Stanton and perhaps one or more accused seemed to
be the focus of much police interest such that police were willing to spend
extraordinary amounts of money and time in pursuit of these accused," he said.
While unreliable witnesses may be the cause for many of the failed cases,
many involve cases where the alleged victims could hardly be more reliable:
The police themselves.
Indeed, The Sun's research found that B.C. prosecutors have dropped charges
in at least five cases of a Hells Angels member being accused of either
obstructing or assaulting a peace officer.
Nicodemo Manno, a member of the Nomads Hells Angels chapter, has twice been
charged with assaulting off-duty police officers -- and twice has got off.
In 1994, Manno, along with Charles Stanley -- until recently also a member
of the Angels in B.C. -- was charged with assaulting four off-duty Calgary
police officers during Grey Cup week at the Town Pump nightclub in Vancouver.
In 1997, Manno and Stanley were charged again with assaulting off-duty
police officers -- this time Vancouver officers at a nightclub in Penticton.
The Vancouver charges against the two were dismissed in 1995.
The Penticton charges against Manno were dropped by the Crown in 2000. The
charges against Stanley were dropped in 2001.
Ciarniello said confrontations between police and Angels members are often
turned into criminal charges against his members.
"I've seen it so many times where an overly aggressive police officer has
accosted a Hells Angel and because we know our rights and stand up for
them, it suddenly becomes an assault on a police officer when it's exactly
the reverse," he said. "We never go to the police. They come to us."
On one occasion, a B.C. judge even criticized the police for being
overzealous in going after the Angels.
In June 2003, RCMP officers arrested Mission chapter member Jon Tenenbein
and his associate Lee Wiscombe at the Generator bar in Prince George,
charging them both with obstructing a peace officer by interfering in
police bar checks.
After Wiscombe allegedly shoulder-checked one of the officers, he was
handcuffed, forced to the ground and pepper-sprayed in the face.
When Tenenbein asked the police why Wiscombe was being arrested, he too was
Provincial court Judge Randy Walker threw out charges against both
Tenenbein and Wiscombe, saying the level of force used by the police was
Police have had some successes against the Angels, however.
In 2001, East End Hells Angels Ronaldo Lising and Francisco Pires were
convicted of conspiring to traffic cocaine, cocaine trafficking and
possessing the proceeds of crime and sentenced to four and a half years in
However, another East End member who was charged with various
marijuana-growing offences in the same investigation -- Pires' brother
George -- had all charges against him dropped by the Crown.
Punko was convicted in 2001 of threatening Ernie Froess -- one of the
prosecutors in the Lising and Pires case -- in a downtown food court and
sentenced to eight months in jail.
Nomad members Joseph Calendino and James Holland were each sentenced to a
45-day conditional sentence and an $8,000 fine after being convicted in
2003 of carrying loaded, restricted weapons outside the Plaza Nightclub in
And White Rock member Bryan Bell was sentenced last month to 18 months in
jail for assault causing bodily harm in connection with the severe beating
of a growing-operation owner.
Prosecutors have also had some success against lower-level members of the
In March, Rick Mandi was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for
the kidnapping and assault of a Langley man.
Mandi was a prospect with the Vancouver chapter of the Hells Angels, one
rank below a full-patch member.
In all, The Sun's review of court records indicates that 28 of the 95
full-patch Hells Angels members in B.C. have been criminally charged at
least once in the past decade. Of those, 16 have been convicted. Prior said
that -- despite the high rate of dropped charges -- he thinks the charges
that have been laid against the Angels have been appropriate.
"At the time the charge was approved, it would meet the requirements," he
said. "But as time goes along, occasionally the evidence you had in your
hands, when you examine it at a deeper level, it's simply not there anymore."
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