Somewhere near Visalia, California
“All right, Billy, how long was your fuckin’ academy?”
Red Dog pressed his ruddy, windburned face three inches from mine. I smelled that thick mix of Budweiser and crank-fueled sleeplessness on his breath. The words he spat felt hotter than the midday Southern California sun. He cocked his head to one side and pushed closer. “I’m askin’ you a fuckin’ question, Billy!”
Red Dog, the national sergeant at arms of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, stood six feet tall, with long, stringy hair and a rust-colored handlebar mustache that drooped below his chin. From his pierced forehead, a silver chain swept down ominously past his left eye. His powerfully muscled arms were sleeved out with a web of prison tattoos, and his right hand clutched a loaded 9-mm Glock semiautomatic. Behind him, six other Mongols—Evel, C.J., Domingo, Diablo, Bobby Loco, and Lucifer—all in various states of drunkenness and methamphetamine highs, were slapping magazines into their Glocks and Berettas. More than one had his Mongol colors decorated with the skull-and-crossbones patch, boldly announcing to the world that he had killed for the club.
Here at the end of a long dirt road, in an abandoned orange grove a 180 miles north of Los Angeles, what had begun as a typical Southern California day—that perfect golden sun beating down on a ribbon of black highway—had quickly turned into my worst nightmare.
For several months now, working deep undercover on assignment for the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), I’d been posing as a Mongols “prospect”—a probationary member of the club, a position that allowed me to wear my black leather vest with the lower rocker reading california but not yet the official black-and-white center patch and top rocker that distinguished a full-fledged member.
As a prospect, you’re a slave, the property of the club. You have to do everything a member tells you to do, from hauling drugs and guns to wiping a member’s ass if he orders you to. Some members were good for simple orders like “Prospect, go get me a beer,” or “Light my cigarette,” or “Clean my bike.” But other members, guys like Red Dog, took inordinate pleasure in making a prospect’s life a living hell.
Prospecting inside the Mongols was a dangerous game. According to intel developed by ATF, the Mongols Motorcycle Club had assumed the mantle of the most violent motorcycle gang in America, a tight-knit collective of crazies, unpredictable and unrepentant badasses. With 350 full-patch members, the gang was a small fraction of the size of the Hells Angels, their hated rivals, but the Mongols had wreaked more than their fair share of havoc since they were founded in the early seventies.
Their most significant violent acts in the 1970s and ’80s were committed against the Angels, with whom they fought (and ultimately won) a seventeen-year war. But by the mid-nineties, infused by the ruthless Latino gang mentality of East Los Angeles, the Mongols’ indiscriminate violence spread outside the biker underworld and began to terrorize the general populace of Southern California. When the Mongols frequented mainstream bars and clubs, where people were not as familiar with the gang’s fearsome reputation, the result was a series of vicious assaults, stabbings, and gunfights. In late 1997 the Mongols got into a confrontation in a club in the San Gabriel Valley, just outside of L.A., which resulted in a shoot-out, leaving one man dead. Also in 1997, the Mongols went to two nightclubs in the Los Angeles area and stabbed patrons in plain view of dozens of witnesses, but no one would come forward to testify against them.
Nor was the Mongols’ violence limited to the outside world; even within the ranks of the club, the gang had such a reputation for assaulting its prospects that by the late nineties, the membership was dwindling: No one wanted to join a club if it meant that every day and night he had to worry about taking a savage beat-down. In 1998 they adopted a new national policy: No beating on the prospects. And almost everyone stuck by it, except for Red Dog.
Despite the fact that as national sergeant at arms he was supposed to be enforcing the club’s rules and constitution—yes, the club had a seventy-page constitution—Red Dog was a loose cannon, riding his Harley through life with a “fuck everyone” attitude. For months he was in my face, smashing his heavy fist into my chest, at times uppercutting me as hard as he could. More than once he’d sucker-punched me in the gut, leaving me doubled over, gasping for air, and ready to puke. But I was a prospect, so I gritted my teeth and sucked it up.
That morning we had all hooked up at C.J.’s house, where the dudes drank hard and I did my prospect thing, fetching beer for the patches (as fully inducted members of the club are called), lighting their cigarettes, watching them do line after line of crank and coke. Then when Red Dog figured everyone was drunk and high enough, he gave an abrupt order: “Let’s go shoot.”
This was a Mongols membership requirement: Before any prospect could attain full-patch status in the club, he had to prove that he owned a firearm and was a decent shot. When I got behind the wheel of my bullet-pocked red Mustang, I thought we were heading out to an actual firing range—and so did my ATF backup. We formed a ragged convoy behind Red Dog’s burgundy Monte Carlo as we left the Visalia city limits. I kept glancing in my rearview mirror, checking to see that my backup was still there. But as we got farther and farther into the countryside of vineyards and orange groves, eventually turning down a remote dirt driveway, I realized we had completely lost my backup. I also realized this wasn’t going to be a standard firearms-qualification exercise. There was nothing ATF could do to help me now. If shit went bad, it just went bad. I was alone.
Now, with a collection of new semiautomatic pistols on the hoods of our cars and the loaded magazines clicking into place, the mood in the orange grove suddenly turned dark and twisted. One Mongol brother stood loading rounds into a street-sweeper, a high-capacity, drum-fed semiautomatic 12-gauge shotgun that looks similar to the old Thompson submachine gun from the Prohibition era. An awesome assault weapon, beloved by drug dealers and hard-core gangsters, the street-sweeper has since been banned by the feds. I knew that a gun like that was useless for target shooting; like the tommy gun, a street-sweeper is a pure killing machine.
Without warning, Red Dog was up in my face again, head cocked to one side, hollering crazily—accusing me of being an undercover cop. “How long was your fuckin’ academy, Billy?”
“What are you talkin’ about, Red Dog?”
“You know what I’m talking about, Billy! Who the fuck did you tell you was comin’ up here? Who the fuck did you tell you was gonna be with the Mongols today? Who, Billy?”
“I didn’t tell nobody. Come on, Red, why you acting like this? I didn’t tell nobody I was coming up to Visalia.”
He locked his slate blue eyes on mine and, in torturous silence, stared at me for fifteen seconds. “So you’re saying if I put a bullet in the back of your fuckin’ head right now, ain’t nobody gonna know where to start looking for you? Is that right, Billy?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right, Red Dog.”
He gestured across the dusty, desolate, trash-strewn field, told me to go set up some cans to shoot at. My first thought was of the infamous 1963 Onion Field case, chronicled in Joseph Wambaugh’s bestseller and subsequent movie, in which two young LAPD officers, after stopping a vehicle in Hollywood they suspected had been involved in a series of armed robberies, were kidnapped by a pair of ex-convicts and taken to a remote onion field outside Bakersfield. Officer Ian Campbell was shot dead while Officer Karl Hettinger watched in horror before escaping with his life.
When I turned my back to Red Dog and the other armed Mongols, the icy realization hit me: After the firefights in Vietnam, after twenty-five years in law enforcement, this was the way it ended—I was going to die on a gorgeous Southern California day, by a Mongol bullet, in the middle of a godforsaken, abandoned orange grove somewhere outside Visalia.
I closed my eyes and began to walk, waiting for the bullets to start tearing through my back. I couldn’t even turn to shoot it out: Red Dog and Domingo had made certain that I was the only one without a gun. It was a simple equation: If they’d made me, I was going to die today. I stumbled across the field in my motorcycle boots and suddenly saw an image of my two sons standing tearfully over my open casket. I’d felt similar eerie premonitions during my tour of duty in Vietnam, but here, without question, there was nothing worth dying for.
Suddenly, I heard a loud pop and felt my boot crunching an empty beer can. My knees buckled, but I bent down and picked up the can. I glanced back toward the Mongols and saw them talking in a tight circle instead of pointing their guns and training their sights on me. No, they weren’t going to shoot me, at least not right now . . .