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Federal agents recently arrested more than two dozen men belonging to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. Authorities say the club is a criminal gang, and those arrested have been charged with weapons and racketeering offenses. NPR's Carrie Johnson tells us about the violent lifestyle of one of the country's biggest gangs.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Motorcycle gangs don't usually get much attention, aside from a late-night cable TV show called "Sons of Anarchy," where gang leader SAMCRO never takes guff from anyone.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sons of Anarchy")

Mr. RON PERLMAN (Actor): (as Clarence Clay Morrow) Let me be real clear: nobody threatens SAMCRO. Nobody tells us what we can and can't do.

JOHNSON: But far away from TV screens, investigators are working to infiltrate the closed societies of biker gangs and bring criminal cases against their leaders.

Rich Marianos works with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and he supervised the Outlaw case.

Mr. RICH MARIANOS (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives): This group was a calculated criminal enterprise that was involved in trying to take over territory, narcotics routes, gambling establishments, and to utilize the brand of the Outlaws to facilitate criminal acts of not only themselves, but other clubs.

JOHNSON: Members of the Outlaws follow a few simple rules: They have to be men over age 21, and they need to ride American-made motorcycles: Harley Davidson all the way. They meet regularly and pay dues, usually $100 a month, to cover legal bills and funeral expenses.

Terry Katz investigates biker gangs. He says guys who follow biker culture often pay with their blood.

Mr. TERRY KATZ (Investigator): It's a very, very violent existence. You're either going to die from a motorcycle wreck or from a rival gang. You're going to go to jail, usually for substantial periods of time. For them, they live for the moment. They would rather live a life of sex, parties, being treated like a celebrity for moments rather than have a long-term plan of retirement.

JOHNSON: New members work their way into the club by serving a kind of probationary period, running errands and sometimes breaking the law.

Neil MacBride is the U.S. attorney in eastern Virginia, and he says Outlaws recognize each other through tattoos and patches they wear on their leather vests.

Mr. NEIL MACBRIDE (U.S. Attorney): One example is a patch with the letters G-F-O-D, which signifies God Forgives, Outlaws Don't. Another patch they use reads: Snitches are a Dying Breed, which signifies the gang's commitment to identify, expel and, if necessary, murder individuals associated with the club who cooperate with law enforcement.

JOHNSON: Earlier this year, Outlaw member Mark Lester told a TV station in Knoxville, Tennessee that he has a right to meet and ride bikes with his friends.

Mr. MARK LESTER (Member, Outlaws): None of us are doing anything illegal. We're not a gang. We're a club. We ride and have fun together, and that's what the organization is put together to do, is to have charitable events, help the community. And that's what we've been doing.

JOHNSON: Lester's one of several former Outlaw leaders arrested this summer. He's now living in a Richmond jail while he and the others await trial.

In all, the Outlaws boast more than 1,500 members across the U.S. and a dozen different countries. Investigators say it's usually too dangerous to rely on gang members to build a case. Instead, they try to plant undercover agents to go along for the ride.

That's what happened in the Virginia case against the Outlaws. Several undercover operatives became full-fledged members of the gang. They recorded conversations and tipped off police about violent confrontations in the works.

Edgar Domenech leads the ATF's Washington office.

Mr. EDGAR DOMENECH (ATF, Washington, D.C. Office): It only works when you have law enforcement undercover agents involved from the very inception.

JOHNSON: The strategy poses some risks. Terry Katz, the longtime gang investigator, says biker gangs have gotten sophisticated. Some use polygraphs and private investigators to check out new members.

Mr. KATZ: More and more, they become to rely almost the way industry does on background investigations. And certainly, with the Internet, it's easier to get a lot of information very quickly on an individual than it was when I did it.

JOHNSON: Prosecutor Neil MacBride said the gangs pose a threat to public safety.

Mr. MACBRIDE: The press recently reported in New Hampshire the shooting of a teenage boy at a pizza joint who was caught in the crossfire between the Outlaws and other motorcycle gang members.

JOHNSON: Investigators are still combing through assault weapons, pipe bomb manuals, and Nazi flags they say they uncovered in searches of Outlaw property.

The ATF says more charges are likely before the Outlaws' trial in October.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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