Federal authorities arrested eight members of the Orange County-based Hessians motorcycle club on drug and weapons charges in a pre-dawn raid Friday that spanned five cities in three counties.
Agents said they targeted the group for investigation about a year ago and hope the arrests send a signal to motorcycle gangs across the country.
"We can't ignore them," said Agent Chris Sadowski of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "We (are sending) a message to motorcycle gangs from coast to coast that they are vulnerable to the federal government."
Authorities said the 3:30 a.m. sweep across Anaheim, Bellflower, Stanton, Garden Grove and Riverside culminated an eight-month undercover operation in which two ATF agents infiltrated the motorcycle gang's 20-member local chapter.
More than 200 officers from 10 federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies seized 21 firearms including pistols, rifles and sawed-off shotguns and about 10 ounces of methamphetamine. Federal agents displayed the firearms and drugs as they announced the arrests at a press conference here. ATF officials estimated the street value of the narcotics at $5,000. Officials said they also dismantled a methamphetamine lab in the 10000 block of Brookhurst Street in Anaheim. Officials could not say how much of the drug was produced at the lab, which was not in operation at the time of the raid.
An attorney representing one defendant wondered whether federal agents unfairly singled out the motorcycle club and invested an enormous amount of resources for a relatively minor return.
"It appears they were out to get the Hessians," said federal deputy public defender Craig Wilke, who is representing Neal Ames Gustafson of Stanton.
Gustafson, 48, was arrested on suspicion of possessing a sawed-off rifle. "And it seems like the best they could do is get a 50-year-old man in a camper in Stanton with a modified rifle," Wilkes said. "I don't feel any safer."
More notable than the drug and weapons seizures, ATF officials said Friday, was the agency's penetration of the tightly knit gang. In July, an undercover agent was tapped as a probationary gang member and awarded a group patch--an insignia with a skull impaled by a dagger. A female undercover agent also attended gang gatherings.
"There's only been a handful of instances where agents were able to become (motorcycle gang) members," Sadowski said.
ATF officials said they began the arrests Friday in part because of mounting concern that the cover of their undercover agents would be blown. A gang member told the male undercover agent that a gang member would "kill him and any family members he could find and . . . would put a grenade in (the agent's) mouth" if he turned out to be a federal agent, according a criminal complaint released by ATF officials Friday.
The arrests included Danny Lynn (Tombstone) Qualls, 47, of Garden Grove, president of the Hessians chapter. Qualls was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Other Orange County arrests included Steven Denton, 33, of Stanton on suspicion of unlawful possession of a sawed-off shotgun; and Don Hudson, 44, of Anaheim, on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. If convicted, the pair, along with Gustafson, face up to 10 years in prison.
Others arrested included Jack Burns, 66, and Edith Burns, 59, of Riverside on suspicion of possession of narcotics for sale; and Gerald Ridenour, 47, and Linda Bagley, 32, of Bellflower, also on suspicion of possession of narcotics for sale.
If convicted, the Burns couple could face prison sentences of up to seven years, while Ridenour and Bagley could receive four years, officials said.
The Hessians received widespread attention in June when the club's co-founder, Thomas F. Maniscalco, was sentenced to 46 years to life in prison for the execution-style slayings of two bikers and the daughter of a Los Alamitos police officer. The sentencing of the Westminster attorney marked the end of Orange County's longest-running criminal case.
The Hessians club was founded in 1968 in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, and quickly gained notoriety for such crimes as rape, robbery, beatings and illegal drug transactions, police said. In 1972, the group boasted as many as 500 members, but today, officials estimate, there are little more than 60 members in Southern California, Oregon and Nevada.