Biker Gang Learns the Hard Way ‘Billy the Slow-Brain’ Is an Agent
He said his name was Billy, Billy St. John, and he dealt meth, and handled machine guns and teetered in dark, violent bars, pulling at bottled beer and winning the trust of men he would later betray in the name of the law.
He said he wanted to join the Mongols, an East L.A. motorcycle gang that was desperate for new members. With a Willie Nelson beard and a face mapped with wrinkles, Billy looked the part.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 30, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 30, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Undercover agent--In an article on Sept. 18, 2000, and again last April 19, The Times reported that William Queen, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, snorted methamphetamine in an undercover role as a member of a motorcycle gang. Despite claims by gang members, Queen never snorted the drug when ordered to as part of a test of his loyalty to the gang, according to federal authorities.
Rocky, Panhead, Silent, Conan--men with names that implied explosive violence--had no idea they were about to be duped by a supremely elaborate undercover disguise. The federal government had gone to great lengths to make sure the bikers would never suspect what awaits them in federal court next month: Billy on the witness stand, Mongols at the defense table, the prospect of long sentences for murder, drug dealing and other charges hanging over them.
“Yeah, looking back at it, there were little things he did like leaving bars too early and wearing long-sleeve shirts in summer that now seem like giveaways,” said J.R. MacDonald, a 250-pound Mongol nicknamed “Hoss,” who is charged with dealing in stolen motorcycles. “But at the time, he was just Billy. He rode with us. He partied with us. He was our treasurer. Nobody ever thought twice about it.”
Two and a half years ago, Billy, whose name is really William Queen, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, swung a booted leg over his Harley Softtail and roared off on a journey destined to become an undercover legend. He swaggered into one biker bar after another from the San Fernando Valley to Daytona Beach, Fla., lingered in Harley shops and tattoo parlors and apartments stashed with methamphetamines and cocaine, climbed straight up the ladder of Mongoldom from “hang around” to “prospect” to full patch member and then finally, somehow, to the organization’s inner circle.
“The Mongols are some of the more hard-core bikers around,” said James Pollock, a San Fernando Police Department detective who has investigated motorcycle gangs. “An agent like that, if he wasn’t careful every second he was out there, would have the life expectancy of a fruit fly.”
Billy’s protection was his completeness. He had a whole life story, part invented, part probably real. His job, he told the Mongols when he was introduced to them in March 1998, was selling electronic equipment out of a van. He lived in an apartment in Diamond Bar. He claimed to have two daughters, whom other bikers would hear him calling at night, saying, “Hi sweetheart, it’s Daddy.” The bikers now think he was talking to another agent in code.
He grew up in North Carolina, he said, served in Vietnam and was “ ‘round fiddy years ol.”
“Y’all be lucky if you live to be half my age,” he’d tell younger Mongols.
He was well cast--old, hairy, weathered, rough.
“This was a guy who had some miles on him,” said Bill Mueller, a Harley enthusiast who used to see Billy at the South Pacific motorcycle shop in El Monte. “He wasn’t some guy who stepped out of an office to do this.”
Donald R. Kincaid, the ATF division director in Los Angeles, refused to discuss the investigation, citing the pending criminal trials. In May, when the arrests were announced, the ATF hailed the sting as the longest undercover investigation into a motorcycle gang and one of the bureau’s most extensive operations ever.
ATF officials refused to make Queen available for an interview.
Yet his two years with the Mongols as “Billy” have been extensively documented in volumes of affidavits, motions, indictments and field reports.
Billy’s first test was a line of speed cut for him by a Mongol named Rocky. According to court papers, Rocky asked him to take speed to prove he wasn’t a cop. Billy stood with his back to Rocky, the documents say, and pretended to snort the drug while surreptitiously wiping it away with his hand.
Some bikers don’t buy that.
“Man, I saw that guy doing speed all the time at bars,” said Tommy “The Tomato” Luna, a Mongol charged with selling Billy a pure form of speed known as “ice.” Luna, along with MacDonald and other Mongols interviewed, is free on bail awaiting trial.
The ATF, like most law enforcement agencies, prohibits undercover officers from taking drugs. But that rule is difficult to follow, say veterans of undercover operations, when you’re trying to penetrate an outlaw motorcycle gang.
“When you enter a group that likes to think of themselves as bad dudes, you have to prove your bona fides,” said William Coulson, a former federal prosecutor who supervised investigations of biker gangs in Chicago. “Traditionally, the personal use of narcotics is warranted to maintain cover.”
Welcomed With Open Arms
A few months after passing Rocky’s test, Billy was asked to become a “prospect"--essentially like a college fraternity pledge.
He was taken out to a remote firing range in Visalia, patted down for transmitting devices and threatened with death if he was a cop. He filled out an official Mongol application, asking him to list all his enemies. He was told about Mongol rules and the Mongol commandments, including No. 3: “A Mongol never messes around with another Mongol’s ol’ lady.”
The club even hired a private investigator to check out his background, but with the help of a federal agency that can fabricate a complete, documented identity, Billy passed.
On Oct. 28, 1998, with a shower of motor oil and beer, Billy was initiated into the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Mongols. A month later he was named treasurer, in charge of the books of a branch of one of the most violent and criminally bent motorcycle gangs in Southern California, surpassing even the notorious Hells Angels, according to ATF Special Agent John Ciccone.
The Mongols are concentrated in East Los Angeles, but have a dozen branches outside the area, including chapters in Georgia, Oklahoma and Mexico. Their ranks have recently dwindled because of an ongoing “war” against the Hells Angels.
As Billy set off to burrow into Mongol business, a team of ATF agents shadowed him constantly--now a common practice in undercover investigations. Police have not forgotten the case of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena Salazar, who was tortured and killed in 1985 after a Mexican drug cartel discovered his identity.
The bikers and their friends, though, said they never suspected Billy. True, he did strange things, like carry around a little electronic gadget he called an “airplane finder” that the bikers now think was a recording device. But he seemed too dumb to be a narc, the bikers said.
“Billy was what we call a slow-brain,” said Buddy Mgrdichian, the owner of South Pacific bike shop. “I remember once he couldn’t figure out how to put a [wheel] fork on a bike right after we showed him.”
Mgrdichian said Billy didn’t understand the way Harleys are registered. Mgrdichian has been charged with telling workers in his El Monte shop to grind off vehicle identification numbers on Billy’s bike, a federal crime. Mgrdichian claims those numbers weren’t official VIN numbers but merely serial numbers stamped on parts that have nothing to do with registration.
For the most part, Billy’s work netted mid-level felony charges like Mgrdichian’s. He recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with a wire he wore in the later months of the investigation. He wrote thousands of pages of reports. He went to “headstone ceremonies” for downed bikers and to “church” (chapter meetings), and to scores of weekend runs, riding in tight formation with the collective glint of 50 polished chrome bikes nearly blinding oncoming traffic.
Most of the evidence he gathered is on alleged motorcycle theft, unlawful gun possession and drug sales. The most serious offense that Billy helped solve was the particularly brutal slaying of a man knifed in front of his wife during a bar fight on Thanksgiving night last year.
Billy wasn’t there Nov. 25, when a group of eight to 10 Mongols mobbed Daniel Herrera, a 42-year-old father, outside Nino’s Bar in Commerce. But the next day, several bikers told Billy that Adrian Gutierrez, nicknamed “Panhead,” had started a fight with Herrera and then asked for a buck knife from another Mongol to finish him off. He was later awarded a skull and crossbones patch for the killing, a secret Mongol honor, according to ATF documents.
In the days that followed the stabbing, Billy circled Panhead like a shark, trying to elicit some sort of confession. First, he told Panhead he admired what he had done and the biker responded that he did what he had to do. A week later, at a muffler shop in Los Angeles, Billy asked Panhead about “sticking that dude.” Panhead didn’t deny it, court papers say, but he didn’t actually come out and take responsibility.
Billy’s interest in the slaying got him in trouble. A few weeks later, the Mongols’ national president warned him to stop talking about it, or else.
Kincaid, the local ATF director, said it is up to the agent to decide when to pull out of an undercover investigation. Kincaid is something of an undercover guru, a poker-faced man who can sit down and fill the room with enough adrenaline-laced stories to rival 10 episodes of “Miami Vice.” As an undercover agent, he’s been hired at least five times to kill someone and once he had a .38 stuck in his ear by a gun dealer who said, “If you’re a cop, I’ll kill ya.”
“You never really know how long you can stay before you’ve worn out your welcome,” Kincaid said.
Agent’s Cover Comes Off
Billy’s last hurrah was a trip last March to Daytona Beach, Fla., for Bike Week, a yearly event that draws tens of thousands of bikers from across the country. A few months earlier he had been promoted to vice president, but he had returned to being treasurer by the time he left for Florida.
Some Mongols said the week’s most eventful moment was when Billy downed too many screwdrivers and wiped out on his Harley, crashing into a parked motorcycle.
“I know he was toasted,” MacDonald said. “I was with him all night.”
Billy returned to Los Angeles and continued making drug buys and gun deals. On May 19 he vanished. That was the day 700 officers from the ATF and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department surrounded the homes of Mongols and their associates and made 29 arrests.
More people were charged the following week, including a California Highway Patrol dispatcher who has since pleaded guilty to using a CHP computer to check vehicle registrations for the Mongols.
Most of the trials are set for October. In a case that went unsolved until Billy’s involvement, Gutierrez--Panhead--faces first-degree murder charges in the bar stabbing.
Charles T. Mathews, a Pasadena lawyer representing Gutierrez and another Mongol, said his clients have been unfairly targeted because of the perception that Harley riders are trouble.
“The Mongols are basically a bunch of working-class Latino guys from East L.A. who ride Harleys,” Mathews said. “I’m sure there are some guys who have broken the law, but 2 1/2 years for a few gun and drug charges is completely misguided.”
An issue that has delayed several trials from this month to next is a controversial interview Queen granted to the ABC news program “20/20.” The ATF’s Kincaid said Queen had not received the bureau’s permission to do the interview, which was shot in June, and could face discipline.
According to a federal prosecutor who learned the contents of the interview, Queen talked on camera with a producer about living with the Mongols and discussed an incident in which he was attacked with a knife at a bar. He yelled for a fellow Mongol to shoot the assailant, but the associate broke up the fight without using a gun.
The show is scheduled to air tonight, ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said Friday.
ATF officials would not reveal Queen’s whereabouts or plans, but said he is being protected 24 hours a day.
Some Mongols said his work isn’t something they will easily forget.
“My honest feeling?” MacDonald said. “The guy’s an [expletive]. I trusted him. I took him in. I told him if he ever needed anything to call. And then, all of a sudden, whack, whack, whack, he sticks a machete in my back.”
Other Mongol trial defendants, though, reflected something close to admiration, or at least that’s what they said they felt.
“What would I do to him if I saw him on the street?” asked Tommy Luna. “To tell you the truth, I’d go up to him and shake his hand. I’d say, ‘Billy, man, you got us, you did your homework, you got us good.’ ”
The Five Mongol Commandments
Below are the Five Mongol Commandments as printed in the Mongol Constitution.
1. A Mongol never lies to another Mongol.
2. A Mongol never steals from another Mongol.
3. A Mongol never messes around with another Mongols ol’ lady.
4. A Mongol never causes another Mongol to get arrested in any way, shape or form.
5. A Mongol never uses his patch for personal gain.
If you intend to break any of the above commandants [sic], you might as well turn your patch in now or face the consequences.