More than 750 law enforcement officials conducted sweeps in five counties Thursday, aimed at breaking the back of the Vagos Motorcycle Club, an organization founded in the 1960s that authorities say is tied to dealing drugs and weapons.
Twenty-two people were arrested in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Ventura counties, culminating a three-year investigation aimed at curtailing the operations of the Vagos organization.
The bust comes two years after another long-term investigation resulted in the arrests of 57 leaders from the Vagos’ archrivals, the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
Although the two biker gangs have their roots in California’s counterculture movement, law enforcement officials say both groups are actually sophisticated criminal enterprises with a large hand in the methamphetamine trade.
“Today is just the beginning,” said Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona. “The Hells Angels, the Vagos -- they are not clubs. The reality is that they’re supporting [street] terrorism.”
Leaders of the Vagos have long denied having any ties to criminal activity. The Vagos website states that the group was formed as a “tight brotherhood to survive the wars between the rival clubs and the constant harassment of the police.”
The message goes on to say that “Vagos comes from the Spanish language meaning ‘traveling gypsy’ or ‘a streetwise person that’s always up to something.’ ” The club has about 300 members in California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Mexico.
Authorities said the Vagos investigation was among the largest coordinated law enforcement probes ever conducted in the region. Those arrested include seven chapter presidents, one vice president, one secretary, one treasurer and seven sergeants-at-arms.
Officers said they seized 95 illegal firearms; various illegal drugs, including methamphetamine; $6,000 in cash; and two stolen motorcycles.
The crimes may later be incorporated into a federal racketeering case, officials said.
The law enforcement operation was dubbed “22-Green” because Vagos gang members wear the number 22 on their vests, representing V, the 22nd letter of the alphabet, and green is the gang’s color.
The Hells Angels wear red.
The Hells Angels and Vagos motorcycle gangs have been feuding for years. In 2001, a bloody melee broke out at a Costa Mesa swap meet that authorities later said stemmed from bad blood between Hells Angels and Vagos members. A fight between the Hells Angels and another gang, the Mongols, left three people dead at a Laughlin casino in 2003.
That year, federal officials arrested Angels leaders across several Western states on suspicion of firearms violations, narcotics trafficking, possession of stolen explosives and organized criminal activity.
Authorities on Thursday alleged that the Vagos gang also has a long history of involvement in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, as well as other controlled substances. They are believed to be responsible for selling drugs in parks in San Bernardino County, officials said.
Because the Vagos are classified as a criminal street gang, judges can add enhanced penalties if members are convicted.
Among those whose homes were searched Thursday was Terry Orendorff of Hesperia, the Vagos’ 23-year international president. Although he was not arrested, Orendorff and other gang leaders remain subject to future federal racketeering charges, based on the gang’s alleged involvement in a July 2004 killing in Lucerne Valley and an attempted murder in Hesperia, authorities said.
Those arrested included chapter presidents Scott “Psycho” Sikoff of Apple Valley, Vincent Mariano of Victorville, Nels “Swede” Bloom of Romoland, “Big” Roy Compton III of San Jacinto, Lino “Umpire” Garcia of Oxnard, and sergeant at arms Michael “Chainsaw” Izykowski of Huntington Beach.
None of those arrested could be reached for comment Thursday.
“We expect some of the gang leadership to cooperate with us,” said Thomas Mangan, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This is the just the tip of the iceberg.”
In the Lucerne Valley homicide, James Gavin, 44, was fatally shot in the upper torso, and another person was injured during a home-invasion robbery.
Two alleged Vagos members were arrested Thursday on suspicion of murder: Daniel “Twist” Foreman, 28, of Apple Valley, and Vagos vice president Ryan Matteson, 29, of Victorville. They will be charged with murder, attempted murder, street terrorism, residential robbery and first-degree burglary, authorities said.
Foreman had previously been arrested on suspicion of the slaying in early 2005 but was released for lack of evidence. Considerably more evidence was uncovered in the latest investigation, said Britt Imes, the San Bernardino County deputy district attorney who will prosecute the case.
“It was drug-related and retaliation-related, connected to the gang’s perceived disrespect of another Vagos member’s family member,” Imes said. “We’ve been anxious to resolve that murder, and we are finally able to do that.”
Two other Vagos members, whom Imes declined to identify, were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder for their roles in firing multiple gunshots at a vehicle occupied by several people on a Hesperia street.
“We believe [the shooting] was a retaliation for a high-ranking member’s relative being disrespected,” Imes said.
The Vagos organization is considered much smaller and less well-known than the Hells Angels, which rose to national prominence after a deadly altercation involving a member at a 1969 concert at Altamont in Northern California featuring the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane.
In addition to their green outfits, Vagos wear patches with the image of Loki, the Norse god of mischief.
Last week, 10 people associated with the group -- including the leader of the Northern California Vagos -- pleaded guilty to possessing firearms and conspiracy to sell methamphetamine.
Times staff writer Michelle Keller contributed to this report.