California

Mongols biker gang found guilty in racketeering case, moving government closer to seizing trademark

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, at podium, speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Oct. 21, 20
Law enforcement officials announce the arrests of dozens of members of the Mongols motorcycle club in 2008. A jury found the club guilty in a current racketeering case. Federal prosecutors want the club to forfeit the trademark it has on its insignia, which is seen on the jacket.
(Ric Francis / Associated Press)

A jury found the Mongols motorcycle club guilty in a federal racketeering case, a verdict that moves the U.S. government a step closer to its goal of seizing the gang’s trademarked insignia.

The jury reached its decision Thursday after deliberating for six days over evidence heard in a monthlong trial in a Santa Ana courtroom. In finding the Mongol Nation, a group of the gang’s leaders, guilty of racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering, jurors found the club itself shares responsibility for several violent crimes and drug-dealing crimes committed by members.

With the victory, prosecutors will turn their attention to their plans to strip the gang of the trademarks it owns for its coveted insignia — a Genghis Khan-like figure riding a motorcycle beneath the Mongol name. The image, which members are allowed to wear emblazoned on their riding jackets, patches and elsewhere, is a crucial part of the gang’s identity in the insular culture of motorcycle clubs.

At a hearing scheduled for Jan. 8, jurors will be asked to decide whether the insignia is linked closely enough to the racketeering charges that the trademarks should be forfeited as part of the sentence against the group.

It is a prize the government has been trying to claim for years in the belief that controlling the trademark will give authorities the power to bar members from wearing the image and, in doing so, weaken the gang’s status.

Whether the untested legal strategy would work, however, is debatable as trademark experts questioned whether simply owning a trademark would grant the government the authority it seeks to prevent people from wearing a piece of contested clothing.

Joe Yanny, an attorney for the Mongols, said he will ask U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to set aside the verdict and reiterated plans to challenge the government’s efforts to take the trademark.

“This thing is far from over,” Yanny said. “You can’t hold an entire organization liable just because of the actions of a few people who happened to be members of the organization.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, citing the ongoing proceedings.

But Thursday, even before the verdict was announced, prosecutors made clear their intention to press ahead with plans to seize the trademark. They filed in court a form they want Carter to give the jury when it decides on whether control of the insignia, as well as clothing and weapons already seized from Mongols members, should be forfeited.

The document asks the jury to grant the government sweeping control over “any and all legal and equitable rights of any kind or nature associated” with the trademarked images.

The Mongols were formed in the 1970s in Montebello, outside Los Angeles, by a group of Latino men who reportedly had been rejected for membership by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. It has expanded over the decades to include several hundred members in chapters across Southern California and elsewhere.

The club has been in the federal government’s crosshairs for years, along with several other groups authorities have identified as “outlaw motorcycle gangs.” Despite their claims of being innocent social clubs, the groups, which include the Hells Angels, Vagos and the Outlaws, have long track records of warring with each other and, according to authorities, operate as criminal organizations that subsist on the drug trade.

In 2008, nearly 80 Mongols members were charged in a sweeping racketeering case that included an array of alleged murders, assaults and drug deals. The charges were the culmination of Operation Black Rain, an investigation that centered on Mongols who had become paid informants, as well as four undercover agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who infiltrated the club’s ranks.

The idea of stripping the Mongols of their insignia originated in this earlier case. At a news conference announcing the charges, then-U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien laid out plans to take control of the trademark.

“We’re going after their very identity,” O’Brien said.

All but two of the defendants in that case pleaded guilty. A judge agreed the trademark should be forfeited as part of the sentences handed down, but he ultimately reversed himself after deciding none of the individuals charged in the case actually owned the trademark and therefore couldn’t forfeit it.

Prosecutors tried again in 2013, when they filed a second racketeering case that was largely the same as the first but named only one defendant — Mongol Nation, the entity that prosecutors say is made up of the club’s leaders and owns the trademark.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Twitter: @joelrubin