VENTURA — Climaxing a yearlong inquiry into the local Hells Angels chapter, investigators said Tuesday that the arrests of nine club members have broken a drug ring that targeted students as they left middle and high school campuses.
Meanwhile, authorities said that county prosecutors have stepped up a separate drug and tax-evasion case against local Hells Angels President George Christie Jr., calling witnesses in recent weeks before a criminal grand jury.
Sheriff Bob Brooks, whose camouflaged narcotics unit arrested four men after descending on their Ventura clubhouse Monday night, said that $27,000 in cash, 15 weapons and drugs valued at $364,000 have been seized from local club members since January 1998.
Undercover officers have bought drugs 25 times from Hells Angels members or their associates over the same period, Brooks said. Some of those buys were made as Ventura secondary students left school, he said.
Suspects typically peddled plastic bags containing two or three Valium pills to teenagers for $1 a pill, or sold them so-called designer drugs--Vicodin for $3 a tablet and the methamphetamine called Ecstasy for $20 a tablet--investigators said.
Among the seized weapons displayed by Brooks at a news conference were a "sniper rifle," a sawed-off shotgun, a hunter's rifle with bayonet, a semiautomatic shotgun, a machete, assorted knives, brass knuckles and a stun gun.
"The Hells Angels like to portray themselves as misunderstood recreational bikers who are harassed by the police," he said. "We arrested these suspects not because of their club membership, but because they deal drugs that end up on our streets and in our schools."
Brooks noted that police were criticized in March 1998 for their high-profile patrols of the club's 50th anniversary celebration in downtown Ventura. And he said the recent arrests show the Hells Angels' true colors. Brooks acknowledged that Tuesday's news conference was aimed at polishing law enforcement's image and was intended to prompt more witnesses to come forward.
The parallel investigations by deputies and prosecutors--while separate inquiries--are seen by Christie, national spokesman for the Hells Angels, as a law enforcement squeeze of him and his associates aimed at convicting him of a major crime.
"This is an effort to justify what they're doing," said Christie, whose only criminal conviction is misdemeanor battery in 1994. "They're trying to put pressure on us just because they want public opinion on their side. I'd like to know how much money they've spent on this since our 50th anniversary. And they've come away rather sparingly in terms of what they've accomplished."
Christie said he was outraged by charges that club members would stake out campuses and sell drugs to kids. "That's ludicrous," he said. "That is just not happening. I would not allow something like that to happen."
He also said that authorities are exaggerating the amount of drugs seized from Hells Angels. "It's inaccurate information they're feeding to the public," he said.
Brooks said a task force of law enforcement agencies--including the FBI and Ventura and Oxnard police--have arrested nine of 22 local Hells Angels over the last 16 months.
"It would be quite a coincidence if the nine members we arrested just happened to be involved in illegal activity," he said.
So far, charges have been filed against only one club member, Edward Gregory, who recently pleaded guilty to possession of 4 1/2 pounds of cocaine and was sentenced to six years in prison. But additional charges are expected soon, Brooks said.
Brooks' tally does not count the arrest of Christie last May on suspicion of narcotics possession. Christie's estranged wife, Cheryl, was also arrested on suspicion of possessing drugs for sale.
George Christie, who has been a spokesman for the motorcycle gang for two decades, said authorities have served 23 search warrants on him and his associates during the last year.
The initial raids focused on whether Christie had paid taxes for employees of his Ink House tattoo parlor in downtown Ventura.
Officers seized thousands of pages of documents and found a small amount of cocaine in Christie's bedside stand, and large amounts of cash and an addictive narcotic painkiller in his wife's hillside condo.
Another $30,000 in cash was taken from Christie's Ventura Avenue house, said Christie's attorney, Robert Sheahen.
Christie said he has broken no laws and pays no employee taxes because his workers are contract employees, similar to those in beauty salons. Such employees are self-employed and pay their own taxes, he said.
But Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury is pressing his case against Christie. Christie said Tuesday that prosecutors are calling grand jury witnesses, and Brooks confirmed the development. Brooks would not elaborate, and Bradbury declined comment.