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Hell Hasn't Frozen Over Yet

Hells Angel Sonny Barger still believes fiercely in the notorious bike club he helped found. But at 61, he's given up the hard living.

May 17, 2000|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Noel Barger had two words of advice when I left to accompany her husband on a trip across Arizona: "Full throttle." For Sonny Barger, the leader of America's most notorious outlaw motorcycle club, that's as much a philosophy for life as it is a style of riding.

The 61-year-old Barger averages 5,000 miles a month at full throttle. My trip with him, which he allowed to promote his new book, "Hell's Angel" (William Morrow, $24), was no exception. Side by side, we sped down the road, Barger on the left, fringe flying as he rode his navy-blue Harley-Davidson Road King, and me on the right, following his lead on a yellow Heritage Softail.

The $30,000 bike he rides today is a far cry from his Indian, the motorcycle he bought for $125 in 1956 when he helped form the group's Oakland chapter. But that's not all that has changed for Barger, who transformed an innocuous, eight-member riding club into a legendary international organization with thousands of members, many of whom have been prosecuted for drug dealing, money laundering, murder and prostitution, among other things.

Eighteen months ago, Barger moved to Arizona with his third wife, Noel, 33, and 10-year-old stepdaughter. Now, instead of a garage full of motorcycles, he has a stable with five horses. His ranch-style home is just a few miles off Highway 17, one exit away from the Phoenix Federal Correctional Institution, where, in 1992, he finished serving the last of several prison sentences--a six-year term for conspiracy to blow up a rival club's headquarters.

"Tryin' to be a cowboy and a Hells Angel, you ain't got time to be a crook," Barger said of his present life, speaking by pressing a thumb to the gauze bandage at his throat. His vocal cords were removed 18 years ago after doctors discovered he had laryngitic cancer. Until then, he smoked three packs a day and couldn't sleep through the night without waking up at least once for a cigarette.

Just as cancer has deadened his desire to smoke, a four-year prison sentence for heroin possession in the mid-'70s has tempered his taste for drugs. What remains strong is Barger's passion for motorcycles and riding fast (he said he averages 90 mph). On our day trip, he logged 800 miles on his way to Oakland and then San Francisco, where he planned to sign photographs at the Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson dealership and "goof off with friends."

The hole in Barger's throat forces him to ride with a full-face helmet, a bit of protection most hard-core riders are not inclined to don. Hanging from his belt in a leather sheath right next to his cell phone is the knife he carries, as do all Hells Angels. He also wears his "colors"--a black cloth vest with the infamous "death head" emblem and a "Hells Angels Arizona" patch embroidered on the back. Many of the group's members, as well as their enemies, have died or served time to defend that name and logo, each of which is protected by a trademark.

More than anything, the Hells Angels is a brotherhood, requiring each initiate to pledge his life to the group.

"Everybody is loyal to each other," Barger explained. "We try to become a family. You either wanna be part of that family, or you don't. We don't have a halfway."

The book is Barger's story as the undisputed, if unofficial, leader for years of the notorious bikers, and a favorable chronicle of the birth and development of an organization widely condemned as a violent gang. Twin brothers Keith and Kent Zimmerman, with Barger, wrote the book, much like their British bestseller about the Sex Pistols, written with the help of band member John Lydon. Barger said he plans to pay the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corp. $100,000, from his profits, to use the group's name and emblem.

At a rest stop, Barger pulled off the black sweatshirt he'd been wearing under his vest. His back, shoulders, arms and chest are covered in the faded tattoos that chronicle his life story. There is a dagger on his chest, a cross on his arm and a death head on his back. His right shoulder reads "Hell's Angels Oakland," as does his back, where there is an even larger death head.

"If you don't want to mark your body, you don't really want to be a Hells Angel," he said.

The Angels have an all-for-one, one-for-all, eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth mentality. He said it is understood that any member would fight or die for another in the group, and that anyone who messes with an Angel will have to defend himself against the entire organization.

"I treat everybody the way I want to be treated until they treat me different. And if they treat me different, I treat them accordingly," Barger said. "People can say I'm a bad guy or a good guy, but I am to them what they are to me first."

Searching for a Place to Belong

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