VENTURA — A national Hells Angels leader, who for two decades cultivated the image of an upstanding citizen, has been charged with heading a criminal gang whose activities include the sale of drugs to high school students.
The arrest of George Gus Christie Jr., his two adult children and 21 others Friday night tarnishes his long campaign to portray the notorious motorcycle gang as free-spirited but law-abiding citizens harassed by law enforcement.
Instead, prosecutors say, Christie assembled a drug distribution network that relied on young Hells Angels operatives--or "HA Cub Scouts"--to sell drugs to teenagers as they left four middle and high school campuses in Ventura and Ojai.
Neither Christie nor his lawyer could be reached for comment Saturday.
While the Hells Angels have generally fallen from public view in recent years, they have been a growing presence in Ventura.
Christie hosted the Angels' 50th anniversary celebration here in 1998 and angered police and public officials by posing for a group photo with hundreds of bikers on the steps of City Hall.
The Ventura chapter tripled its size to about 20 members, recruiting young street toughs who roared around downtown Ventura on flame-emblazoned Harley-Davidsons and allegedly engaged in a flurry of criminal activity that prompted investigations by police, sheriff's intelligence officers and the district attorney's organized crime unit.
It took eight months to present the current case to the grand jury, which on Friday indicted the suspects on 132 criminal counts.
Investigators arrested 24 of 28 suspects--including nine Hells Angels--in sweeps in Ventura and Orange counties on Friday night, ending a four-year investigation. Officers acted on eight Ventura County Grand Jury indictments on charges of theft, fraud, tax evasion, firearms possession, drug sales to minors and the use of a street gang in a criminal conspiracy.
The suspects were being held in Ventura County Jail late Saturday with bails ranging from $10,000 to--for Christie, his son and three other principals--$1 million each. Arraignment is set for Monday.
"An organized criminal enterprise has been stopped from selling drugs to our children and victimizing other citizens through violence, theft, fraud and intimidation," Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury said in a written release Saturday.
Christie has denied any wrongdoing. Earlier last week, anticipating the indictments, he said: "I'll save my comments for the courtroom. My lawyer and I will handle everything in the courtroom."
Christie is represented by Barry Tarlow of Los Angeles, a high-profile former federal prosecutor who gained Christie's acquittal in a 1987 federal murder-for-hire case.
The indictments represent the first time Christie, 53, the reputed heir to Ralph "Sonny" Barger as the Angels' leader nationwide, has been charged with a serious crime since a Los Angeles jury acquitted him in the murder-for-hire case.
Since the early 1980s, the Angels have presented Christie as a representative of a new generation of members who are law-abiding and raise money for charities such as Toys for Tots.
After running a leg in the Olympic torch relay in 1984, he spoke in college and high school classes about the ethics of prosecutors and journalists. He hosted a fund-raiser for an Oxnard children's museum in 1997. He even sold his life story to Hollywood as a tale of a modern-day folk hero who withstood the abuse of power by federal authorities.
He was one of six Hells Angels leaders profiled in a story in The Times in 1983 that described the "mellowing" of some members of the motorcycle gang.
"Being a Hells Angel," Christie said, "means that people listen to you when you talk, and they move out of your way when you walk down the street. There's a lot of power and you want to make sure that guys that get into the club aren't going to abuse it."
Wearing baggy pants and flannel shirts popular with teenagers, Christie is regularly seen at his Ink House tattoo and body-piercing parlor on Main Street in Ventura, talking on the sidewalk with Angels, tattooed employees and skinheaded hangers-on.
He is calm and precise in his speech. Acquaintances describe him as smart and articulate--even gentlemanly--and nearly always in control of himself and those around him.
A Ventura native, Christie is unusually well educated for a local Hells Angel. He attended two years of college and was employed as a high-voltage electrician for the U.S. Defense Department and a cable splicer for General Telephone.
Although Christie was the prosecutors' chief target, the case includes his 24-year-old son, George Gus Christie III, and 29-year-old daughter, Moriya Christie, a Ventura attorney who represents Hells Angels in court. Altogether, the family faces nearly four dozen criminal charges.
The senior Christie--who still rides his motorcycle and whose left arm is heavily tattooed--is charged with 23 criminal offenses that carry potential penalties of 15 to 20 years in prison.