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3 Die in Casino Fight Between Biker Gangs

April 28, 2002|ANNA GORMAN and DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LAUGHLIN, Nev. — An escalating turf battle between rival motorcycle gangs erupted into a shootout at a casino Saturday morning, killing three people, sending panic-stricken gamblers diving for cover and shutting down the Mojave Desert town for several hours.

The melee of gunfire, stabbings and fistfights broke out about 2:15 a.m. at Harrah's Casino & Hotel as the town was packed with as many as 80,000 visitors attending the 20th annual bikers' party called the Laughlin River Run.

At least 16 people were injured in the casino, police said, and the body of a biker gang member was later found on Interstate 40 in San Bernardino County, where he had ridden on his motorcycle.

At least one man was arrested and 70 to 100 others were detained for questioning after the shootout, which prompted the temporary closure of highways and a bridge leading out of town.

"We saw a bunch of people fighting, then all of a sudden we heard gunshots--bang, bang, bang," said Aniko Kegyulics, 25, who was near the casino bar when the chaos began. "Everybody fell to the floor."

Police said the casino clash culminated a nearly 18-month feud between the Hells Angels and Mongols motorcycle gangs, which had been fighting over territory and membership.

Scores of police were brought in from California and Arizona to patrol the town, and remained in force overnight because of fears of more trouble. "There are threats of retaliation," said Larry Tunforss, a spokesman for the Bullhead City Fire Department in Arizona.

By late Saturday, all routes into Laughlin were reopened and the riverfront gambling town was virtually back in business without further violence, police said. Motorcycles roared through town as visitors and residents ate, gambled and strolled through the streets.

The casino confrontation began when a group of about 30 Hells Angels members rode from the Flamingo Hotel to Harrah's, looking for members of the Mongols gang, said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sgt. Chris Darcy.

A few members of the gangs faced off, quickly drawing a crowd as the confrontation escalated into a larger fight that involved 60 to 70 people. "The knives came out and then the guns came out and people started shooting," Darcy said.

Within minutes, 16 people had been wounded, Darcy said. None of the injured are believed to be tourists or hotel employees. Hotel surveillance cameras videotaped the fight. Las Vegas Police Lt. Vincent Cannito said the video showed "a lot of shooting, a lot of stabbing."

"It's an unbelievable video," Darcy said. "It's horrific."

Javier Corzo, 37, said he was playing slot machines when the fight began.

"All of a sudden, a wave of people came running through the bar area," he said. "I heard gunfire--a whole bunch of shots. Everybody just hit the floor."

Corzo said he saw several people pull out guns and two people get hit by the gunfire.

His friend, Rick Edwards, said hotel guests scattered when the fight began, running up stairs and hopping onto elevators.

"I'm sure the cops had a hard time finding whoever was involved," he said, adding that he couldn't get to his room and spent most of the night in a hotel stairwell.

Bystanders Separated From Participants

Police and fire personnel stormed into the hotel lobby shortly after the shooting, ordered people to the ground and separated bystanders from participants. Two police officers fired their weapons, Darcy said. One officer's gun accidentally discharged, while the other officer shot at someone. Police were still investigating whether anyone was hit by police.

John Barrett, a battalion commander for the Bullhead City Fire Department, said at least 100 people were handcuffed or lying spread eagle on the floor.

Barrett said that when he arrived, there were several weapons scattered on the ground. Police recovered several knives and guns from the scene.

The three dead in Laughlin are believed to be bikers, police said. Their names were not released. Hospitals treated 13 people, some with gunshot and stab wounds.

Most were in stable or fair condition, but at least one man had a skull fracture and was in critical condition, hospital officials said. Two men who were shot are believed to be suspects, Tunforss said.

Less than an hour after the casino bloodshed, the body of 28-year-old Christian Tate of San Diego was found on the shoulder of the interstate near the small, desert town of Ludlow, said a San Bernardino County coroner's official and Chip Patterson, a spokesman for that county's Sheriff's Department. The victim's bike, along with shell casings, were also found.

Patterson said police believe Tate was shot as he rode his motorcycle, and that the death is "likely connected in some way to the shooting in Laughlin."

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