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Bikers Warned on Fair Attire

July 31, 2002|TRACY WILSON and TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Concerned about violence erupting at the Ventura County Fair, police say members of the rival Hells Angels and Mongols motorcycle clubs will be turned away if they attempt to enter the fairgrounds wearing gang attire.

The fair board this month approved a tighter policy prohibiting gang clothing, and identified 27 local groups as known criminal street gangs. The list includes the Hells Angels and Mongols, whose members were involved in a deadly shootout at a Nevada casino in April.

In the wake of that incident, fair organizers say the dress code will help ensure that similar violence between those groups and other groups does not occur during the 12-day fair that begins today at Seaside Park in Ventura.

"You have to look at what happened at Laughlin," Seaside Park General Manager Roger Gibbs said. "You have Mongols living in Camarillo and Hells Angels five blocks from here."

But national Hells Angels leader George Christie Jr. said his Ventura chapter has been unfairly singled out and may file a lawsuit if members and their families are denied entry to the fair on the basis of their attire.

"This is the same pill they have been feeding the public in Ventura for the past five years, and it is a placebo," Christie said. "We are not a street gang. We do not conduct ourselves as a street gang. And the court has not found that we are a street gang."

Concerns about clashes with the Mongols are overblown, Christie said, saying a rally earlier this month in Hollister drew 80,000 bikers without incident.

"You know this is a knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Laughlin," said attorney Kay Duffy, who was contacted by Christie after the chapter head learned about the fair board's list of gangs.

Duffy contends there is no evidence that the motorcycle club meets the legal definition of a criminal street gang.

She said a Ventura County judge refused to impose gang conditions on Christie and his 25-year-old son when placing them on probation three months ago in a drug sales case, concluding there was no evidence that the Hells Angels were a street gang.

Duffy says members of the Hells Angels should be treated no differently than other club members who attend the fair.

"4-H has agriculture," she said. "We have motorcycles."

But Ventura Police Department officials say 4-H members aren't typically the focus of criminal investigations or violent confrontations.

"Our concern was that the recent activities between the Hells Angels and [Mongols] is exactly the type of stuff that could occur inside the fair," Lt. Ken Corney, a gang expert, said.

Three men--two Mongols and one Hells Angel--were killed in the April shootings at Harrah's Casino in Laughlin. Sixteen people were injured in the melee and another Hells Angel was gunned down on the highway leaving town.

While concerned over the potential for such violence, Corney said the revisions to the fair's decade-old dress code were prompted by a recent state appellate court decision, and not the shootout at the casino.

The court ruling stemmed from a Northern California case in which a Hells Angels member sued over being denied entry to the Sonoma County Fair after refusing to remove a vest emblazoned with the name of his biker club.

The appellate court found the dress code was so vague as to be unconstitutional.

The decision prompted Ventura County fair officials to reexamine their dress code. The result was a formal two-page policy crafted by the Ventura city attorney to conform to the Sonoma decision.

The policy specifically prohibits anyone wearing clothing, visible tattoos or other attire bearing the name or insignia of a criminal street gang from entering the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

The policy does not ban the wearing of specific colors or sports team logos, unless the clothing has been altered to symbolize a gang.

Police say the policy is not designed to keep people out of the fair, but to prevent violence that could be sparked by gang attire.

"Obviously, if you have a rival gang member who is wearing clothing or a symbol that identifies their gang, that is seen by another gang member in that culture as a challenge," Corney said.

The fair policy relies on the legal definition of "criminal street gang," or a group whose members engage in or who have engaged in a pattern of criminal activity.

Corney said the Hells Angels now fall under that listing based on recent felony convictions, including two cases in which current or former Hells Angels pleaded guilty to gang-related crimes.

Corney said the dress code has been successful in reducing gang violence at the fair, where security has always been a top priority.

With daily attendance averaging between 20,000 and 30,000, the fair boasts a population larger than some cities in the county, and organizers have taken aggressive steps to keep the event safe.

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