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Security Is Tight at Redwood Run Biker Festival

Safety: Authorities are on guard against a repeat of violence between the warring Mongols, Hells Angels motorcycle clubs.

June 09, 2002|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARBERVILLE, Calif. — Thousands of motorcyclists who came to this Northern California hill country for an annual biker festival were met with unprecedented security this weekend as authorities guarded against a repeat of violence between the warring Mongols and Hells Angels gangs.

California Highway Patrol helicopters and aircraft patrolled the skies over the riverside festival site 12 miles south of Garberville.

A Mendocino County Sheriff's Department official said staffing had been doubled to about 80 officers, while festival organizers said the fear of violence led to a slight decline in attendance. By Saturday evening, there had been no reports of violence and no Mongols had arrived.

The historically peaceful Redwood Run, which this year marks its 25th anniversary, annually attracts more than 7,000 leather-garbed bikers, ranging in background from San Francisco professionals to hard-core outlaw club members.

Some bikers sleep in tents. Others bunk in local hotels and dine at restaurants with extensive wine lists. The unifying factors are the Harley-Davidson bikes that most ride.

"This is my fifth Redwood Run," San Francisco plumbing salesman Paul Seifert, 41, said as he stood next to his 1990 Harley Electraglide on Garberville's main drag. "I come here to relax, watch the bands and have a mellow time."

The Redwood Run is the first major West Coast biker meeting since an April shootout at a casino in Laughlin, Nev. Two Mongols and a Hells Angel were killed. A second Hells Angel was gunned down on the road outside town.

Since the April 27 incident, state and federal law enforcement officials say they expect more trouble between the two gangs, which appear to be fighting over territory in central and Southern California.

Two motorcycle events planned in Ventura County were canceled last month. But state law enforcement officials are gearing up for another big biker event set for July 5-7 in the Central Coast city of Hollister, which is expected to draw 50,000 people.

Redwood Run organizer Doug McCauley, a contractor and member of the Kiwanis Club that sponsors the event, dismissed fears of violence.

"Law enforcement has been a little too intense since Laughlin and the general post-9/11 paranoia," he said.

McCauley said, however, that he had instructed guards at the front gate to prevent members of the Mongols gang from entering.

The Mongols, a largely Latino club centered in Southern California, do not generally roam this far north, while several Hells Angels chapters, from Vallejo, Sonoma and Daly City, arrive in large numbers.

McCauley added a heliport to the festival site to aid in emergency evacuations if needed.

Mendocino County Sheriff's Lt. Thomas Allman estimated that 100 Hells Angels members and prospective members were at this year's Redwood Run event.

"Two years ago, we had a few Mongols but we haven't seen any since," he said.

Allman said he has worked the Redwood Run event for 16 years. Like McCauley, he thinks that state and federal officials have been overly concerned about the possibility of violence here.

State and federal authorities, he said, had to be dissuaded from coming to Mendocino County in force and taking over.

"They must have thought we were Andy Griffith and Barney Fife," Allman said with a chuckle.

By Saturday evening, deputies had made fewer than a dozen arrests, almost all drug and alcohol violations by bikers as they were leaving the festival grounds, Allman said.

Not all of the activities were limited to the festival. An estimated 2,000 bikers do not attend the sold-out festival, but come to drink in the ambience.

One Hells Angels chapter rented a cottage at the upscale Benbow Inn, dining late into the night on 16-ounce "Harley Special" steaks offered by the hotel, which has a 500-label wine list.

For two days, the sign leading into this town is changed to "Harleyville" and, to the delight of local merchants, the streets are packed with free-spending bikers.

Many of those assembled at the main festival site, a former dude ranch on the Eel River, settled into a routine of heavy beer drinking and pot smoking, sometimes shedding their clothes to bask in the afternoon sun.

Because the festival takes place on private property, sheriff's deputies do not patrol the grounds, leaving the main security to a Sacramento motorcycle association.

This delights the Hells Angels, who have a half-century running battle with law enforcement at all levels.

What has not been pleasing, said a Hells Angel named Addison, who was manning a souvenir booth for the group's Vallejo chapter, is extra security added outside the festival site because of the Laughlin incident.

Like many Hells Angels, Addison, who declined to give his last name, would not say what he or other members would do if a Mongols club member walked into the Redwood Run event.

"That is a question without an answer," Addison said to the nodding agreement of another Hells Angel sitting at his side. "It is like asking what I will do if it rains tomorrow."

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