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Town Gears Up for Biker Rally

Event: Some worry that two clubs' lethal rivalry will spawn violence. But others optimistically welcome the visitors.

June 30, 2002|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOLLISTER, Calif. — Ever since a deadly Nevada casino shootout between rival motorcycle gangs in late April, a high-noon atmosphere has been building in this Central California farm town where the two gangs are expected on the Fourth of July.

Questions have surfaced that seem incongruous in these bucolic surroundings. Will the Mongols invade? Will the Angels retaliate? What will it mean for the lucrative Hollister Methodist Church pancake breakfast?

"I'm worried that the potential for trouble is high," said San Benito County Sheriff-Coroner Curtis Hill.

Some here see the sheriff as a brave sentinel and others as a wet blanket tossed on this town's biggest party.

Since it started five years ago, the Fourth of July weekend Hollister Independence Rally has annually attracted thousands of motorcycle club members--packs of leather-clad men and women astride growling Harleys. Most are harmless weekend enthusiasts. But a few are the self-proclaimed "one-percenters" from criminally linked outlaw motorcycle clubs.

Based on the town's historic role in inspiring the famous Marlon Brando biker movie "The Wild One," the three-day rally has become a huge production, doubling San Benito County's 56,000 population. Stalwart civic groups such as the Rotary Club and the Methodist church enthusiastically pitch in, using biker largess to fund Little League teams and old-age programs.

But in light of the April 27 shootout between Mongols and Hells Angels motorcycle bands in Laughlin, Nev., people here are wondering if tiny Hollister has made a pact with the devil. In nearby Ventura County, after all, two biker meets were recently canceled.

"It makes me a little edgy that nobody in the community was asked if we wanted to give up our town for three or four days," said Rick Jennings, a retired San Jose firefighter who lives here. "Meanwhile, the Laughlin episode tells us that something like that could happen here."

It is one thing, said Jennings and others, to have their town invaded by hordes of middle-aged weekend bikers--Mild Ones--with bulging pockets.

It would be another matter entirely, they said, if a new generation intent on revenge arrived, packing automatic weapons.

Three men--two Mongols and a Hells Angel--died in the April shootout at Harrah's Casino. Another Hells Angel was gunned down on the highway leaving town. Sixteen people were injured in the casino melee.

Since then, biker events have been held in Northern California and Nevada without serious incidents.

No Mongols were among the 7,000 leather-garbed participants at the June 7-9 Redwood Run Motorcycle Rally outside Garberville, north of San Francisco. Violence was also avoided in Elko, Nev., after city officials in that traditionally firearm-friendly community took the unprecedented step of banning weapons in the downtown area for the June 21-23 motorcycle jamboree, attended by 5,000 bikers.

However, Elko Police Chief Clair Morris reported one tense scene in which 50 uniformed officers surrounded three dozen bikers involved in a bar fight after a performance by a band named 38 Special.

In Phoenix, police are investigating possible gang connections to the June 11 slaying of a Hells Angels member, wearing his club regalia, from Ventura County outside a local bar. "It could be fallout," Phoenix Police Sgt. Lauri Williams told reporters who asked about the possible Laughlin connection.

Hollister rally organizers seem fairly confident that the Laughlin episode will not be repeated here.

"We are right on schedule," said rally committee staffer Ellen Brown. She said three Hells Angels chapters plan to operate booths at the rally, selling biker paraphernalia.

But law enforcement officials are anxious about reports that Mongols plan to crash the Hells Angels-dominated party.

With tensions building between the two motorcycle clubs, the potential for a showdown is such that Sheriff Hill said more than 100 state and federal outlaw-motorcycle-gang specialists, twice the normal number for the event, are planning to attend as observers.

He said he has added more surveillance cameras to the main intersections. The Police Department also brings in 40 officers from nearby law enforcement agencies just for the event.

The Hollister City Council enacted crowd-control measures, including one prohibiting the display of female breasts (except those belonging to nursing mothers). The council also banned glass containers (except for baby bottles) in the four-block downtown area reserved for the rally.

Meanwhile, the Mongols' and Hells Angels' Web site chat rooms are full of messages inciting the two groups to continue their open warfare.

The friction surfaced about two years ago when the upstart Mongol group, whose "patron saint" is the 12th century warrior Genghis Khan, began opening chapters in traditional Hells Angels territory, including Oakland and Hollister.

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