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Infiltrating Southern California biker gangs

Two new books tell firsthand accounts of going undercover with the Vagos.

February 15, 2013|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
  • A gathering at a clubhouse in Petersburg, Va., is pictured in "Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws," written by Charles Falco with Kerrie Droban. Falco rose to "officer" status in three biker gangs.
A gathering at a clubhouse in Petersburg, Va., is pictured in "Vagos,… (St. Martin's Press )

Long before they sat down to write books, Charles Falco and George Rowe sold drugs and used them, raising hell as poor white guys in the desert small towns and exurban fringes of Southern California. They roamed with "tweakers" (meth addicts) and exploited them for cash.

But both Falco and Rowe saw the light. Eventually they joined the "good guys" in a crusade against the meanest, cruelest purveyors of darkness in their communities — the biker gangs that collectively share the name Vagos.

As it happens, Falco and Rowe each infiltrated the Vagos at about the same time, working on behalf of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They're also both in the federal witness protection program.

The authors didn't know each other, at first, though both ascended the same biker ladder between 2003 and 2006. Funny thing: They both end up being characters in each others' books, both of which are being released this month.

In their separate books, Falco and Rowe start as "hang-around" biker-gang wannabes, win promotion to "prospect" and finally become "fully-patched" members of the Vagos with the right to wear Vago patches on their jackets and to attend the biker meetings called "church." And their two books, both of which recount many assorted acts of biker depravity, make for equally page-turning, blood-curdling and nausea-inducing reading.

Falco rose to "officer" status in three biker gangs, and his book — "Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws: My Infiltration of America's Deadliest Biker Gangs" — is the more polished, measured and authoritative of the two.

Having been caught and convicted of drug smuggling, Falco agrees to work for the ATF in exchange for a lighter sentence. He enters the subculture of the Vagos, acting first as a servant for "patched" members and pummeling rivals who threaten those members. His outlook shifts after witnessing the Vagos abusing women, intimidating civilians and killing rivals and innocent bystanders.

"I swelled with a sense of duty," Falco writes. "My role was no longer about self-preservation. It was about justice."

As an infiltrator, Falco's job is to gather the evidence (mostly recorded with a wire he hides in his underwear) that will get the most dangerous Vagos convicted in court.

Spending day after numbing day with the bikers, Falco witnesses not only the cruelty they inflict on rivals but also the ease with which they betray one another: "Code, club, colors was all illusion and delusion."

Falco writes of living with the constant fear that his identity as an informer will be uncovered. As he survives one close call after another, "Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws" becomes an increasingly taut and tense book.

After getting arrested for an assault committed by his Vago "brothers," Falco enters a baroque jail subculture in which he's forced to punish other inmates. Then, to protect his identity, he volunteers for the mental torture of solitary confinement. In these passages, his book reaches a kind of Dantesque apogee.

"Prison code dictated that wolves devoured rabbits," he writes, describing the punishment meted out to a suspected child molester mistakenly mixed with the general jail population. "Survival required adaptation. Child molesters excluded; no one protected them."

Near the middle of Falco's book, a biker-informer named "George" enters. Similarly, a biker-informer named "Charles" enters about halfway into George Rowe's book, "Gods of Mischief: My Undercover Vendetta to Take Down the Vagos Outlaw Motorcycle Gang."

Rowe's book reads more like a true-crime confessional than Falco's. "Gods of Mischief" begins with Rowe agreeing to join the Vagos — not as part of a plea deal but to exact revenge for the Vagos' coldblooded, senseless killing of Rowe's friend in a Hemet bar. Becoming a "snitch" is, for Rowe, a way of giving something back to the neighborhoods he'd poisoned with the methamphetamines he sold.

"This … was about paying back a community that I'd dumped on for years," Rowe writes. The Vagos "were behaving like animals and had to be stopped."

But stopping the Vagos requires that Rowe immerse himself in their ways. He makes it his goal to earn a member's patch; it bears the Norse god of mischief in the middle.

Along the way he also picks up a young girlfriend, Jenna, who is a heroin addict and who becomes pregnant with his child — without knowing Rowe is a federal informant.

The writing in "Gods of Mischief" is at once livelier and cruder than in Falco's book — but it's credible in its crudeness. Reading Rowe is a bit like sitting on a bar stool next to a biker for several hours as he tells his story: You endure the misogyny and the profanity because the man has an amazing story to tell.

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