Mongols and Hells Angels Invade Hiptown
The soft-spoken guitarist recalls hearing, " 'All you motherfuckers are going to die'" and "then I just saw muzzle flashes."
Reaching for his coffee as a tremble in his hand attenuates up his tattoo-sleeved forearm, the musician says of his tremor, "It's nothing — a family thing."
But it may have something to do with getting rained on by a barrage of bullets fired at close range on a busy commercial stretch of Echo Park. Today, the guitarist offers insight into two criminal biker groups that are clashing in Los Angeles, leading one biker to act out a violent video game–style fantasy that targeted innocent clubgoers.
As the Echo's weekly Part Time Punks show let out in the early morning of June 21, witnesses say, a black-clad, automatic weapon–wielding gunman lumbered into the middle of Sunset Boulevard and calmly fired round after round into the exiting crowd on the sidewalk before fleeing on his motorcycle.
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There are Los Angeles neighborhoods where, when someone flashes a firearm, the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Not here, on Sunset north of Echo Park Lake, among record shops and ironic storefronts such as Dave Eggers' Time Travel Mart. The shooter actually announced his intent to kill, yet the crowd stood passively as if watching a performance-art piece.
"It seemed so cheesy, I thought it was a joke," says the guitarist, 30, whom we'll call Brad; he's a witness in the gunman's trial and fears for his life. "When he started shooting, I just stood there staring at him. I couldn't believe anyone would fire a gun into a crowd of nerdy indie-rock kids.
"After four shots, that changed," Brad says. "He shifted his fire toward [the Echo's] doorway, and I finally ducked." And saved his own ass.
The bullets, which bit chunks of concrete off the Echo's crudely candy-colored façade, all hit high. Amazingly — Die Hard 2 ridiculously — Brad, though struck in the head, suffered only a grazed temple, with another bullet leaving a burn across his wrist.
Two other clubgoers weren't so lucky. A drummer caught a round in his arm, which shattered the bone, and now, months later, his music career is probably over. Another guitarist languished for months in the hospital following complications from a bullet tearing through his torso.
Amy Lee, vocalist for the Meek, had just collected her band's pay when she stepped out of the Echo and saw the shooter. "I froze," Lee recalls. "It didn't register. This guy in a big jacket, screaming like a bear — I didn't think it was real."
Luckily someone knocked Lee to the ground, and a girl dragged her inside, out of harm's way.
Los Angeles Police Department detectives were initially baffled. The Echo isn't a hub of criminal activity, and Part Time Punks is just that. This is where the bloodless and the twee, guys who can't bench-press their shirts, chicks in leopard-print dresses, have no natural predators.
At the time, an LAPD supervisor at Rampart Division could only comment, "This is kind of weird."
But the LAPD quickly established that among fans of the dark, psychedelic music churned out by garage rockers the Warlocks and the Meek are members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. "We're going over the security tape and see there's a 'full-patch' Hells Angel in the club," says Officer Jose Mireles, of Rampart Division, meaning a full-fledged member, "and he's the victim" of the attempted hit.
A blood feud between the Mongol Nation Motorcycle Club and the Hells Angels has not abated since "Operation Black Rain" in 2008, in which 1,000 local cops, feds and deputized Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms agents arrested 60 members of the Mongol MC in five states.
Less than a month after the Echo shooting, LAPD's Mireles, along with other Rampart cops, arrested Jose Luis Sanchez, 25, a Mongol "prospect," in his Hollenbeck area home, for the crime.
"This is an ongoing battle for territory," Mireles says, "and it's all about the California bottom rocker" — the word California written in Gothic lettering on both the Mongols' and the Hells Angels' jacket patches, which are considered a gang's colors. The patch, Mireles says, is a message to others: "I sell my drugs here, and you're not allowed to."
Police say that shortly before the Echo Park shooting spree, Sanchez, who now faces several counts of attempted murder, assault and weapons charges, somehow was alerted to the presence of a Hells Angels member at the Echo. As if inspired by video game Assassin's Creed — where cred is built by attracting the most witnesses to a killing — Sanchez allegedly engaged his target, the Hells Angel, in front of dozens of witnesses, while being taped by video surveillance cameras.
"I felt terrible, after I invited people to the show and something this tragic happened," says Lee, vocalist for the Meek. "Afterwards, we didn't book a show, we didn't know why this happened. Only now do I feel normal again."
Police won't identify the victims, because Sanchez's trial is ongoing, with another court appearance set for Jan. 18. "Mongols have a reputation for intimidating witnesses," Mireles tells L.A. Weekly.
The LAPD and Los Angeles district attorney face persistent problems protecting witnesses to gang-related crimes. Following Brad's court testimony against Sanchez, a group of young toughs showed up at his former job site.
"They were asking for me but didn't say why," Brad says. "Then one day as I was leaving my building, a few guys that looked like bangers were trying to get in. They said they were looking for a girl. When I asked them what apartment, they named mine. I took off."
He's watching his back. "If they're stupid enough to shoot into a crowd, they're capable of doing something else stupid."
No one accuses the Mongols of being smart. They've been infiltrated twice by federal undercover agents. Former Mongol national president Ruben "Doc" Cavazos was autographing his HarperCollins tell-all at Book Soup in West Hollywood a week before his 2008 arrest.
But they are "the most dangerous criminal organization operating in Southern California," according to the 177-page racketeering indictment that resulted from Operation Black Rain. It charged Mongols with peddling meth and coke in Hollywood nightspots Vanguard and the Key Club. It also accuses the Mongols of racially motivated beat-downs on the Sunset Strip.
The indictment described "wing parties," where Mongol members earn badges: green for banging an STD-infected biker babe, purple for screwing a girl who's dead.
That indictment led the federal government to outlaw the Mongols' patch, which depicts a warrior wearing sunglasses on a bike, under a forfeiture law that lets police confiscate property being used to engage in criminal conduct.
From 2008 to last September, officers could stop members wearing the Mongol patch and take their jackets right off their backs. But a federal judge struck down that practice. The Mongols are again flying their colors and flexing their muscle.
On any given day, the most menacing thing rolling down Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz could be Kirstie Alley stopping at restaurants as she falls off her diet. But on a recent Sunday, about a dozen big men, flaunting their Mongol black leather and riding Harleys or driving a pickup, dropped into the Drawing Room bar.
The windowless gin mill, rated by L.A. Weekly as one of the best dives in the city, had at the rail a handful of old smokes and ubiquitous hipsters. One rattled customer later said, "They just had beers, but when they all walk in together with their colors, it's intimidating."
Now the Mongols are recruiting, looking for guys back from Iraq and Afghanistan. A federal report to law enforcement groups nationwide obtained by L.A. Weekly says: "The Outlaws, Pagans and Mongols, adversaries of the Hells Angels, are actively recruiting from the military for new members."
Brad has since returned to catch bands at the Echo, his mind now focused on economic worries, as the Hollywood restaurant he works at is shuttering. "This guy is an idiot," he says of Sanchez. "I just want to get this behind me."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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