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September 23, 2004 - Reno News & Review (NV)

Bikers Bedeviled

Members of Reno-area motorcycle clubs consider themselves patriotic Americans. That's why they're infuriated by laws that lump them with gangs and terrorists

By Deidre Pike

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Riders fly up West Fourth Street, engines roaring. Veer into a parking lot, lub-lubbing, and maneuver machines into the rows of Harleys behind Mi Casa Too in Reno. The bikers weave their way through the bar. Customers glance up and see worn patches, leather, long hair, tattoos. They don't stare. They get right back to their margaritas.

Downstairs, a large room is jammed with the members of around 20 motorcycle clubs in Northern Nevada.

Waiters deliver chips, salsa and beer as bikers hold forth on such topics as the Cathouse Poker Run, a motorcycle tour of Nevada brothels that's held every year during Street Vibrations, and the loss of comp night at a local strip club.

There's cussing. And praying.

A lanky biker who goes by the moniker Gatekeeper takes the hand of his girlfriend, Trophy, and the two invoke a blessing on the enchiladas.

Gatekeeper, who has the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, is a member of the Borderline Riders, one of several Christian groups in the Northern Nevada Confederation of Clubs. Gatekeeper explains, "In our club we say, 'It's not what you ride, it's what's inside.'"

A member of the Hells Angels calls the meeting to order. He's sitting next to a bulky, well-inked biker with long strawberry blond hair and a stunning red beard. This man's the founder of His Royal Priesthood, another Christian motorcycle club.

Roll is taken: "Righteous Ones ... Branded Few ... Wild Bunch ... Vietnam Vets ... Silver Barons ..." Everyone's present or accounted for. The Booze Fighters are upstairs.

"Drinking!" someone shouts.

Budget items are reviewed -- a donation to We the People, a populist think-tank, and a bill from Moana Nursery for flowers sent to the family of a club member who died recently. Then it's on to politics.

Who knew bikers cared about such things as maintaining Web sites? Hiring lobbyists? Assigning their leather-clad brethren to legislative committees?

Turns out these guys need to care -- because many feel the freedoms they value are under attack. Invasive laws like the USA PATRIOT Act have turned these motorcycle enthusiasts into activists.

At the meeting, bikers discuss the troublesome proposals in U.S. Senate Bill 2358 -- aka American Neighborhoods Taking the Initiative Guarding Against Neighborhood Gangs or ANTI-GANG Act 2004.

The bill's goal: "Prosecution of members of street gangs, and for other purposes." The words "for other purposes" have folks worried, along with the definition of street gangs:

o Members of any group of three or more people who share "a common name, insignia, flag, means of recognition, secret signal or code."

o Members of groups that have "a common creed, belief, structure, leadership or command structure, method of operation or criminal enterprise, concentration or specialty."

o Members of groups that have "membership, age or other qualifications, initiation rites, geographical or territorial sites, boundary, or location or other unifying mark, manner, protocol, or method of expressing or indicating membership."

Nevada motorcycle clubs share names, insignias, creeds and have membership qualifications, e.g., "must own an American-made motorcycle with a V-twin engine."

"They can take this stuff and turn it around and twist it," warns a confederation member. "If they consider you a gang member, they can put you in jail for 10 years."

Besides fighting federal laws, the confederation also tackles local traffic issues, helmet laws and, of course, the persistent problem of biker profiling.

Gatekeeper, who considers motorcycling part of his ministry for God, says he's been pulled over for ridiculous offenses.

"Cop pulled me over and I said, 'Why'd you stop me?' and he said, 'Bad posture.'"

A member of the Red Devils says he's been stopped repeatedly for no reason, he feels, other than the three patches on the back of his jacket.

"I'm going to go bankrupt if they don't stop pulling me over."

People shouldn't be concerned when they see members of a motorcycle club thundering down the road, says the chairman of the Northern Nevada Confederation of Clubs, Troy Regas.

"If anything, I think they'd be intrigued," says Regas, a founding member of the Hells Angels' Northern Nevada chapter, the Nomads.

When he was in grade school, Regas and his siblings first caught sight of a group of Hells Angels riding through Reno.

"We thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened," Regas recalls. He and his brother Sohn asked their mother if they could go check out the motorcycles.

"My mom was like, 'I don't know about that. Maybe from a safe distance.' We couldn't understand why she'd say that to us."

He attributes these kinds of fears to the tendency of media to nurture stereotypical and sensationalized views of motorcycle clubs.

Regas sits at a glass table in the dining area of his newish 4,000-square-foot home in Spanish Springs. To get to the kitchen, Regas walks through a large, high-ceiling living room that doubles as a gym, with about a dozen weight machines and a long row of barbells. A painting of the Angels' devil head logo hangs on the wall.

Regas inherited his first Harley from his stepfather. He still has the motorcycle in storage.

These days, Regas and his siblings are either members of the Angels or, in the case of his sister, married to an Angel. Regas' sister is married to the Hells Angel chapter president, David Burgess, and the couple lives next door.

Regas manages the Old Bridge Ranch brothel in Mustang for his sister and brother-in-law. Burgess is the nephew of Sally Conforte, late wife of Nevada brothel entrepreneur Joe Conforte. Conforte moved to Brazil 12 years ago to avoid tax issues.

Regas slides into his Hells Angels cut -- a jacket without sleeves -- for photos. His long wavy hair obscures the devil's head, a trademark jealously protected by a Hells Angels corporate copyright.

He has three Harleys parked in his garage and rides tens of thousands of miles on them each year. The confederation, Regas says, gives its members the clout to address what they see as the "wrongs" that are done to them.

"As a group of people, bikers, we're kind of picked out by police," Regas says. "The confederation helps us get together and make sure we're treated properly."

Has Regas ever felt "picked out" by police?

How much time do you have?

"Jesus saves bikers, too," it says on the cover of The Biker's New Testament. "Whether you run with the pack or ride alone, it's important to know where you're going."

Distributed at events like Street Vibrations, the paperbacks are printed by six area motorcycle ministries, including His Royal Priesthood, a club started by Rick Eckhardt of Sparks. Eckhardt came to Nevada nearly two decades ago with a group of evangelical Christians who wanted to start a church here. They started a nondenominational church, and Eckhardt started a motorcycle club. The church dissolved. The club didn't.

Membership requirements for His Royal Priesthood aren't much different than those of other clubs. Have to be a guy. Have to own an American-made motorcycle. Hang around for a while. Become a prospect. Prove your deep commitment to the club and become a brother. Members of His Royal Priesthood also profess Christianity. But Eckhardt says they're not pushy about religious matters.

"We let people ask us," Eckhardt says. "There are people out there who force it on people. That doesn't work and it makes people angry. When people see our colors, they know what we're about. They pull us over and talk to us. We don't give out what my wife would call 'unsolicited advice.'"

The tattoo of a female on his left arm -- that's Eckhardt's wife of 16 years "riding her ride." On his right arm, there's a tattoo of Jesus knocking on a door.

Eckhardt leans forward in his chair. He's taken a break from work at a custom motorcycle parts business in Sparks that he co-owns with Bob Pearce, president of the Red Devils. Desks are plastered with stickers plugging everything from the Reno Blues Society to a local tattoo parlor: "Ink does the body good."

Speaking of body art, many people can't look past his tattoos, Eckhardt says, to see the images depicted. Sometimes he'll walk into an establishment and people are "stand-offish and maybe afraid."

"My tattoos are nothing scary," he says. "They don't look. They just see the ink."

And do cops stop bikers wearing crosses and Jesus patches?

"I've been pulled over for just about every violation there is," Eckhardt says. "Three-quarters of the time, it's bogus, and they end up letting me go."

He doesn't expect that the problem of profiling will go away.

"Maybe if I rode a [Honda] Gold Wing and didn't have a patch on."

A few years back, Harley-Davidson sought to patent the sound of its engines. Harley engines have two pistons connected to a crankshaft with one crankpin. This oddity, combined with the V arrangement of cylinders, means that pistons can't fire at even 360-degree intervals. Instead Piston 1 fires, then Piston 2 fires at 315 degrees. There's a gap of 405 degrees. The sound you hear is the escape of compressed gas in the cylinder when each exhaust valve opens.

Piston 1, Piston 2, gap. Po-ta-to, po-ta-to, po-ta-to.

Karkas drinks from a plastic cup in the South Lake Tahoe parking lot. He's wearing the colors of the Brotherhood MC along with many other patches. One says: "Fuck off." He's reflecting on what some bikers refer to as The Life.

"It is freedom and doing whatever's right," he says, looking at his drinking partner, H.B., who rode in from Gardnerville. "Isn't it?"

It's early afternoon on a Saturday in late August. The Brotherhood's Hogg Wild IX, on Highway 50 across from Meek's, is off to a rousing start. A band plays Johnny Cash covers. Kids climb a portable rock wall, ringing a bell when they reach the top.

"If I had a gun, I'd shoot that bell," grumbles a longtime Brotherhood member called Shiloh.

Vendors hawk everything from silver jewelry to black thongs with the Brotherhood logo -- "They're edible, I swear, just a little chewy!" -- to homemade biker soap in the shapes of skulls and the Christian fish.

The money generated from this year's Hogg Wild goes to the Veterans of Post 795. Many Brotherhood MC members are vets. Skinny Bob, 68, served in Korea. Bob, who also has a degree in business administration and a minor in Nevada history, has been riding motorcycles since he was 14.

Skinny Bob calls the PATRIOT Act a "knee-jerk reaction to an obvious problem" that can be used to persecute all kinds of groups who certainly, in their own estimation, aren't "terrorists."

"The biker community on the whole, nationwide, is as patriotic as any group," Bob says. "There's not one of us who'd hesitate if we had to serve again. We'd go at the drop of a hat."

"Look at what we're wearing," adds Brotherhood Treasurer John Straham, pointing to the flag on his cut. Straham served in Bosnia in 1996 and Iraq in 2003, where he was wounded and sent home.

Brotherhood members, Straham says, are business owners, plumbers and real estate agents. The club gave thousands to charity last year.

"This is like the Elks, the Lions, the Optimists. It's a fraternity, a group of guys who share common interests in motorcycles and individual freedom."

Straham motions across the parking lot, which is filling up with families.

"Look around. People bring their kids ... We're not trying to improve our image. This is who we are."

Sign at a motorcycle clubhouse: "Snitches are a dying breed."

Troy Regas bristles at the word "outlaw." He doesn't miss a beat. The Hells Angels is not an "outlaw" motorcycle club.

"Motorcycle enthusiasts," he says.

Sure, there are some cases of crimes committed by members of motorcycle clubs. But crimes are also committed by members of law enforcement agencies, Regas says.

In December, the Washoe County Sheriff's Department raided the Hell's Angel clubhouse, just off North McCarran Boulevard. (Regas purchased the property, Joe Conforte's former residence, at an auction. The Angels also recently acquired an adjacent lot, where they plan to build a new clubhouse.)

When Regas showed up the day of the raid, sheriff's deputies held him on the ground -- with five guns, he says, trained on him -- for a half-hour. Police wouldn't let him in the building as they, according to the federal lawsuit later filed by the Angels, ransacked the clubhouse, taking clothing, plaques and vests.

The police found nothing.

"Just T-shirts," Regas says. "They didn't find anything illegal, and they knew they wouldn't find anything illegal."

The Angels still haven't gotten their property back. Members of the Angels in Reno filed a federal lawsuit.

"I think [law enforcement officials] feel they can do it because people don't check and balance them. If more people would stand up for their rights, they would quit doing stuff like that."

Dealing with law enforcement is nothing new for Regas.

"I've been put in jail for a Christmas card," he says.

Some background: In the mid-1990s, 31-year-old Regas and his father, Jay Regas, were arrested on a plethora of drug charges. Their trial lasted 11 months and cost an estimated $30 million, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"The federal government seized all the assets of 'drug kingpin' Jay Regas -- $3,000 -- and ended up giving him more time than Manuel Noriega," an R-J editorial said wryly.

Jay Regas is serving a life sentence in a California prison. A jury found Troy Regas, who'd been charged with enough misdeeds to generate a possible 450-year sentence, guilty of "conspiracy" and "continuing criminal enterprise."

Jay Regas, writing from prison, tells his side of the story at The November Coalition ("Working to End Drug War Injustice") Web site: "I was convicted ... without ever having been observed in any criminal activity, without my name or voice heard on any tapes, without having any records of drug activities, without any weapons, without assets, money or any drugs."

Of the government's 22 witnesses, the elder Regas claims, he and his son were the only gainfully employed individuals who didn't have police records of drug activities or weapons or any "opulent assets."

Those who testified against the father and son were "allowed to keep their assets and their freedom for their cooperation with the government."

When Troy Regas got out of prison, he sent a Christmas card to a fellow inmate. He was tossed back in for three months.

In 1998, the Storey County Commission tried to revoke Burgess' license to run the Old Bridge Ranch because of both the Hells Angels association and Regas' past convictions. The Nevada Supreme Court reversed the decision.

After Street Vibrations in 1999, the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against law enforcement agencies for, among other things, installing a surveillance camera on a power pole outside the clubhouse.

Then, two years ago, came the tragic brawl in Southern Nevada. In April 2002, three Hells Angels and one member of rival group of "motorcycle enthusiasts," the Mongols, were killed in fights at the River Run, a motorcycle event in Laughlin. Of the nine men facing murder charges, seven are Hells Angels -- one is Regas' brother, Sohn. The two Mongols who faced murder charges didn't show up for an April arraignment. No warrants were issued for their arrest.

Regas doesn't want to see anything written about Laughlin yet. He doesn't much trust reporters.

"To me, what's going to happen there is, it's a sensationalized thing. I think when it's all said and done, then they should write about it, when it can all be told."

The Mongols are the elephant in the living room that no one talks about. A Web site attests to chapters in Reno, Sparks, Carson City and Lake Tahoe but includes no contact info. They aren't in the Confederation of Clubs. No number is listed in the phone book.

A bike breaks down in Washoe Valley. That's why Regas and another member of the Angels don't make it to the Brotherhood's Hogg Wild event. Many bikers seem genuinely disappointed. Regas is well-thought of by members of the Confederation of Clubs, who call him "helpful," "smart" and "a really good dude."

"If people know us, they like us, and that's probably the best thing I can say," Regas says.

Regas calls Rick Eckhardt to help get the bike back to Sparks. Eckhardt shows up with a truck. That's one of the best things about being in a motorcycle club -- and in the confederation.

"We're always there to help each other," Regas says. "You know it's like that thing -- in sickness and in health, we're there for each other."

After the monthly meeting at Mi Casa Too, two members of the Red Devils straddle their iron horses and rev their engines.

A man wearing board shorts and a tropical shirt walks through the lot, stealing a peek at the vested riders.

One of the Devils eyes the tourist.

"Heathens!" he says. "We're all fuckin' heathens!"

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