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Headline: JOHN L. SMITH: Prosecution witness in casino biker brawl case has a hellish day
Wednesday - 10/04/2006
Referrer: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Jurors got a good look at former Minneapolis Hells Angels President Pat Matter on Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

So did a couple of his former associates.

Prior to the start of the day's proceedings, Michael Smullen moved from one end of the angular defense table to the other. At the outset, U.S. District Judge James Mahan made a note for the record that Smullen had moved because his view had been obstructed.

It soon became clear that the linebacker-sized defendant could see Matter just fine. For a while, it appeared Smullen could barely keep his eyes off him.

Admittedly, I am an amateur reader of body language, and I apologize in advance if I've misread Mr. Smullen's facial expression. But if I didn't know better, I'd think Smullen was giving Matter the old tombstone stare: stone, cold and forever.

Minutes into the direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Johnson, Matter appeared to recognize another acquaintance enter the courtroom. It was clear from his Hells Angels colors that he was a member from Matter's home state. Something tells me he wasn't there to show his support for the drug dealer-turned-federal witness.

Tuesday was supposed to be a good day for Matter and the prosecution in the broad ranging racketeering case stemming from the deadly 2002 biker brawl at the Laughlin River Run. With experienced prosecutor Johnson sprinkling the factual bread crumbs, Matter was to testify about the drug use, weapons violations and physical violence sanctioned and celebrated by the Hells Angels throughout the land. Although he admitted he was testifying in part to work off a whopping 17.5-year sentence for methamphetamine trafficking and money laundering convictions, Matter was ostensibly on the witness stand to describe the Hells Angels life based on his 21 years experience as a member.

Like a Moped with water in the fuel tank, he didn't get far. Johnson was thoroughly frustrated by defense objections. You can't put together a racketeering case that successfully connects the felony dots from one Hells Angeles chapter to the next without establishing a criminal nexus, and to do that you need someone to take you along for the ride. Matter's testimony sputtered from the start.

His comments were often limited to the happenings inside the Minneapolis clubhouse, of which he was the founding president, and of his own personal cross-country methamphetamine snorting experiences. One man's roaming nose does not a RICO case make.

The government's leadoff hitter only succeeded in looking like a junkie, and after two hours Judge Mahan had virtually joined the defense team in objecting to Johnson's leading questions.

"The club can only operate through its chapters and members," Johnson said with exasperation in his voice.

"So far, nothing relates to these defendants," Judge Mahan said.


The prosecution's drug conspiracy case turned into Matter's chapter-by-chapter remembrance of which of his brothers had given him a "bump" of meth during his many clubhouse visits. It's very early in this case, but the prosecution still has miles to go to prove its theory.


Against the wind.

After all, if finding available drugs were enough to establish a racketeering predicate act, then casinos, ultra lounges and university frat houses might be in big trouble.

Tuesday wasn't supposed to go that way. If Matter had been allowed to run even a little bit, he arguably could have shown that the Hells Angels have written rules and unwritten traditions. Those traditions celebrate the wild life, and that includes plenty of drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. Not to mention guns and violence.

But the legend isn't enough to make a racketeering case.

Not to play armchair attorney, but it would have been far more effective had Matter been able to testify to moving kilos of meth across country through the Hells Angels' clubhouses with full knowledge of the membership.

Instead, Judge Mahan made Johnson take Matter across country on foot -- make that barefoot -- to every clubhouse from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

By the end of the morning, one juror was overheard laughing with Judge Mahan as he playfully mocked the prosecutor.

If that doesn't qualify as a tough day for Pat Matter, then I don't know what does.

The bad news is, his cross-examination begins today.

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