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Headline: Government's case against Hells Angels breaking down by the day
Sunday - 10/08/2006
Referrer: Las Vegas Review-Journal

There was a time you could tell a Harley owner by the oil stains on his living room floor.

That's where dedicated motor heads repaired their bikes back when the motorcycles were known more for leaky seals and audacious noise than high performance and reliability.

A lot has changed over the years with the motorcycle sometimes known as the Great American Freedom Machine, but that old image of the big broken bike in pieces is an apt metaphor for the federal government's sweeping racketeering case against the Hells Angels.

To put it bluntly, the wheels are flying off the trial in U.S. District Judge James Mahan's court.

Tires, rims, handlebars and tail pipe.

What a mess.

The trial of 11 Hells Angels members stemming from the deadly shootout at the 2002 Laughlin River Run is now dangerously close to being irreparably fractured. Although the defense has been on its best game, and the state's witnesses have been underwhelming, the government is to blame for repeatedly failing to turn over a small mountain of documents to the opposition in keeping with federal rules of evidence.

From the start the defense raised questions about the government's candor. Nothing new in that, but even a passing courtroom observer could tell the defense was attempting to impress upon Judge Mahan its theory that the U.S. attorney's office and ATF case agents were playing Siegfried & Roy with the court.

The prosecution might have cured that issue with one massive document dump, but it's much too late for that now.

By Wednesday, following a devastating cross-examination by defense attorney Tom Pitaro of former Hells Angels vice president-turned-federal informant James Howard Richey, it became clear there was much the white hats hadn't revealed to their adversaries. Not only did Richey admit he'd met often with legendary outlaw bike gang case supervisor ATF Special Agent John Ciccone, but the court was asked to believe no one had taken notes of those debriefings. Judge Mahan must have grown more skeptical with each passing question.

Richey has collected more than $80,000 in recent months from his new government friends -- not that the prosecution willingly coughed up the fact it's been cutting checks for the "purchase of information."

On Friday morning, Judge Mahan agreed to strike all of Richey's testimony from the trial and calmly informed the jurors of the fact before sending them home for the weekend.

"It's significant in that a witness they put on the stand has had his testimony stricken," Pitaro said after the stunned courtroom had adjourned. "They notified us initially that they gave Richey $500, and now it's over $80,000."

Next to the prosecution table were two large locked trunks containing information the defense contends should have been turned over weeks ago. In a courtroom packed with defense sharks, that's blood in the water.

The testimony of former Minneapolis Hells Angels President Pat Matter was politely called "flat" by a defense team member, but in reality it damaged the government's contention that the Hells Angels run an elusive nationwide methamphetamine trafficking operation. Matter was so soft I'd almost suspect he was trying to protect his former running mates. It didn't help the government when he admitted he'd been allowed to keep approximately $500,000 in untaxed meth profits.

It wasn't supposed to go this way. Matter was supposed to nail the Hells Angels' methamphetamine racket. Richey was supposed to describe the inner workings of the national organization and the Arizona chapter. The killer-informant Michael Kramer might paint a wicked picture of the evil wrought by the Hells Angels -- if he's allowed within a mile of the courtroom.

And super undercover agents Jay Dobyns and Jenna McGuire could combine law enforcement credentials with firsthand observation from deep inside the club -- if they get to testify. Right now, they're no better than even money as attorneys pore over just-released material and Judge Mahan weighs the defense motion to dismiss the case.

"All the defense wants is a fair trial, and we believe this ruling reflects the fact that in U.S. federal court no one's above the law," defense attorney David Chesnoff said, somehow managing to refrain from smiling.

With the real possibility of seeing more state witnesses fall by the roadside, this once-promising racketeering case sits on blocks like a Harley of old, the government's credibility oozing like oil on the courtroom floor.

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