The Mongols case was never much more than old clothes stuffed with straw. The illusion has been rotting for a year and a half and Good Friday morning the scarecrow finally fell apart. For all practical purposes what is left of the Mongols case is now stored for safekeeping in a locked barn.
The case is over because the hollow men who are prosecuting it will do anything to keep it out of court. Between the idea and the reality of the Mongols case lie all the shadows and secrets. For months the prosecution has been lying lies of omission and planting the ground for the really big lie – the lie that this case was somehow a victory somewhere for someone; the lie that what happened did not happen; the lie that something else happened.
In the Mongols case the way things were is disturbing and the way things must have been is still unimagined. Not the least of those publically unimagined details is an accounting of how much it cost to invent and prosecute the Mongols menace. Nobody knows. The costs are dispersed among numerous state and federal agencies. You are not supposed to know. The best you can do is guess.
One Plus Two
The case started with a confidential informant. Eventually there were at least six and possibly as many as nine snitches and, with their handlers, they must have cost at least $45,000 a year. All the snitches were paid. So there goes at least a half million. The best number I could calculate was actually double that. And, now all the snitches must be protected and given better, new starts to their lives so there goes at least another half million. My guess is actually three and a half times that. So the informants cost at least a million but might have cost as much $3.25 million. Call it a million for now.
There were eight ATF Under Cover Agents, male and female, and each pair of agents – with their backups and their pole cams, their wiretaps, their chase cars and electronically surveilled pied a terres, their motorcycle maintenance and all the rest of it – conservatively cost $3 million a year. So just infiltrating the Mongols probably cost at least $24 million. That does not include the costs of preparing affidavits, warrants and selling a grand jury a scary story.
Of course, all of those costs were offset by the auction value of all those stolen motorcycles and cell phones and personal computers and other “seized property” and by Doc Cavazos’ house, bank account and stolen book and television royalties. But then that credit must be simultaneously balanced by the mobilization of so many Swat heroes and the replacement of so many windows and doors.
The anguish, frustration and woe this case has cost everyone was free. The gullible news coverage was free.
But, the investigation was just the beginning. The most expensive part of the Mongols case has been the costs of incarcerating and defending the accused and the costs of prosecuting the case. And this was, as almost every court document for the last year and half has emphasized, “a complex case.” Which is what lawyers say when they mean “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”
Lawyers in Los Angeles typically bill you $30 to $50 for making a phone call on your behalf – unless it is a long phone call. Long phone calls cost more. The cost of driving under the influence of a third drink in Los Angeles typically amounts to about $12,000 and at least $4,000 of that pays your lawyer. And this was not a drunk driving case. This was a RICO case. And there were, essentially, 77 defendants. Do the math. I get a bare minimum of $2 million for the defendants’ legal bills alone. What do you get?
What do you get when you add in millions of pages of photocopying, three judges, two US Attorneys, Gangland, the “exclusive special access” given to America’s Most Wanted, the salaries of the Marshalls who transported the prisoners around, the Magistrate Judges and the cost of lazering off Doc Cavazos’ tattoos? How much for the infrastructure that supported this case – for the secretaries, phone lines and lightbulbs? How much for monitoring “biker websites?”
Go ahead and guess. Two hundred dollars for every mile to the moon? And back? More? Much more? You cannot be wrong because nobody knows. Maybe if you file a Freedom of Information Act request and ask how much the Mongols case cost you will get an answer in two or three years. Probably not, but maybe. And, if you get an answer do you know what that answer will be? The answer will be, “We don’t know.”
All I know is that the United States of America has chosen to prosecute this case instead of providing some number of college scholarships, instead of saving some number of foreclosed homes or instead of building new levees in New Orleans. The Mongols case is what Jack bought when he went to market to sell the family cow. The Mongols case is our very own bag of magic beans.
It is so big that it is almost impossible to hide. But that is what the prosecution has been trying to do since at least last summer. The lies are so numerous that just listing them takes a dozen pages. The lies are so flagrant that the prosecution must be, in order from least to most likely, either dishonest, deluded or deranged.
Shining Light On The Mongols
During the course of Operation Black Rain members of the Mongols Motorcycle Club consumed illicit drugs including marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. A significant number, possibly as many as one member of the club out of every 30, also sold small amounts of these same drugs. At least two members and possibly as many as five members of the club sold bulk quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine and paid a percentage of their profits to former Mongols President Ruben “Doc” Cavazos.
Some members of the club bought and sold firearms in private transactions that appear to have been mostly, if not entirely, legal.
Some members of the club may have stolen motorcycles and resold them but probably not. Undercover Agents in four states, California, Nevada, Colorado and Oregon tried repeatedly and vigorously to implicate members of the club in motorcycle thefts and failed. The indictment charges the “Mongols criminal enterprise” with “theft” but no specific charge to support that accusation appears in the indictment. The first draft of the indictment was prepared in February 2008 and repeatedly revised until it was returned in October. So apparently the investigation was never able to substantiate the motorcycle thefts that investigators were convinced must be taking place.
During the course of the investigation members of the club committed several serious assaults including a videotaped stabbing and, allegedly, a shooting. And during the three years of the investigation members of the club committed three homicides. Two of the homicides would probably be charged as manslaughters in a state court. All three homicides were spontaneous, rather than premeditated, acts. One of the homicides involved a civilian who had absolutely nothing the do with motorcycle club politics or the underworld.
All of these offenses are state crimes but they were not investigated or prosecuted under state law. The Club was investigated by a federal police agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The reasons why this happened are complex.
Most obviously, the interjection of federal police invited the fiction that the Mongols are a “criminal enterprise.” And, the state of California is strapped for cash and the federal government has money to burn. And, the ATF is drowning.
The ATF is a profoundly unhappy place to work. ATF employees loudly, publically and routinely complain about agency red tape and their alienation from their supervisors. There is a pronounced undertone of sexual promiscuity and perversion at the ATF. A majority of ATF Agents learned to be policemen somewhere else which is one of the reasons why ATF investigations are the least disciplined of any federal police agency. Many agents speak and behave as if they chased a glamorous dream into the Bureau and quickly became disillusioned. The Bureau has routinely used disinformation as a weapon for decades. The neurotic style of the ATF has become more pronounced since the Bureau was moved out of the Treasury Department and into the Department of Justice. ATF officials seem terrified that their Bureau will be absorbed by the FBI and that that consolidation will ruin many careers. The current tension between the FBI and the ATF is not as obvious as it was in April 2005 in Seattle when ATF and FBI Agents actually drew guns on each other in an argument over jurisdiction at a crime scene. But ATF upper management actively encourages Field Agents to investigate big, sexy, high profile cases, “for the good of the company.” And motorcycle club investigations are very sexy.
Since ATF moved out of the Treasury Department two investigations analogous to the Mongols case have yielded a half dozen published books, two movie deals and numerous television episodes. And, although these cases are difficult and expensive to investigate they are remarkably easy to prosecute simply because the potential penalties for racketeering, which is the offense with which all the Mongols defendants were charged, are draconian.
It is highly unlikely that the Mongols investigation would have ever taken place except that ATF Agents were eager to create the case. And the motives of those agents were not public spirited. The case was created to cynically serve the narrow self interest of employees of that agency.
Similarly, news coverage of the investigation was cynically manipulated to glorify the ATF and the Department of Justice and to personally aggrandize and enrich employees of those government agencies.
Flipping On The Other Lights
During the course of Operation Black Rain ATF Special Agents rode “seized” motorcycles and consumed illicit drugs including marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. On at least one occasion, an ATF Special Agent sold drugs. ATF Special Agents committed multiple violent assaults. Three Undercover ATF Agents were intimately involved in the homicide of one Mongol. One Agent was very intimately involved in that homicide. On numerous occasions, ATF Special Agents attempted to criminalize the motorcycle club in order to fabricate a stronger and more prestigious case. That attempted criminalization included both actual entrapment and sentence entrapment.
Those same ATF Special Agents were so devious that they passed lie detector tests administered by a consultant hired by the Mongols. Much of the “evidence” against defendants in the Mongols case depends on the veracity and expertise of those disingenuous Agents.
Numerous members of the Mongols opposed the admission to membership of all of the Under Cover Agents. At least several Mongols suspected that the ATF Agents were in fact federal police officers. One of those Mongols was murdered. Several others may have been singled out and maliciously overcharged in the indictment because they opposed the Agents’ admission into the club.
Many of the “investigative reports” in the case were written well after the fact and are based, at best, on hearsay. Legal errors in the investigation make inadmissible much of the evidence with which defendants have been threatened. And finally, one of the ATF Under Cover Agents in the case was actually expelled from the Mongols Motorcycle Club for trying to tempt other members of the club into joining him in putative criminal activity.
In the course of covering this case I was actually told that none of this is much “compared to Training Day.” It is not what you know, the corrupt cop in that movie explains over and over again. “It’s what you can prove.”
But even if this case meets the high professional and ethical standard of not being Training Day, exposing any of the ATF Agents to cross examination in a public trial might be catastrophic for them and disastrous for the prosecution. So throughout the last eighteen months the prosecution has stalled the trial and simultaneously pressured defendants to make plea deals.
Last week, in Courtroom 9D in the Ronald Reagan federal Building in Santa Ana, California the prosecution was virtually assured that there will never be a trial in this matter. And, immediately afterward, the prosecution began to spin what it has done.
No expense can ever be spared in the construction of a federal court. Judges would be humiliated if they were forced to preside in a saloon like Judge Roy Bean. So, the Ronald Reagan Federal Building is walled in glass. The ninth floor provides an inspiring view of 200 square miles of smog fouled, suburban prairie. It is almost pretty. The sky looks limitless.
But of course, the majestic unfolding of justice must be protected from distractions like a glimpse of God. So the courtrooms are all windowless and made bright as day with cheap and environmentally friendly electricity.
Courtroom 9D is beautiful, soundproofed, wood paneled and big as two or three houses. You can’t see it without wondering how many of those bums down there in the street could call this home.
The overhead in this case includes the cost of wiping clean those walls and dark pews every day. Somebody vacuums the stars and the eagles on the dark blue floor and they get paid something to do that. The sovereign of this place is a pleasant, professorial man named Judge David O. Carter and, like everything else, what he makes is secret but he probably gets paid about $165,000 a year.
The prosecutor, is a man Christopher Brunwin and like all inquisitors he is an obvious idealist. He went to the prestigious Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley but he still, probably, only makes about $120,000 a year – at least until his book deal. Brunwin is a small man who does not lift weights. He wraps dark framed glasses around his Supercuts head and he wears the same suit every other lawyer wears. It has two pieces. The jacket has two buttons and it is a shade without color. If it had a color it would be the color of rich dirt or new born bullshit.
Brunwin is a prince in this hell. He is friendly and helpful to the defense lawyers. He gives one visitor, who must not be very professional because he is wearing a recognizably khaki suit, advice on the judge. He reminisces pleasantly about his undergraduate days at UCLA and every so often he steals a glance at me. I think he wonders why anyone would be here now, at 7:30 in the morning, voluntarily. Then he announces his affection for Judge Carter so enthusiastically that I have to look around to see if the judge has actually stolen into the room.
It is such a collegial courtroom that I half expect that at any moment someone will ask me to open my text book to page 666. And then, after a little wait, a couple of Marshalls bring the first defendant into Courtroom 9D in chains and I remember where I am.
Robert Vincent “Chente” Rios
Robert Vincent Rios wears a tan jump suit with “SAJ,” for Santa Ana Jail, stenciled on the back. He shambles to the dock in chains and the judge kindly understands that the chains prevent him from raising his right hand when he is sworn in. “As well as you can,” the judge smiles.
Rios was indicted seventeen months ago for conducting “organizational meetings and directing members of the Mongols criminal enterprise.” He was once known to possess a gun. He was a successful tattoo artist and he once met with other Mongols “at the Ink Slingers tattoo shop in Alhambra.” A snitch reported that Rios wanted to take over Hollywood and he is supposed to have “attacked and beat an African-American patron at the Tokio Lounge in Hollywood, California, while shouting racist slurs at the victim.”
Like most of the other defendants in this case Rios was bullied by the likable and idealistic Brunwin into a plea deal. The penalty he faced was life in prison followed by five years of supervised probation. Instead Rios pleads guilty to being a gear in the Mongols criminal machine. And, his reward is a probable sentence of only about two years.
“Court is not a party to this agreement,” the judge warns. I don’t see him actually wash his hands like Macbeth. “I believe in the plea bargaining process…. I am not going to surprise you…. You’re not going to get trapped…. You’ve read this agreement carefully….”
Brunwin reads the specifics of the plea agreement haltingly. He begins by lying that he can “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” what the plea agreement says. It says the Mongols Motorcycle Club is a racket.
The judge reads Rios his constitutional rights and then asks the man in chains to confirm that “No one has threatened or forced you into this agreement….” When Rios acquiesces to that lie the judge informs him he has made a “knowing and intelligent waver of your rights” and Rios is led away.
A cluster of other defendants waits patiently in the hall with their lawyers. The judge insists that they wait out there with the view. He insists they be brought in one at a time because, “I don’t want these things to appear to be mass pleas. I want to make it clear to these young people that they are pleading one at a time.”
Although, this can in fact, be most politely described as a mass pleading. And, it can be less politely described as a justice liquidation sale.
Harry “Face” Reynolds
In the matter of the United States of America versus Harry Reynolds, Brunwin announces, “Were this matter to proceed to trial we would be prepared to prove beyond a reasonable doubt…” and then he recites another pack of bold faced lies.
Reynolds, a neat, beefy guy who could probably keep a crowd behind a velvet rope, is accused of providing security for a completely contrived, 33 kilo cocaine deal. The deal was a “street drama” engineered by the ATF to entrap Reynolds after previous attempts to entrap him had failed. The absurdly fine legal thread from which his guilt or innocence hangs is the issue of whether or not he was armed. When an ATF Agent asked Reynolds, on the evening of his alleged crime, if he wanted a gun Reynolds turned his back. So the government has maintained since 2008 that he must have been armed. Because, why else would he turn down a free gun?
Reynolds pleads guilty to a base level 31 offense – which is to say that he agrees to an offense that carries a semi-mandatory, minimum penalty of nine years in prison. Which sounds pretty bad. But because he has finally given in and pled guilty the severity of his offense is to be reduced to a base level 24 and that carries a mandatory minimum penalty of a mere four years and three months in prison. But, wait! There’s more!
Because Reynolds has agreed to buy this special plea offering today not only does he get free shipping and handling but he also has a binding agreement entered into his contract with the United States that he will be judged by another jurist in this case. That judge is the Honorable Otis Wright. And Reynolds deal also includes yet another clause that whatever sentence he gets from Judge Wright “will be comparable to others in this incident.”
Judge Wright has already refused to sentence other victims of this ATF entrapment to more than probation. So what happened last Friday is that Reynolds confessed to a crime that carries a minimum sentence of nine years on the condition that he will be sentenced to probation and then it will all finally be over. This is how badly the prosecution wants to keep those Agents off the witness stand. This also may be why all this business gets done in a windowless room safe from God’s prying eyes.
Judge Carter stumbles when he tries to reassure Reynolds that he is not really pleading guilty to a very serious offense even though Brunwin has insisted that he must. “Transfer to Judge Wright. Get this on the record. Judge Wright has started to establish a track record in this incident…some kind of uniformity. We should have uniformity in these matters. Judge Cooper had started to establish a track record with you young people.”
Then the judge gives up trying to explain. Everybody there already knows the score.
Lance “Big El” Eustice
Lance Eustice and his lawyer are invited to come on in. Eustice was accused in the indictment of furthering the “Mongols criminal enterprise” by hindering the apprehension of a fugitive from justice. He was also threatened with life imprisonment followed by the indignity of supervised probation.
But Eustice’ indictment is waived and all Brunwin wants in return is the admission that Eustice “knowingly possessed 3.0 grams of marijuana.” Three grams is about three joints if you roll them skinny. It is worth $25 to $60 dollars depending on how much you buy at one time. With a prescription, in California it is legal to possess 75 times that amount. With the same prescription it is legal to buy nine times that amount every week. Eustice has been under indictment since October, 2008.
“Simple marijuana offense.” Judge Carter pauses, takes a big breath and looks for a minute like he can no longer stand this sham. When he composes himself he announces that he will “fast track” sentencing to May 24th. Then he assures both Eustice and his lawyer, “I think all the good things are going to happen to you.”
Judge Carter believes in the plea bargaining process so you can expect mercy at his hands. Just as long as first thing you do you take the plea.
Ismael David “Mouth” Padilla
The atmosphere in this court is so grotesquely polite that by the time Ismael David Padilla Junior walks in for his individual, not mass, pleading I have started to chew on my mustache in order to keep my mouth shut. And, this is one of the good judges. This is a judge everybody likes.
Ismael David Padilla Senior has also come to this court to watch this spectacle that has kidnapped his son. And, Judge Carter goes out of his way to be kind to the older man. And, that just makes me gnaw my mustache more. Over the course of the morning I hear him say two or three times that he knows these defendants’ families are also victims. He never says what he thinks is victimizing them. And, when he sympathizes this time I can’t keep from wondering, if he really feels that way, why doesn’t he just give Padilla a stern lecture and let him go home with his Dad.
Padilla’s father is a more forgiving man than I. Forgiveness and compassion come from knowing injustice. The old guy is so encouraged by Carter’s few, considerate words that he calls out “Semper Fi” to the judge. It is a plea for mercy from one old Marine to another.
And then Brunwin stands up again and states for the record that he is prepared to prove that Padilla made four drug deals. Padilla sold 4.2 grams, then 6.5 grams, then 15.4 grams, finally 12.6 grams of methamphetamine to a confidential informant whose job it was to convince Padilla to sell him the crank. It is a base level 30 offense but Padilla earns three points off for believing in the plea bargaining process. So he faces a minimum guidelines sentence of five years and ten months but how much time he actually gets will depend on this judge. Padilla will learn his fate on August 23rd.
Anthony Mark “Bengal” Tinoco
Anthony Mark Tinoco also pleads guilty to being a racketeer and that must be the truth because Brunwin is “prepared to prove” that Tinoco provided membership applications to three Under Cover ATF Agents and he handed them their patches and he collected payments from club members for club cell phones.
The judge says the same things he has being saying all morning: That entering this plea may ruin Tinoco’s chances of ever becoming a dentist, that the judge believes in plea bargaining and that “nobody is trying to trap you into a plea.”
There is nothing particularly fearsome about any of these defendants. Most of them are dressed as if they have to go to both church and Home Depot later that day. I prefer that look to the colorless suits. Tinoco is not dangerous. He is already free on bond and his lawyer asks that the conditions of his release be modified so he can take his daughter to Sea World for a day. Tinoco promises to be back home by six o’clock Sunday and the judge laughs and says, “Make it seven.” And everybody is very pleased that the judge is such a nice guy.
Hector “Largo” Gonzalez
The one big fish left in this case is Hector Gonzalez, defendant number three. Gonzalez is wearing the nicest suit I see all morning and rather than making a deal he has chosen to lawyer up.
His advocate travels with an entourage of ambitious young defenders and they are all, the lawyer explains to the judge, still trying to comprehend the case. Gonzalez’ trial, what will essentially be the Mongols trial, is set for October 5th. Brunwin and the defense lawyer promise Carter they will negotiate a date for a motions hearing. Then Gonzalez and his lawyer and his lawyer’s entourage quickly leave.
I understand their haste. There is a lot to comprehend in this case.
Alphonso Solis may have been the most stubborn of the defendants. He has been demanding a trial since he was arrested. He never thought he did anything and he didn’t think the prosecution could prove it if he did. His first lawyer negotiated a deal but Solis turned it down so then he rotted in jail without a lawyer for months.
Solis was charged, to make it simple, with six counts of talking on the phone and one count of repossessing a home theater installation. Although the way the indictment described it, Solis stole the home theater and the telephone conversations were “in coded language” and were about guns and drugs.
But last Friday, on account of the big justice sale, Solis’ indictment was waived in return for an admission that he once possessed 8.8 grams of marijuana. It is a base level four offense. Because he finally took the plea the severity of the offense has been halved, to a base level two crime. The legal term for taking the deal is “acceptance of responsibility.”
Since he was finally freed from a jumpsuit, Solis has been on supervised release – which is the legal term for being technically free but having someone remind you constantly that you are not really. The Judge asked Brunwin, “Why do we have him under supervised release? It seems like a waste.”
Brunwin pauses, nervously. I have seen just enough of Brunwin to know he clams up when he is confronted by something new. After a really awkward pause he grits his teeth and mumbles, “Defendant could do better.”
The Judge waits a few beats in case that is not really the best the prosecutor can come up with. Then Carter decrees that until his sentencing on May 24th, Solis may live his life unsupervised. “No stopping at Mongols functions.”
“No flying of colors.” So Solis is free except he is denied that constitutional right.
I start chewing my mustache again because I am afraid if I don’t I might ask the judge what church Solis will be allowed to attend and for whom he may vote. And then I leave and I wait for Brunwin outside in the hall, in front of the sky, where God can see us all.
“Excuse me? Mr. Brunwin?” I go into my routine. “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” Brunwin looks up and he sees me and he does not see me at the same time. “Was that justice.” He shakes his head like a bug just crawled into his ear. “Do you think what happened in there was just?” I don’t care what he says. I expect him to lie. I just wanted him to stop. So now I am on top of him.
“Just? Yes. Of course.”
We walk down the hall side by side. Brunwin can’t see all that flatness and smog without looking at me. “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” What’s he going to say?
“Can ask who I’m talking to.”
He smirks because he thinks I am a moron. “That’s a very unusual name.”
“Yeah. Like Madonna. Or Snoop.” That’s one of the things I say. If I had wanted to mess with him I would have explained that it is a combination of two Indian words. Ruh-huh and Buh-hell. If I really don’t like you I will tell you a little story about the history of those words and what they mean.
“Well, I don’t really give interviews.” And yet there we are. Walking side by side in a public place. Just two guys. One guy wearing a suit the color of fresh bullshit and the other guy wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt and red flame cowboy boots. Two equal voices in the great chorus of democracy. He wants me to contact the press liaison. I don’t care what he wants.
“Do you really think you could prove the Mongols are a criminal conspiracy?”
We reach the right turn for the elevators. “Oh absolutely.”
“Without a doubt.” He stops so I stop. There isn’t a bailiff in sight. I watch his eyes flutter around like wild birds trapped in a cage. I get the feeling he would like me to go away. I love that feeling. And, I am not really doing anything. So after a few seconds he comes toward me and I push the elevator button for both of us.
The elevator doors behind us immediately spread wide. He waits. I wait. I smile and I say, “Oh, after you.” I don’t know how he thinks he is going to get away from me. Eventually I go first. I stand in the elevator doors and promise him, “Okay. I won’t ask you any more.”
That gets him into a small enclosed space alone with me. “No that’s alright. I just need to stop at the Marshalls.”
The Marshalls. I guess I should be scared now. The doors close. “Okay. How would you prove the Mongols is a criminal conspiracy?”
“It’s already been proven over and over,” he tells his feet. I ask him what he knows about the Pagans case. That throws him. “Where is it?”
“Charleston, West Virginia.”
“No.” He is not lying. I can tell. “I just….” He stammers a little when you trap him in an elevator. “I just…uh…just have enough with what is in front of me.”
The doors open. We walk out. “So you said it’s already been proven over and over that the Mongols is a criminal conspiracy. How?”
“What?” He stops and leans toward me. Maybe he really does have a bug in his ear. I make it a point to stand just inside his personal space.
“How have you proven over and over that the Mongols are a criminal conspiracy?”
“I guess you don’t know the case.”
“We have had defendant after defendant come into the court and admit it over and over.” Then he hurries away.
“Can I email you?
“Right.” He is still hurrying toward the safety of the Marshalls. “Do you need my email?”
“No I have it.’
“It’s on the documents.” Actually it is not. His department email is on the documents. His real email is different.
“Bye, bye.” He doesn’t look back. I think I hear him whimper. “Let the spin begin!” He still doesn’t look back.
I remember his discomfort. I remember the whimper. I thought, so this is the way the Mongols case ends. This is the way the case ends. This is the way the case ends. Not with a trial.