Last May 14, just about high noon, some Vagos held a party in a little town named Lakeport in the northern California wine country. And, of course, the police knew. The police were not invited to the party but they knew about it anyway.
There were somewhere between 50 and 100 Vagos at the party. Presumably, they all enjoyed the local Chardonnay and snacked on the fine, local artisanal cheeses and either crusty bread or some of those ridiculously overpriced little crackers. There were no reported gang rapes, lynchings or other atrocities.
Which, in the most widely circulated version of the story, was the result of the outstanding efforts of the courageous local police who quarantined a three block area around the gathering. The 50 or so Vagos were monitored by 43 cops. The cops job, according to official reports, was to pose menacingly and make “a show of force.”
Anatomy Of A Rumor
One of the cops who knew about the Vagos party but who was not actually there glaring with a 12 gauge shotgun cradled in his arms was a California Highway Patrol officer about 60 miles away. And, when he spotted three Hells Angels riding their motorcycles on Highway 12 in southern Sonoma County he concluded that Armageddon was at hand and immediately notified the FBI. The FBI agent who received this tip then contacted the Lake County Sheriff’s Office to warn them that Hells Angels were headed their way.
About 3:30, just as the Vagos’ party was breaking up, some cop, somewhere, who had heard that there were between 50 and 100 Vagos in Lakeport and that there were Hells Angels travelling north, got confused by all those big numbers and alarming facts and issued a general alert to police departments in both Sonoma and Lake Counties that 150 Hells Angels were heading for Calistoga – which is a town famous for both its mineral water and wine. Calistoga is 50 miles south of Lakeport.
The departing Vagos were given the usual courtesy police escort out of town before scattering. The video below shows about half of them cheerfully and cooperatively obeying a stop sign. There are five roads out of Lakeport and one of them is California Highway 29.
Cue The Clowns
At 4 p.m., the Lake County Sheriff, a man named Frank Rivero (photo above), was either told or hallucinated that this large pack of Hells Angels was cresting beautiful Mount St. Helena on California Highway 29. Rivero concluded that the phantom pack of Angels was coming to Lakeport for a bloody battle with the Vagos and he decided to make his stand.
Rivero ordered all police within the sound of his radio voice to proceed to Middleton, about 30 miles south of Lakeport, “Code Three.” Code three is how cops describe turning on their lights and sirens and driving like they are in an action movie. Rivero’s strategy was to forbid entrance into his county by any Hells Angels. As far as Rivero as concerned, if they were going to start World War Three with the Vagos they could do it in Sonoma.
Technically, it is illegal to deny people entrance to a county just because they belong to a motorcycle club but Rivero believed the pending emergency justified his actions.
The California Highway Patrol responded but declined to travel Code Three. Other police from several agencies closed the northbound lane of Highway 29. Cars were inspected by officers armed with assault rifles. Three snipers were deployed in the hills surrounding Middleton. At 4:22 p.m. three police cars responding Code Three narrowly avoided a spectacular crash at the intersection of Highways 29 and 175.
A Highway Patrol Commander at the scene asked Rivero about this emergency and, after wondering aloud at the legality of forbidding entrance to Lake County to anyone, he told his cops to go back to work. Rivero stayed his course.
The Hells Angels did not appear. Rivero called police in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa Counties to ask if they had seen his missing Hells Angels. No luck. Rivero sent out three scouts in patrol cars to search for the approaching war party. No luck. A CHP helicopter went aloft to search for the great pack of Angels but could not find them. Mysteriously, the great pack had disappeared into thin air as if it had never been there at all.
The sun set then rose and still the horde of Angels did not appear. Life went on. Thanks to Rivero, Lake County had avoided the mother of all biker wars.
Don Anderson, the local district attorney and a political nemesis of Sheriff Rivero, had doubts about the reality of the threat and wondered aloud if all this might have been a little too dramatic. He launched an investigation to find out what had happened and to study the question of whether the road block was legal. Eventually a 200 page report was produced that concluded that Rivero was not actually criminal but only a moron.
Anderson’s report stated:
“Although the intentions of Rivero to prevent a potential fight between the Hells Angels and Vagos were honorable, the law is clear that no single person or government entity can deprive citizens of the rights guaranteed them under the United States Constitution.
“Case law continuously has held that regardless of the criminal history or affiliations, the government cannot stop citizens and deny them the freedom of travel guaranteed them under Article 4 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, such conduct violates person’s rights under the First Amendment to peacefully assemble; Fifth Amendment right not to be deprived of life or liberty without due process; and the 14th Amendment right not to be denied of the right of equal protection under the law.
“Title 18 U.S.C Section 242 states ‘This statute makes it a crime for any person acting under color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to willfully deprive or cause to be deprived from any person those rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the U.S.’
“Any attempt or conspiracy to violate this law is also a crime. California Vehicle Code section 21055 sets forth the circumstance in which a peace office is exempt from certain rules of the road by responding Code 3, that being with red lights and sirens. Among the circumstances are when responding to an immediate and imminent threat to officer safety or the public. In this occurrence, even if the information was true, there was no immediate threat to officer safety or to the public, which is why CHP refused to respond Code 3.
“Vehicle Code Section 21055 is administrative in nature and not meant to constitute a criminal violation. It is strongly suggested that the heads of law enforcement agencies work closely together to establish protocol for similar events in the future. It is also suggested that to avoid possible criminal and civil liability, law enforcement personnel at even the highest level receive the proper training in constitutional law and police procedures.
“This office will not be seeking any criminal charges against any person involved in this occurrence. At this time it has not been determined that any criminal activity took place by any law enforcement personnel that could be prosecuted at the state level. A violation of Title 18 U.S.C Section 242 is a federal crime, which this office cannot prosecute. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has requested a copy of this report for review.”
Naturally, Rivero was livid that he was only not guilty instead of being commended. He had refused to cooperate with Anderson. After the report was made public this week Rivero issued a press release that called Anderson’s report “a misguided, politically motivated gesture.” He also questioned whether investigating his brave stand against the motorcycle menace was an “appropriate expenditure of public funds.”
“I will continue to vigorously protect the people of Lake County against this unmitigated threat of violence while Mr. Anderson fights for the rights of drug dealers, outlaw gangs and criminals,” Rivero wrote.
Meanwhile that big pack of Angels is still out there somewhere.