After seven years and probably $150 million, the government of the United States refuses to let the Mongols case, which is not so much an actual legal case as it is a prosecutorial pose, end. From the beginning, the point of the case was to solve America’s “outlaw biker gang problem” by employing two tactics. The first, to borrow a phrase from classical totalitarian theory, was to define the Mongols as an “objective enemy” of the state as Jews were once defined as an objective enemy far away and long ago. The second tactic was to use federal justice as punishment which is not so different from what most United States Attorneys believe federal justice should be anyway.
This sorry prosecution almost ended this week. There was almost a trial. Instead there was a two-day-long motion hearing on the matter of whether three former Mongols, who had their personal property stolen by government thugs four years ago really deserve to have it returned.
Other Personal Property
This part of the Mongols case is formally titled United States of America v. Assorted Firearms, Motorcycles and Other Personal Property. The guns, bikes, cash and mementos were illegally seized by employing the specious rationalization that they were integral parts of the “Mongols criminal organization.” They were actually seized to punish people some bureaucrats thought set a bad example. In Las Vegas, for example, Harry Reynolds’ fathers’ motorcycle was stolen by police because the most vile of the undercovers thought Reynolds set a bad example and because Reynolds loved his father. The government refused to return any of this stolen property for almost four years because unethical and amoral prosecutors use the federal judiciary like a punishment machine and that legal reality is likely to get worse before it gets better.
The unethical and amoral prosecutor in court this week was a very round man with a very bad haircut named Stephen R. Welk. Technically, Welk is not a prosecutor. Technically he is the Chief of the Asset Forfeiture Division of the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. But in reality he is a prosecutor and his job this week was to try to trick a crusty and confidant judge named David O. Carter into writing an opinion that would create case law that would make it easier to punish motorcycle club members in the future.
Carter is less scared of the Mongols than Welk thinks he should be. Carter has been encouraging Welk to return the property the government stole since last May and Welk had returned all but three of the motorcycles to the claimants who had managed to stick with the case this long by the end of last week. Many motorcycles and other personal belongings were forfeited by men and women who simply could not sustain a four-year-long fight against an opponent with unlimited resources. Harry Reynolds’ motorcycle for example, and his father’s, now belong to the USA.
On Tuesday Carter told Welk to return the motorcycles of former Mongols Bengy M. Leyva and Al Cavazos. Cavazos’s brother is Ruben “Doc” Cavazos who was the President of the Mongols during all of the undercover investigation and his nephew is Ruben “Lil Rubes” Cavazos who was a powerful Mongol when his father was club President. All three Cavazos had their motorcycles seized and Al wanted them all returned to him. It was a nice try but Carter, essentially, told Al Cavazos to pick one.
The third Mongol in court this week was Alfonso Solis. Solis spent 14 months in jail for what eventually boiled down to a misdemeanor marijuana conviction. Solis had just bought his seized motorcycle when he was arrested. The bike was still registered to a man named Vincent Mendez and the judge told Welk to return that motorcycle to the registered owner and he told Solis to work it out with Mendez.
All of that took a small part of Tuesday. If the Mongols prosecution made sense it would have ended then. Instead that was the moment things got interesting because that was when the never-ending motion hearing became a quasi-trial. And, during that quasi-trial it became clear that the government has been terrified of a real trial for the last four years. If there had been a Mongols trial the government probably would have lost. Three of the government’s main witnesses, ATF Agents John Ciccone, Darrin Kozlowski and Gregory Giaoni took part in the motion hearing and they said most of what they would have said at a trial. Welk showed the judge video footage of the nasty brawl at the Morongo Indian casino in March 2002 and footage of the fatal brawl in Harrah’s Casino in Laughlin, Nevada a month later just as the government would have at trial.
And, it was telling when Judge Carter commented about the Morongo brawl, “You should have seen the Marines and the Navy go at it.”
The motion hearing became that quasi-trial because Solis, who is both a clever and determined man, wanted more than his motorcycle back. He also wanted “$2,380.00 in U.S. currency,” “several personal photographs” and a “leather vest with club insignia.” The club insignia, the Mongols marks, was the sticking part. Welk refused to give Solis’ back his cut. Solis agreed to let the government keep his cash if he could get his cut back. Welk still refused because he insisted, the patches were indicia of a violent criminal conspiracy. So a day and a half of sophistry then ensued.
It was very clear in this hearing that the government would never have had a chance of winning at trial without the enthusiastic cooperation of Doc Cavazos. It was also quickly obvious that Doc’s still secret plea and sentencing agreement reiterates and substantiates virtually every other plea and sentencing agreement signed by the other Mongols who were charged with racketeering. That is who the government had. They had Doc and Doc gave everybody up. Doc’s plea deal was entered into evidence under seal in this hearing. Then Welk cited the dozens of “voluntary” confessions of “statements of fact” made “under oath” to “prove” that the Mongols Motorcycle Club is in fact an “organized criminal enterprise.” Carter was impressed – in a way.
The judge dryly allowed, “This is the biggest pleading I’ve ever seen.” It was all downhill for Welk from there.
Welk explained to the judge that the confessions were all entirely voluntary. “On the day of the roundup, we set aside a certain number of rooms at the Montebello police station to interview Mongols who wanted to cooperate,” Welk claimed. “That first day there were so many Mongols who wanted to cooperate it was hard to find rooms for them…. These defendants were falling all over themselves to give us statements.” Therefore, all the Mongols “were falling all over themselves” to confess. And thus, if you wear or even possess a club patch you must be guilty of something. Welk seemed to think this argument was logical.
Welk cited, “Ruben Cavazos’ admissions in his plea agreement about wide-ranging drug activity” and he cited the allegations of the infallible ATF undercovers as “evidence that there was a green light on the Mongols by the Mexican Mafia.” Carter did not seem to find Welk persuasive.
The Mongols Racket
“There was no finding that the Mongols are a criminal organization,” Carter lectured the government lawyer repeatedly. Then he taunted Welk with the prospect of a trial. “I’m open for business,” Carter said again and again. “I would have liked to see this case go to trial.” “It would have been an interesting trial.” “I’m open for business, counselor.”
Solis’ lawyer, FredRicco McCurry, kept it simple. He argued that “ultimately we have a man who would like to have his property back.” But Welk wouldn’t let go of Solis’ old vest. He thought it was about winning the Mongols case. He thought it was “evidence.” He never explained what he thought it was evidence of.
So Carter toyed with Welk until Welk fell into painfully long silences while he searched for the right words that would make the judge understand the evil epitomized by the symbols on Solis’ old piece of clothing. On one occasion Carter let Welk huddle up with Ciccone, Giaoni and Kozlowski like contestants on a game show in hopes that between them they might think of something the judge might believe. Watching Carter play Welk was like watching a man play checkers with a monkey.
Solis testified that he is “retired” from the Mongols. After huddling with his posse Welk told the judge that Solis couldn’t be retired and that the patches on the vest “belonged to the Mongols gang.” And, that might have been the single most bizarre moment in the entire Mongols case – Welk arguing that just as Solis’ motorcycle didn’t actually belong to Solis so the vest didn’t belong to Solis either. Welk eventually conceded that Solis could have his leather vest back but “those patches don’t belong to Mr. Solis. They belong to the gang,” and Welk was now the “gang’s” stalwart champion. “There’s never been any question that the marks belonged to the gang,” Welk said with a straight face. Welk is the same man who personally argued for three years in two separate court cases before two different judges that the marks belonged to Doc Cavazos and that Doc had then given the marks to the government.
The Marine Card
Solis, who is an ex-Marine, told Carter, who is also an ex-Marine, that he kept his Dress Blues after he left the Corps and that he had a right to keep his Mongols cut. Welk might have lost right there.
Privately Solis said “I was a Mongol. I’ll always be a Mongol like I’ll always be a Marine.” and “If the club wants its colors back that’s between me and the club. It’s not between me and the government…. It’s a matter of dignity.”
Carter told Welk to differentiate between the Mongols as a “lawful association” and the Mongols as a “criminal association” which made Welk freeze up again like a broken robot. After a quick reboot Welk accused Solis of stuffing another man in a trunk and he declared that while “We don’t have any direct evidence he did any of those (criminal) things he stood out to the undercovers as a violent member of the Mongols.” In other words, Solis must be a criminal because Welk and the rest of the Justice Department and the ATF accused him of being a criminal. And, all this continued for hours.
“I’m in the frustrating position of hearing a lot of a case that never went to trial at a motion hearing,” Carter patiently explained to Welk for about the fifteenth time. “But I’m open for business.”
“We were always ready to go to trial your Honor,” Welk bragged.
“Well,” Carter smirked and opened his hands which stunned Welk back into another crash and reboot.
The best Welk could do was to simultaneously be the Mongols’ defender and their biggest detractor. His fall back position was that the government should keep “four patches” on the vest. Welk wanted to keep the top rocker which reads “Mongols,” the Mongols logo, a tab Mongols wear on the front of their cuts which reads “Mongols” and the one percenter diamond. “The one percenter patch means you are acting outside the law,” the prosecutor explained to Carter. “It is an admission that you want people to know that you act outside the law.”
Carter wanted to know how a one percenter patch was “different from a tax resistor” who declared his intention to break the law. Welk shifted nervously from side to side and almost crashed again.
“Both of you are going to leave here today thinking you lost,” the judge said near the end of the hearing, shortly before Welk finally ran out of hot air. “I’ll give you both plenty of notice before I write my opinion.”
And so, after 1463 days, the tired and bogus Mongols case still staggers on.