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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Angel dust

by Philip Martin | July 5, 2022 at 6:57 a.m.

In February 1992, the White Collar Criminal's son told me there was a Pulitzer Prize in the dozens of file boxes he dropped off at my office. I went through the boxes, and couldn't find it.

So I wrote a letter to the White Collar Criminal, who was staying at the medium-security Phoenix Federal Correctional Institute, asking for a meeting so he could explain what the documents meant. He wrote me back, put me on his visitation list, and I drove up to see him.

The Phoenix Federal Correction Institute was just a little north of town, so it wasn't too much of an inconvenience. But I was a little annoyed when, a few minutes after I got there, the WCC admitted the file boxes weren't Crackerjack. There was no prize inside, just so much guilt and shame. This he could tell me, but not his son, who needed to believe in the WCC's innocence.

And the WCC needed his son to believe in that innocence. Maybe I could understand that.

But since I was there, maybe we could have a chat anyway. So I made small talk with a lonely man for about a half-hour. Phoenix FCI wasn't the worst jail I'd ever been in; it had tennis courts, a running track and free weights, and the WCC was in the best shape of his life. He'd come in soft and frightened, but encountered unexpected kindness in prison. It wasn't like what he'd seen in the movies.

His roommate had been especially helpful in his transition to prison life. Maybe he was a story? He'd just found out he was getting out later in the year. He had an interesting past and was well-spoken. The WCC was sorry he'd wasted my time but maybe he could make it up to me by introducing me to Sonny Barger.

So I wrote another letter, this one addressed to Mr. Ralph Hubert "Sonny" Barger. A few days later I got a reply. Sonny didn't want to meet with me right away, but we could send letters.

Over the next eight months I sent Sonny dozens of letters. I got him a subscription to the newspaper I worked for; I sent him books. He replied with short cordial notes thanking me for the material. He said he didn't want to talk while in prison, but maybe after he got out we could sit down together.

His prison counselor told me I wasn't the only one writing him; Sonny received dozens of requests for interviews every month. Sonny was collaborating with a screenwriter; he was unlikely to do anything to undercut the commercial viability of the project.

Then, in June, Sonny called me from prison. We talked about stories I'd written, about politics (Sonny was a John Wayne conservative), and a little about his life and times. It was all off the record. He wasn't giving interviews, but he'd like to meet me in person after his release.

After that I didn't hear anything from him directly. Then, in late October, Steve Brown, vice president of the Hell's Angels' Oakland chapter, called to invite me to Sonny's welcome home party. It would be in Livermore, Calif. Just down the road from Altamont Speedway.

Altamont is where the 1960s dead-ended on Dec. 6, 1969. The Rolling Stones got a human sacrifice and the Hell's Angels got $500 worth of beer. Sonny was 31 years old and on stage with the Stones when, during a distracted version of "Under My Thumb," an 18-year-old Black man, Meredith "Murdock" Hunter, was beaten and stabbed to death by several Angels near the front of the stage.

In "Gimme Shelter," the documentary about the Stones' 1969 American tour, there's a scene where the Stones listen to Sonny ranting to a San Francisco radio station in the days after the concert, blaming the chaos on "flower children ... started messin' over our bikes."

"I didn't go there to police nothing, man," Sonny says. "I ain't no cop ... And this Mick Jagger, like, put it all on us. He used us for dupes ... They told me that if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, that I could drink beer until the show was over. And that's what I went to do."

In 1983, a former Angel would tell the Senate Judiciary Committee the Angels put an "open contract" on Jagger's life. He described, in some detail, two failed assassination attempts made in the '70s.

. . .

I flew to Oakland ahead of Sonny's flight and waited in the terminal among a knot of colors-wearing Angels, their Old Ladies and kids. I briefly spoke to a police officer who'd been assigned to work the crowd, and he expressed his disgust at the criminals and the way our society romanticized the outlaw life.

I asked for his name and he told me: Philip Martin.

In the 5,000-word story I'd write about Sonny's homecoming I elided that detail. It was distractingly on-the-nose, too obviously tinged with meta-portent for my brand of New Journalism. I needed someone to contextualize what was happening, to comment on the action, someone else to say what I was thinking. I needed another version of me, but not one with my name.

. . .

There were more than 700 people at the party, which was held at an outdoor venue that housed a dive bar called the Mountain House, though it was surrounded only by sloping yellow hills. Steve Brown had arranged for an RV to serve as Sonny and his wife Sharon's headquarters and asylum during the party. Brown brought Sonny's Rottweilers Heidi and Udar.

Sonny invited me to walk with him as he made the grip-and-grin rounds. People didn't routinely take selfies in those days, but there were lots of cameras. Beyond the fences the feds watched us through telephoto lenses. Merely by showing up at this party, Sonny had violated his parole. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of felons in attendance. There were also a few Bay Area politicians.

I was the only journalist inside the gates. This made me nervous.

Eventually Sonny and I sat down in the trailer. He was 54 years old. A bout with throat cancer damaged his voice, so to speak he pressed a white patch covering a "blowhole" in his throat. The gesture suggested the conveyance of a blessing from the Maximum Angel.

I couldn't use a tape recorder, but I took notes. He said what you'd expect. If he'd wanted Mick Jagger dead, Mick Jagger would be dead. His motorcycle club was just that: a club for Harley-Davidson enthusiasts. Sure, some Angels did bad things, but some cops did bad things too.

Hunter Thompson was a creep. He deserved to get stomped.

The "Filthy Few" patch on his jacket was not, as an FBI agent had told me, a kind of merit badge earned by murder. It was just something you got for doing something extra, like riding ahead of everyone to hack out a campsite in the wilderness.

I didn't hide my skepticism, but Sonny apparently liked what I wrote (you can read the whole story at tinyurl.com/5xa9a8s9).

We spoke on the phone a couple of times in the '90s; he invited me to visit him in Oakland, and I always meant to do it.

The Maximum Leader of the Hell's Angels became a friend of mine. Mostly, I suppose, because I didn't want him for an enemy. But he was helpful to me, and I enjoyed the moments spent in his company. No doubt he was a bad guy. But that wasn't all he was.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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