When the feds last month slapped the Mongols — one of this nation’s most feared motorcycle clubs — with a half-million-dollar fine, it appeared to be just a tap on the wrist for these self-proclaimed outlaws.
After all, the Mongols could do what many bankers, lawyers and investors do when they get in trouble — create a legal smokescreen, declare bankruptcy, close down, launch another business.
But hiding in fear and trashing what you built isn’t the Mongol way.
Even after the hefty levy at federal court in Santa Ana, the Mongol motto remains, “Bigger, better, stronger!”
To peel apart myth from reality, I recently met up with several members at the renowned motorcycle hangout Cook’s Corner, at the base of Saddleback Mountain.
During a series of discussions, talks on the phone and texts — as well as some actual research — I learned there is far more to the Mongols than news reports and court hearings offer.
For one thing, there is patriotism. Most Mongols may be tattooed from their knuckles to their necks, but they are men who stepped up and volunteered to serve in the military, laying their lives on the line while the rest of us played with smartphones.
For another thing, there is something more elusive. Call it brotherhood. But understand, this brotherhood isn’t about surfside fist bumps and yelling, “Yo, bro!”
It’s about honor, loyalty, respect — and power.
It is mid-morning at Cook’s Corner and before you can get coffee or beer, you walk past an armada of gleaming motorcycles.
I approach several burly guys wearing vests called “cuts” with “Mongols” stitched on the back in big, bold, capital letters. Yet I immediately feel comfortable.
Several years ago, I rode 3,500 miles across America with thousands of veterans on motorcycles in something called “Run for the Wall,” to honor our fallen. While most of the veterans were older and perhaps a little softer than these Mongols, big men on big motorcycles look similar and, in truth, kind of are similar.
They appreciate what it means to ride the open road, know what it’s like to witness the horrors of war, understand the pain of helplessly watching a buddy bleed.
They also aren’t afraid to cry.
Zak Barefoot introduces himself with a firm handshake and an ever-present smile that communicates whatever the world dishes out, he’s seen worse.
Barefoot shares he is 29 years old, lives in Orange County, makes his living as a barber (straight razor cuts offered) and served in the Marines for eight years.
While Barefoot uses his real name, big Johnnysinz is more circumspect. With a silver piercing just below his right eye, the 32-year-old only reveals his nickname for reasons that remain murky. Still, he allows he served in the Army for four years.
Glancing down for a moment and then looking me in the eye, Johnnysinz even goes so far as to describe part of his association with the Mongols as “therapy.”
Yes, the more we talk, the more the mysteries about the Mongols lift.
With his black Harley Street Bob glistening nearby, Johnnysinz shares his parents came to America by immigrating from Yugoslavia.
Mom worked in a grocery store and Dad paid the bills by learning to do whatever was in demand, from being a mechanic to working as a computer technician.
To some, the rewards may seem modest. But that’s not the way Johnnysinz sees it.
“They left behind their whole lives for the hopes of a better future,” he says, “and they got that when they arrived here in the United States.”
After high school, Johnnysinz explains, he decided to pay back his parents’ successes by serving in the military.
After enlisting in 2006, command staff in Germany one day told Johnnysinz that his best buddy from high school was being rushed to the same base to be treated after being badly wounded in Iraq.
He found his friend with one leg missing.
After his tour of duty, Johnnysinz came home disturbed, disconnected, disheartened and disillusioned. He quickly grew weary of people complaining about problems that seemed trivial compared to what some of his brothers in arms faced.
“Everybody follows their own path,” Johnnysinz offers in an effort not to judge. Still, he admits he feels most comfortable with other veterans and that the Mongols offer a family of vets.
Barefoot tells a similar story. The son of a Marine, he received a special citation for leading 350 foot patrols in Afghanistan over 13 months. In the wake of Japan’s 2010 earthquake and tsunami, he volunteered to help with the evacuation of refugees.
Then he came back to what felt like a different United States.
“Some people think they’re too good for anybody else,” Barefoot allows. But that wasn’t the case with veterans and it certainly wasn’t the case when he connected with Mongols.
“These boys have helped me with a lot of stuff,” the Marine explains. “When I was down on my luck, they helped with rent.
“They’re real solid people. They’re there for you 100 percent.”
Operation ‘Black Rain’
The birth of modern-day Mongols came in 1969 in Montebello and the club’s website pulls no punches about its beginnings as well as its vision.
“This was a lifestyle, a culture, and a way of life for the brothers riding around on their chopped Harley-Davidson motorcycles on the streets of East Los Angeles showing power and solidarity.
“The majority of new members were Vietnam veterans … and were accustomed to a strict disciplined, regimented program that was about honor, loyalty, respect and camaraderie. This made them a force to be reckoned with.”
To this day, those words still ring true.
Within a decade, there were chapters in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, Long Beach and Bakersfield. Later, there even were — and remain — Mongol chapters in countries such as Germany, Australia, Thailand.
But as the club continued to grow, it either lost its way because of some bad apples or was always intentionally involved with some very heavy and very questionable stuff.
On April 27, 2002, Mongols and Hells Angels battled inside a casino in Laughlin, Nev. One Mongol was killed, two Angels died and dozens were injured.
Eventually, seven Angels were charged as well as a half-dozen Mongols. The aftermath, however, nearly killed off the club.
In a secret operation called “Black Rain” and run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, an undercover agent over two years managed to climb his way up in the Mongol organization.
By the time Black Rain was shut down in 2008, dozens of members were in custody with 110 arrest warrants served. Several Mongols pleaded guilty to racketeering, including the club president who was quickly kicked out of the club.
More legal action followed when prosecutors argued the Mongols should pay a $1 million fine for being a criminal enterprise that had members distributing drugs, attempting murder and committing murder.
Potentially even more devastating, prosecutors also declared that the cartoonish Mongol logo of a character with a topknot and sunglasses astride a motorcycle was core to the club’s identity and had to be banned.
Just weeks ago, however, federal Judge David O. Carter slashed the fine by half to $500,000 and ruled the logo was protected by the First Amendment.
Still, Mongols remain deeply frustrated. Stephen Stubbs, lead attorney for the club, blames the previous president on any wrongdoing and claims times have changed.
“The current members, who had nothing to do with any of the alleged behavior,” Stubbs said, “are going to be the ones to bear the burden of paying the fine.”
Barefoot, also known as “Getsome,” was a wrestler and football player in high school and still carries a barrel-chested, thickly muscled physique.
But don’t mistake brawn with brawling.
Mongol outings, as Barefoot describes them, are little different than those of mainstream motorcycle clubs. There are unofficial small rides and larger club-sanctioned rides. On Sundays, small groups often get together for barbecues. And every now and then, there are large gatherings that might involve a ride to Las Vegas, arm wrestling and tug-of-war at the pool.
Still, it’s clear from conversations, photos and videos that the vibe is decidedly different than, say, Run for the Wall or it’s big brother, “Rolling Thunder,” where on Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C., nearly a million veterans on motorcycles salute their military brothers and sisters.
“We’re part of the 1 percent” of clubs, Barefoot agrees, “who live outside normal society. We have our own rules and we live with freedom.”
Johnnysinz elaborates. “Ultimately, the truth about our club is that we are a bunch of hard-working, Harley-loving, camaraderie-driven men.”
Then, again, there’s that edge.
“We don’t bow down, we don’t back down and we stand up for each other and our belief system.
“Do we believe in the freedoms we deserve?” he asks. “Absolutely.
“I guess that’s what makes us outlaws.”