How Hell's Angels 'maximum leader' Sonny Barger got convicted in Louisville and still 'won'

·6 min read

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He was the face of the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle gang, its "maximum leader," as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.” 

Thirty-four years ago, Ralph "Sonny" Barger stood in Louisville's federal court, charged with nine other club members in the longest-running criminal trial ever in the Western District of Kentucky.

Jury deliberations alone took 11 days.

The government accused the members of running guns and explosives to Louisville to blow up the rival Outlaws Motorcycle Club’s Portland clubhouse — and avenge the death of an Angel shot to death by an Outlaw outside Broken Spurs Saloon on Dixie Highway.

Trial lawyers on both sides of the gargantuan case — the transcript ran 8,000 pages — paused to remember Barger and the sensational trial after he died June 29 in Oakland, California, of liver cancer. He was 83.

Wearing their chains and colors, as many as 100 bikers, including the defendants and spectators, circulated around U.S. District Judge Edward Johnstone’s courtroom for four months in 1988.

Barger on Nov. 10, 1987, after he was arraigned on an explosives charge in San Francisco, for which he and nine club members would be tried in Louisville the next year.
Barger on Nov. 10, 1987, after he was arraigned on an explosives charge in San Francisco, for which he and nine club members would be tried in Louisville the next year.

The tension was palpable, remembered Sean Delahantry, one of 10 defense attorneys.

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Prosecutor Cleve Gambill said all three assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to the case were deputized as marshals so they could carry guns inside the courthouse and beyond.

In a safe house in Prospect, an FBI swat team guarded the government’s star witness — the Hells Angel’s onetime national enforcer, Tony “Taterhead” Tait, who had turned informant.

During jury selection, you could hear a pin drop, Delahanty said, as prospective jurors weighed the consequences of passing judgment on the menacing-looking crew.

But by the time jury questioning was over, one woman seemed to have fallen in love with an Angel, said Delahanty, and the government had to get her removed.

Each of the defendants had their own lawyer, but Delahanty said there was no question Barger was in charge of the defense team and their counsel.

With a couple of other hell-raising Army veterans, Barger had founded the Hells Angels on April 1, 1957, and in time grew it into an international phenomenon — and, claimed the government — a criminal enterprise.

In his iconic 1967 book, the Louisville-born Thompson wrote that “in any gathering of Hell’s Angels, there is no doubt who is running the show.” It was Barger, “a 6-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts."

Barger reads a statement at a news conference on Nov. 19, 1965, in Oakland, Calif., about an upcoming anti Vietnam war protest.
Barger reads a statement at a news conference on Nov. 19, 1965, in Oakland, Calif., about an upcoming anti Vietnam war protest.

“By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator,” Thompson said.

Barger caused no trouble in the U.S. District Court in Louisville, however. When his lawyer, Stephen Miller, successfully petitioned Johnstone to let him out on bail during the trial, Miller said, "I believe Mr. Barger is more helpful to me than any client I’ve ever had.”

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Defense attorney Thomas Clay, who represented the nation’s No. 2 Hell’s Angel, Michael “Irish” O’Farrell, threw a 50th birthday party for Barger in mid-trial at the attorney’s home in Goshen.

“They were smoking cigarettes with nothing printed on them,” Clay recalled. “I had to tell them to put it out.”

Delahanty said some Angels even met with some Outlaws at the Kentucky State Fair during the trial, to talk about making peace.

The government promised the jury an intriguing glimpse into the secret world of the Hell's Angels, which prosecutors called a highly organized national group ruled by a Mafia-like "code of silence” and whose business included illegal drugs, weapons, explosives and violence.

But what jurors discovered was there never was an attack on the Outlaws.

And the defense showed that Tait, a former Hell’s Angel in Alaska, was paid more for his services than any federal employee in the courtroom — including Judge Johnstone.

Barger with his wife Sharon after he posts bond in 1980 in San Francisco
Barger with his wife Sharon after he posts bond in 1980 in San Francisco

The government acknowledged it had paid Tait $300,000 in salary and expenses over three years for information that had led to the indictment of 38 club members and the convictions of a dozen of them.

Gambill said Taterhead had been paid about $30,000 alone for targeting Barger and his co-defendants.

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The defendants themselves made out well during the trial by ingeniously subpoenaing each other as witnesses, entitling themselves to witness fees.

Lawyers on both sides estimated the trial’s total case at more than $1 million.

In the end, the jury convicted only Barger and O’Ferrall of felonies — conspiring to violate federal and firearms and explosives laws. The rest were acquitted or found guilty only of misdemeanors.

“We won,” said Barger, who, like his co-defendants, never testified.

Gambill said Barger approached him in the courtroom after the verdict and nonchalantly told him, “Good game,” as if we had “just gotten of the sandlot.”

Barger got 57 months. The next Christmas he sent Gambill a card from prison in Arizona, showing him posing on a towel as if he were on the beach.

“Nice weather,” Barger said. “Wish you were here.”

O’Farrell was released on bond pending sentencing, returned to Oakland and was beaten and shot to death in a barroom brawl. Gambill said he was murdered as part of the killer’s initiation into the Aryan Brotherhood.

Barger served four years, his second long prison hitch, but he claimed he didn’t mind being behind bars.

“I think doing time is just part of growing up,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “There’s just certain things you’ve got to do in your life. You’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to go in the Army, you’ve got to go to jail. It all helps you to have a well-rounded life.”

Hell's Angel's leader Ralph "Sonny" Barger
Hell's Angel's leader Ralph "Sonny" Barger

Over the years Barger distanced himself from the club’s most infamous violent episodes.

He wasn’t there in 1965 when a group of Hells Angels in Berkeley, California, assaulted marchers who were protesting the Vietnam War, though he condemned the protesters and volunteered to take a squad of bikers behind North Vietnamese lines.

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Sonny Barger, founder of the Oakland, California charter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, autographs a copy of Post magazine during an event at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership August 23, 2003 in Quincy, Illinois.
Sonny Barger, founder of the Oakland, California charter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, autographs a copy of Post magazine during an event at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership August 23, 2003 in Quincy, Illinois.

He claimed that when the Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels to provide security in 1969 at a free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco, he was quietly sitting on stage drinking a beer when bikers beat concert-goers and stabbed one of them to death.

As an elder statesman in the club — he bristled when people called it a gang — he hired a public relations firm; incorporated the club and disbursed 500 shares; hawked "Sonny Barger’s Cajun-Style Salsa"; took up yoga; made most of his income as a consultant on biker-gang films; and appeared on “Sons of Anarchy,” a television series about a biker gang, according to the LA Times article, which was headlined in part, "Just a regular guy, until you cross him."

He told the Times in the 1994 article he never regretted his life choices. One of the things that has always amazed me about reporters” is that 99% of them will say, ‘Gee, after talking to you I find that you’re halfway intelligent. You could have been anything you wanted to be!’ They don’t realize, I am what I want to be.”

Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; awolfson@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @adwolfson.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: The strange but true Louisville trial of Hell's Angels boss Sonny Barger