Sonny Barger, outlaw biker and founder of the Hells Angels, dies at 83

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Sonny Barger, the larger-than-life godfather of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, equal parts brawler, bully, braggart, rule breaker and savvy peddler of his own outlaw mystique, has died aged 83.

A statement on his official Facebook page read: “If you read this post, you will know that I am gone. I requested that this note be posted immediately after my death.” The cause, the statement said, was cancer, but no further details were immediately available.

For decades, the stocky, muscular Mr. Barger was not only the founder of the original Oakland, Calif., chapter of Angels in 1957, but for decades after that he was also the public face of a tribe. of national counterculture of bearded men, dressed in denim. road warriors memorialized in literature and film – roaring down the highway and through crossroads towns, shocking locals with their loud and often menacing presence.

It was a rowdy, often lawless fraternity, bound together, in no particular order, by machismo, tattoos, winged skull badges, booze, drugs, rides to nowhere on thundering Harley-Davidson pigs and a thirst for the unfettered freedom found in the open. road.

“Discover your limits by going beyond them,” Barger urged.

Woven into the history of the Hells Angels was a tradition of crime and violence – much of it involving Mr Barger, a fact he boastfully acknowledged. He once called himself a member of a gang of “card-carrying criminals”.

He was convicted in 1988 of conspiracy to kill members of a rival club in Kentucky and blow up their headquarters, serving five years in federal prison.

A confessed cocaine addict who supported his habit by selling heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, he served stints totaling eight years on various drug and firearms charges.

The Hells Angels – as a corporate entity with chapters from California to New York – have been the subject of relentless federal investigations into criminal enterprise and racketeering offenses. In 2013, authorities secured convictions against 16 members and hangers in South Carolina for a conspiracy involving drug distribution, arms trafficking, money laundering and arson.

In 1979, Mr. Barger and other executives beat a similar plot stunt in which they were accused of running a massive meth (“biker cafe”) operation out of Oakland.

Most infamous in Hells Angles lore was their role in the chaotic 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where pistol-wielding 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel – all captured on film in the 1970 documentary ‘Gimme Shelter’.

The Angels, hired to provide security, were fighting fans rushing to the stage, according to Mr. Barger, who was present. The drug-fueled crowd pressed against the Angels’ security line, damaging some of their bikes, and the Angels waded through the crowd swinging fists and wands.

In his autobiography “Hell’s Angel – The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club”, Mr. Barger accused Stones guitarist Keith Richards of delaying the band’s performance to excite the crowd. He claimed he pressed a gun to Richards’ ribs and ordered him to start playing immediately.

Richards complied, but the crowd, including Hunter, continued to flock to the stage, according to Mr Barger. Hunter fired a single shot, piloting a Hells Angel, Mr. Barger said. Other angels quickly overpowered Hunter, punching and kicking him. An angel was charged with fatally stabbing him, but was acquitted after claiming self-defense.

Over the years, Mr. Barger served as a technical consultant for biker films and appeared in several, including “Hells Angels on Wheels” (1967), a low-budget exploitation film starring Jack Nicholson.

For the real Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, it was inspired by an earlier film – the 1953 classic “The wild,” with Marlon Brando playing an eerily sensitive gang leader. Mr. Barger preferred Lee Marvin’s aggressive performance as a biker.

Mr. Barger’s brutal and lawless ways belied a disciplined entrepreneurial spirit. He promoted his renegade brand, carefully marketing Hells Angels-themed t-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses and California wines. He registered trademarks on the club’s logos and designs and hired an intellectual property lawyer to prosecute poachers, which is common.

To give the angels some shine, he launched periodic charity campaigns for children’s toys and clothes.

“He’s smart and cunning, and he’s got a kind of wild animal cunning,” author Hunter S. Thompson told The Washington Post in 2000. Hunter spent a year with the Angels researching his seminal book “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga”. (1966).

Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born in Modesto, California on October 8, 1938. His mother ran away with a Trailways bus driver when Sonny was 4 months old. His father, a day laborer loading ships and trucks at the Oakland docks, spent his nights and much of his money in waterfront bars, often bringing Sonny with him.

There, according to his autobiography, Sonny stole pretzels and hard-boiled eggs, and learned his first swear words from a parrot shouting obscenities.

His father married a second time. Like the first wife, she fled, taking everything, including the family radio and the encyclopaedia, according to Mr Barger.

He hated school and was suspended several times for reporting and sometimes hitting his teacher. “I never liked being told what to do,” he said.

For a time he came under the care of his paternal grandmother, a strict Pentecostal. Quickly, he rejected what he called the “tongue-screaming Holy Rollers,” smoked his first marijuana cigarette at age 14, dropped out of high school at age 16, and joined the military with a fake college certificate. birth.

Fourteen months later, the military authorities discovered the subterfuge and ousted him. Back home, he drifted from job to job – janitor, pipe threader, worker on the potato chip assembly line. “I couldn’t get over this nine-to-five work thing,” he wrote.

He joined his first motorcycle group, the Oakland Panthers, in 1956 and formed the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in Oakland the following year. “I needed a tight-knit club of men who could jump on their bikes, cross-country if they wanted to, and break rules or clocks,” he said.

Over the following decades, he transformed his unique club into a financially viable network with thousands of members in the United States, Canada, Europe and beyond. Despite its many run-ins with the law, the organization enjoyed fundamental success – an all-male, virtually all-white, dues-paying fraternal order with a vibrant retail business of club paraphernalia.

Mr. Barger has published two novels, ‘Dead in 5 Heartbeats’ (2003) and ‘6 Chambers, 1 Bullet’ (2006), detailing murder and mayhem in the biker world.

His epithets-studded autobiography was a New York Times bestseller, and two other books, “Freedom: Credos From the Road” (2005) and “Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free” (2002), received critical acclaim. positive. Some were co-written with writers Keith and Kent Zimmerman. He co-wrote a sixth book, “Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling” (2010), with writer Darwin Holmstrom.

In 1982 he was diagnosed with throat cancer – he had smoked three packs of camels a day for 30 years – and had his vocal cords removed. He learned to speak through a surgically inserted hole in his throat, giving his voice an eerie rasp.

Mr. Barger’s first wife, Elsie George, deceased in 1967 during a voluntary abortion. His marriages to Sharon Gruhlke and Beth Noel Black ended in divorce. He married his fourth wife, Zorana Katzakian, in 2005. A full list of survivors could not immediately be determined.

In 1998, he moved from Oakland to suburban Phoenix, giving up his official duties in the Hells Angels but remaining a core member. He ran a motorcycle repair shop and mellowed into suburban life, doing yoga and continuing to lift weights, a hobby he picked up in prison.

He continued to ride the open road, thousands of miles a year, eventually professing a preference for high-powered Hondas and BMWs over the Angels’ traditional Harley choppers.

What has his non-conformist life taught him? “To become a real man,” he advised in his autobiography, “you must first join the army, then spend some time in prison.”


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