When a federal jury on Monday returned guilty verdicts against three current and former members of the Hells Angels, it gave the federal...

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When a federal jury on Monday returned guilty verdicts against three current and former members of the Hells Angels, it gave the federal government a rare victory in its campaign to brand such motorcycle clubs as highly organized criminal enterprises, legal experts said.

The 16 guilty verdicts against Richard “Smilin’ Rick” Fabel, Rodney Rollness and Joshua Binder — and, by extension, the jury’s conclusion that the Hells Angels’ Washington Nomads chapter operated as a “criminal enterprise” — was a major turnaround after disappointing verdicts recently in cases against Hells Angels chapters in other parts of the country.

“It’s an extremely significant victory,” said Julian Sher, who last year wrote a detailed book on the Hells Angels titled “Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers’ Global Crime Empire.”

“These guys are about as hard as you can get in terms of convictions.”

Jeffrey Sullivan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, conceded Monday that “the history of cases brought against outlaw motorcycle gangs, and in particular the Hells Angels, have met with spotty results.”

Consequently, Sullivan and other longtime observers said, the group has been able to portray itself as a well-meaning organization with a few bad apples who occasionally run afoul of the law.

“[This verdict] blows up the myth they try to create that they just get together to ride motorcycles and sell T-shirts,” Sullivan said.

Deadlock on 10 charges

The victory was by no means complete. After 13 days of deliberations, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict on a witness-tampering charge and deadlocked on 10 charges, including the only two against a fourth defendant, Ricky Jenks, 29, of Spokane. Sullivan said the government will seek new trials for all four defendants on each of those 10 charges.

Rollness, 46, of Snohomish, faced the most charges during the nearly three-month trial. He was found guilty of 12 different crimes, including the 2001 murder of Michael “Santa” Walsh at a party in Snohomish County.

Rollness, who sat motionless as the verdicts were read, also was found guilty of being a member of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) and of conspiracy.

The RICO statutes were originally created to prosecute organized-crime syndicates such as the Mafia, but in recent years the Department of Justice has been using the laws to go after violent street gangs, outlaw motorcycle clubs and other criminal entities.

Jurors deadlocked on three other counts against Rollness, a former Hells Angel, and found him not guilty of witness tampering.

Rollness faces a mandatory life sentence for the murder, plus a long list of other penalties stemming from the other convictions. His attorneys declined to comment.

“I’m kind of relieved,” said Walsh’s sister Wendy Walsh, 49. “I didn’t think they would get justice. It doesn’t get my brother back, but I’m happy.”

Fabel, 49, the president of the Spokane-based Washington Nomads and former West Coast president of Hells Angels, was found guilty of racketeering and of conspiracy.

The jury deadlocked on a third charge against Fabel, of Spokane, of selling a stolen 1997 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Fabel faces a maximum 40-year prison sentence.

Fabel’s attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.

Binder, 31, was found guilty of conspiracy and of attempted interference of interstate commerce. Jurors deadlocked on four other charges against the North Bend man, including the murder of Walsh.

Long-term significance

“While slightly disappointed, I cannot say I’m displeased,” said Terry Kellogg, one of Binder’s attorneys. Kellogg said Binder was not convicted on the murder charge because of an “overwhelming lack of evidence” against him.

The success of the racketeering prosecutions against former Rollness, Binder and especially Fabel, the club’s highest-ranking officer, could be the most significant outcome of the case over the long term, observers say.

“Generally speaking, RICO prosecutions against the Hells Angels have not been real effective,” said John Schlim, a retired police officer who is an intelligence analyst specializing in outlaw motorcycle gangs for the Orland, Calif., Police Department.

Schlim noted the disappointing outcome in a massive racketeering case brought last year against the Hells Angels chapter in Las Vegas.

In that case, the government brought murder and racketeering charges against 42 Hells Angels over a deadly 2002 brawl with the Mongols motorcycle club at the Harrah’s Casino in Laughlin, Nev.

But the case fell apart at trial, and ultimately just six Hells Angels pleaded guilty to lesser charges and none of the racketeering charges stuck.

Sher, who has written about the Hells Angels, considers the racketeering convictions in Seattle even more significant than the murder conviction against Rollness.

“Nailing a Hells Angel for murder is not uncommon,” Sher said. “[But] they will fall on their swords” to keep the club’s name from getting associated with any one individual’s criminal conduct. “The Hells Angels are a business and a big PR machine, so they hate to see their name dragged into court,” he said.

In addition to charges relating to the theft of motorcycles, Rollness and Binder were accused of murder for the 2001 slaying of Walsh during a party at the Arlington-area home of Paul Foster, a former motorcycle-club groupie.

Federal police and prosecutors said Rollness and Binder killed Walsh during the raucous party because Walsh reportedly had been telling people he was a Hells Angel when he wasn’t.

Foster originally was charged with the others, but his case was severed and he will face trial in November in connection with Walsh’s death. Foster is charged as an accessory after the fact for allegedly trying to cover up the murder.

During the trial, prosecutors called a stream of witnesses who, they said, together painted a clear picture of a group of men who used violence and threats of violence to steal motorcycles, move them across state lines and commit numerous other crimes.

Defense attorneys attacked the credibility of witnesses and said the case was built on the allegations of snitches, convicted liars and drunks.

Prosecutors acknowledged that several witnesses received money or reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation but said their testimony remained credible.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com