For more than two decades, federal law enforcement authorities have pursued the Mongols, a notorious motorcycle club whose members have a long history of murder, assault, drug trafficking and robbery.
In 2018, the government won something of a victory. Prosecutors convinced a jury in California that these crimes were not just the result of individual bikers misbehaving, but the work of an organized criminal enterprise that had participated in a campaign of mayhem. The club was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine in what prosecutors hoped was a down payment to put it out of business.
But the group that was once the strongest biker organization in the West other than rivals the Hells Angels returns to court next week, hoping to overturn racketeering and conspiracy convictions on the based on what he says is new evidence about his previous leader, David Santillan. The Mongols now claim that throughout their attempt to defend the club in the long-running criminal case, their own leader was secretly talking to the government.
A petition for a new trial and quashing of the half-million-dollar fine, which is scheduled for a first hearing Monday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Calif., claims that Mr. Santillan, 52, secretly cooperated for years with a special agent from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In return, the club said in its application, the agent appears to have spared Mr Santillan serious legal consequences for several breaches since 2011.
The unusual legal imbroglio provides rare insight into the hidden and volatile politics of the outlaw motorcycle club and the extent to which law enforcement and their targets can engage in limited cooperation when it is considered mutually beneficial.
The ATF and other law enforcement agencies have long gone after biker organizations by co-opting members as informants and infiltrating the groups with their own undercover agents.
The Mongols are relying on an explosive video shared by Mr Santillan’s wife, Annie Santillan, who, during a time when she was angry with her husband for his infidelity, had her daughter record a conversation in which he seemed to refer to the protection he received from the ATF agent.
She also said in a text message to other Mongolians, now filed with the court, that her husband had acted for some time as a confidential government informant. “In other words,” she wrote, “he’s a rat.”
Mr Santillan, a member of the Mongols for nearly 25 years who was kicked out of the club in July, and agent John Ciccone, who retired in December after 32 years at the ATF, deny that Mr Santillan has acted as an informant. during the trial, although Mr. Ciccone’s sworn statement does not specify whether Mr. Santillan had acted as a confidential informant in the past. Both men also rejected claims that Mr Santillan leaked inside defense information to the government while his motorcycle club was on trial.
The Mongols’ current national leaders have said they believe the club’s former president, who controlled the Mongols’ defense team, acted improperly. “It has become clear that Dave has betrayed the club, his oath and everything we hold sacred,” the club said in a statement.
Mr. Santillan acknowledged that he spoke often with Mr. Ciccone over several years, usually in the presence of other Mongolian members. He said they discuss issues such as public safety when the Mongols or other clubs plan motorcycle parties or rallies to ensure members stay in line and rival groups keep their distance.
“Never in my life have I implicated anyone in the club for some kind of nefarious activity. If you’re a rat, you’re the scum of the earth,” he said in an interview.
In the video, Ms Santillan was speaking to her husband on loudspeaker when he told her that Mr Ciccone was retiring. “He can’t protect me, he told me, so we have to have an exit strategy, he told me,” a seemingly flustered Mr Santillan told him.
Ms Santillan said she now felt ‘awful’ about leaking the communications and that her husband was not, in fact, an informant.
“The only thing he’s guilty of is talking to John a lot and having some sort of rapport with him,” she said in an interview.
Mr Santillan said he had spoken with the ATF agent over the years as it had helped to stay out of trouble. “John looked after not just me, but the club,” said Mr Santillan. “That’s what I meant by ‘protect’ in the video.”
The Mongols have been part of the biker scene since 1969, when the club was founded in Montebello, California. The group has approximately 1,200 members in the United States, mostly Hispanic, and many chapters around the world.
In the nearly 13 years he led the Mongols, Mr. Santillan appeared to distance the organization from its past recruitment of Mexican criminal gang members and a culture of “total underworld activity that authorities sneered at.” regaled, in terms of prosecution,” William said. Dulaney, a motorcycle gang expert who was formerly an associate professor of national security at the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.
Mr Dulaney said Mr Santillan “instituted new policies, like shutting down the club-driven drug trade, and mandating that members have a motorcycle and things like a valid driver’s license, registration and employment”.
As for Mr. Ciccone, he had mastered the art of executing complex investigations “using everything from infiltrations to informants to wiretapping, subpoenas and surveillance”, said Frank D’Alesio, a retired ATF agent who infiltrated three motorcycle clubs.
“And he was tireless,” Mr. D’Alesio said. “He was the guy on the outside all the time who provided cover support in case something went wrong with the undercover officers.”
In the case that led to the Mongol racketeering conviction, Mr. Ciccone had acted as an agent of the case. The US Attorney’s office had previously unsuccessfully tried to force the Mongols to give up their rights to the club’s trademark logo, a design of a muscular figure resembling Genghis Khan riding a helicopter while brandishing a sword, a landmark case which prosecutors say would help weaken the club by undermining its visual identity. A jury sided with the prosecution in 2019 and ordered the group to relinquish the emblem, but Judge David O. Carter dismissed the verdict as a violation of the club’s constitutional rights.
This quest to seize the patch from the Mongols was part of a criminal case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2013 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The indictment did not target any individual but alleged that the club itself had engaged in an organized conspiracy of crimes including murder, attempted murder and drug trafficking. It is the sentence and the fine that the Mongols are now trying to have overturned.
“In my opinion, the only reason the government brought this RICO case was to take over the patch, having failed each time in the past,” said George L. Steele, a lawyer for the Mongols who is handling a separate appeal. in the case. Federal prosecutors have focused on the Mongols’ logo since 2008.
The government, in its own appeal, is launching another race for the Mongols logo, renewing an earlier request for a narrower confiscation order that would remove the club’s right to exclusive branding over the emblem. Such an order would allow anyone to use the image.
Review petition attorney Joseph A. Yanny said the Mongols hoped to prove that an inappropriate relationship between Mr. Santillan and Mr. Ciccone during the 2018 trial allowed the government to hear things that ‘he shouldn’t have on the Mongols. defense strategy – and even negatively influenced the presentation of their case by the Mongols.
On one occasion during the trial, Judge Carter expressed his annoyance to attorneys for both sides after being told by a U.S. Marshal that Mr. Santillan and Mr. Ciccone had been seen chatting at a Starbucks near the courthouse. justice.
In their motion, the Mongols argue that Mr. Santillan could have been pressured to disclose strategy and other information to the government because of the lenient treatment the defense claimed he received in his run-ins with the law.
In one, according to their court documents, Mr Santillan crashed his Mercedes in 2017 while driving impaired, damaging numerous cars parked on the street. In another case, in 2014, Mr Santillan and his wife got into a fight with others at a racetrack, according to the Mongols’ filing.
“There’s no way he can get away with these incidents without greater legal repercussions unless someone from law enforcement is in the background greasing the slides for him,” Ms. .Yanny.
Mr Santillan said it was ‘ridiculous’ to think Mr Ciccone had smoothed things over for him. Mr Santillan provided case records to show that he had been convicted of offenses including driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident and disturbing the peace, and that he had been arrested, fined and placed on probation.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, said if a federal agent sought confidential information about a criminal defense, it would be “an extraordinary transgression.”
“There could be a particular concern that the defense attorney unwittingly receives instructions from someone aligned with the government,” he said.
Mr. Ciccone and the U.S. attorney’s office both declined to comment on the motion beyond the government’s response filed in court, which said the motion for a new trial was “filled with false allegations and speculation.” and unsubstantiated”.
The judge will most likely consider a range of procedural issues on Monday, lawyers said, with additional hearings expected before any final decision is made.
Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.