Is Carlton County ready for Hell's Angels this summer?
When asked how his department handled a 2006 visit from about 1,400 Hells Angels Motorcycle Club riders, Police Chief Perry Rockvam of Cody, Wyo., was brief:
"Very carefully," he said.
Now, he and other law officers who have found themselves hosting a Hells Angels annual rally are offering advice to Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake, who recently learned the legendary motorcycle club might be planning to roll into her jurisdiction this summer.
Each July, hundreds of Hells Angels riders converge somewhere in the country for several days of meetings, riding and revelry before the huge motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. Past years have seen them gather in Missoula, Mont., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. This summer, it could be Carlton County.
"That's the information we've gotten from regional law enforcement" within the past few weeks, Lake said, though she declined to name the sources. "We got it from a couple of different places."
Lake is leading a group of officers from several local agencies, including the Cloquet, Duluth and Superior police departments, the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office, the Minnesota State Patrol and the FBI. They have started planning their response for when -- and if -- the rally comes to town.
The Hells Angels have been known to float false information about their rally plans, Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said. He's overseen visits from the Hells Angels in 2000 and 2008. McMeekin and others said visits from the Angels are notoriously unpredictable.
"The sky has not fallen," McMeekin said of the experience. "But there are certain things you need to plan for. ...You never know what to expect."
The Hells Angels use "very effective" public relations tactics in advance of a visit, McMeekin said. The Internet is filled with information of Angels organizing blood drives and working with national charities, and of bikers buying Kool-Aid from children with roadside stands.
But there are also plenty of tales of trouble.
At the last Sturgis rally, an off-duty Seattle police detective shot and injured a Hells Angel at a crowded bar. The detective claimed he was being assaulted by a number of Angels. And a week after the fairly peaceful 2006 rally in Cody, two Hells Angels shot and injured six members of a rival motorcycle gang in South Dakota's Custer State Park.
Rockvam said about 150 extra law enforcement personnel were in Cody for the Hells Angels rally.
"My message to the HA was: 'We didn't want to treat you any worse or any better than normal citizens,' " Rockvam said. "We wanted to make sure we didn't target them."
Rockvam said there were very few arrests made during the 2006 rally.
"We're not going over the top with a show of force or to look for problems, but we want to handle any situations that come up with a large group of people," said Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande. "What we're being told is that you deal with them not as a bunch of uneducated, dirty bikers, but more along the lines of organized crime."
McMeekin applauded the Carlton County Sheriff's Office for being proactive in planning for the possible rally. He said that agencies often rely on advice from previous host cities as they are trying to plan for a Hells Angels visit.
McMeekin said his agency accumulated more than $40,000 in overtime and other costs for a beefed-up law enforcement presence in 2008.
"By and large, it worked out OK," McMeekin said. "We had a few traffic problems, a few fights, but certainly nothing that wasn't easily controlled."
Law enforcement also dealt with some drug issues, some parole violations, and two reported rapes, McMeekin said. He warned that some women seemed to be drawn to hanging out with Hells Angels, to "hang all over these guys, and get their pictures taken, and ask if they can go for a ride on their motorcycles," McMeekin said.
Asking for or accepting a ride can be interpreted as agreeing to sex, he said.
Lake said her department will continue planning for a possible Hells Angels rally "through to the [arrival] date," and that she has not yet confirmed the visit with anyone from the Hells Angels. Typically, that's what happens as the arrival date approaches, Lake said.
"We don't have our plans set in stone at this point," she said. "We're in the preliminary stages."