SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — An unusual criminal trial against a motorcycle gang began Wednesday with a federal prosecutor promising jurors they would soon watch members of the Mongol Nation committing acts of violence and hear the bikers describe and even boast about their crimes — yet no one will go to jail.
“The Mongol Nation is an organization that encouraged, supported and rewarded its members for committing crime,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher M. Brunwin said in his opening statement. “This is going to come out of their own mouths. You’ll hear them bragging, chanting, even rapping about their crimes.”
But as defense attorney Joseph A. Yanny told the Orange County jury later: “No one is going to jail out of this trial.”
The Mongol Nation itself is on trial as an “unincorporated association,” accused of racketeering and conspiracy. No individual members or officers are defendants in the case.
Instead, federal prosecutors’ goal is to seize, through criminal forfeiture, the gang’s trademark to its distinctive insignia or “patch.” The design shows the word “Mongols” above what has been described as “a cartoonish depiction of a Genghis Khan-like character riding a motorcycle.”
In a statement about the case several years ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said: “If we prevail in the current case, no member of the gang would be allowed to wear the trademark that we believe is synonymous with the group.”
Prosecution of the Mongols dates back more than a decade, and legal disputes over seizing the trademarks nearly as far. The gang at one point sued the federal government over the issues. Several trademark experts have questioned the government’s forfeiture attempt, and an ACLU chapter fought it on free-speech grounds.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is hearing the case, blocked that effort in 2015, but the Ninth Circuit reversed him on other grounds last year.
Potentially as damaging to the club as the trademark seizure, if less legally tricky, the government also “intends to seek a money judgment against defendant equal to … the full amount of proceeds obtained by defendant” from the many criminal activities of the gang described in the indictment, prosecutors said in a June court pleading.
Those activities include “graphic, unpleasant” and violent murders and assaults, Brunwin said, as well as drug trafficking.
Many of the Mongols’ crimes were captured on surveillance video, he said. Many of the leaders’ encounters and meetings were recorded by four undercover agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who infiltrated the gang in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Thanks to the many recordings, the prosecutor said, “You’re going to see who’s being attacked and who’s trying to defend themselves.”
To support the racketeering charges, the indictment lists four murders, three attempted murders and four drug crimes allegedly committed by gang members.
During his opening statement, Brunwin also described some of the many other crimes listed as “overt acts” in the indictment.
One was a riot between dozens of Hells Angels and Mongols at a casino in Laughlin, Nev., in 2002. Two Angels and one Mongol died.
In another, three Mongols surrounded and attacked one young man inside a convenience store as the man’s father begged them to stop, Brunwin said. In a third, a Mongol member stabbed a man in the face during an attack in a bar.
Recordings also will show drug deals involving methamphetamine and cocaine, he told the jury. “You’re going to see the actual drug transactions” on surveillance videos.
The prosecutor said he will show some Mongols bragging about their crimes on social media pages and in press interviews.
“You know what you say to that when you’re a government investigator?” he asked. “Thank you.”
Brunwin described the Mongol Nation’s various patches. Full members of the organization wear the main patches, for which the gang registered trademarks, on the back of leather or denim vests. They may also wear other, smaller patches on the front of their vests signifying location, rank, status and accomplishments.
One displays “1%,” which indicates that Mongol Nation members are not part of the 99 percent of motorcycle riders who are law-abiding, Brunwin said. Women may not join the Mongols, but may wear a “property of” patch at gang gatherings.
“They even have a patch for committing murder on behalf of the organization,” he said. “You’re going to see the murder patch, probably a lot.”
The Mongol Nation is a violent criminal organization, he said. During the trial, members “will repeatedly tell you what it is and who they are.”
In Yanny’s opening statement to the 12 jurors and 11 alternates, the defense attorney called the prosecution of the Mongol Nation “an absurdity” and “the greatest piece of fiction delivered on Halloween.”
He conceded that some gang members had committed crimes, but said those men had been kicked out for violating rules against bringing trouble down on the gang. “They’re gone, they’re gone,” he said.
In some violent incidents — particularly those with Hells Angels — Mongols simply acted in self-defense or in defense of others, said Yanny, with Yanny & Smith in Los Angeles.
The Mongol Nation was formed in the 1970s by Vietnam war veterans who enjoyed riding motorcycles, he said. The “1%” patch that Brunwin described referred to the portion of motorcycle riders formerly in the military, Yanny added.
Many Mongols members then and now were Mexican-Americans and not accepted by other motorcycle gangs, he said.
One early member was former Minnesota governor and retired professional wrestler Jesse Ventura. Yanny said Ventura will testify during the trial.
The defense attorney blamed a multiagency task force formed 20 years ago for the many years of prosecution and “persecution” of the Mongols by federal authorities.
The task force needed to find gang crimes in order to stay in operation, Yanny said. “When there’s blood on the floor, there’s more money in the budget next year.”
Undercover agents were present early during some major incidents, he said, yet they did not inform law enforcement until shots were fired. And he said some of the key agents involved in the task force have written books on their experiences or are seeking book contracts.
“It was the deep state at work,” Yanny said. “The fact is that this organization committed no crime.”
After the opening statements, ATF Special Agent Darrin Kozlowski, who spent three years undercover in the Mongols using the name “Dirty Dan,” testified about the organization’s governance, rules, patches and practices. He was expected to testify Thursday about some video and audio recordings of violent incidents.
Carter has said the trial will last four to six weeks.