SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — Former pro wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura told a federal jury Wednesday that the Mongols Motorcycle Club is not a criminal gang and did not commit crimes when he was a member in the mid-1970s. “Nobody in the club ever told me to commit a crime, ever,” Ventura said.
“There are some bad people in motorcycle clubs, just like in every organization,” he said. “But there are some damn good people.”
Ventura testified as an expert witness for the defense in a racketeering and conspiracy trial brought by federal prosecutors against the Mongol Nation as an entity. In the unusual case, prosecutors are seeking to take ownership of the club’s trademark in its name insignia through criminal forfeiture, which might allow police to stop members from wearing the Mongols “patch” on their vests.
Asked by Mongols defense attorney Joseph Yanny if he still considers himself a member of the Mongols, Ventura said, “Yes, I am.” He replied “no” when Yanny asked if he is a member of a gang.
Known as Jesse “The Body” Ventura when he was a professional wrestler in the late 1970s and ’80s, he was born James George Janos.
In 1990, he was elected mayor of the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, serving one term. He won election as governor in 1998 as a third-party candidate but did not run again in 2002.
Ventura told U.S. District Judge David O. Carter that he joined the Mongols in 1973 when he was on active duty in the Navy and that he has remained a member. He said the group was “a cushion” for him and other Vietnam War veterans upon leaving the service. Over roughly a year with the Mongols, he became the sergeant at arms of a chapter near the Coronado Naval Base south of San Diego.
“I don’t regret it ever,” he said. “It was a stepping stone for me between military and civilian life.”
He described belonging to a motorcycle club as “a lifestyle” and compared the Mongols to his Navy unit, the Underwater Demolition Team, a precursor of the SEALs. He said he even modified a rude Navy marching song for Mongols to sing about themselves.
Ventura said the motorcycle club had a somewhat military structure and followed a similar code. “When I was a Navy SEAL, we lived by a simple code,” Ventura testified. “We didn’t get mad, we got even.”
Asked by Yanny if Mongols were expected to defend themselves if attacked, he said: “I’d lose respect for them if they didn’t.”
Yanny pressed Ventura on that point with questions about a hypothetical situation similar to the shotgun killing of a police officer that took place during an early-morning raid on a club member’s home in 2014.
What would you do if someone barged into your home at 4 a.m. and didn’t show you a warrant?, the defense attorney asked.
“I’d probably shoot them if I thought they were threatening and breaking into my house,” Ventura replied. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
The former governor also said he would be skeptical of police officers who attempted to be part of the Mongols because their first loyalty would be to law enforcement, not to their motorcycle club brothers.
It might be different if the cops joined the club openly, he said. “But no, they sneak in. They go undercover.”
Yanny’s defense of the Mongol Nation has focused on claims that members frequently had to act in self-defense when attacked by rival Hells Angels; that the club had some members who committed crimes whom it then kicked out; and that some undercover agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were corrupt and entrapped Mongols into committing crimes.
In a wide-ranging direct examination, he touched on all those points. For instance, he asked if as governor, Ventura had come across corrupt police officers. “There’s corruption in everything,” Ventura said. “Not every cop’s a good cop, just like every walk of life.”
On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Welk questioned Ventura about whether an organization should ever be held responsible for crimes committed by its members. After Judge Carter put a stop to a long debate about the Catholic Church, Ventura answered no.
“I don’t think so, unless [the members] were ordered. … Then that’s conspiracy.”
Following up on Ventura’s comment that he would lose respect for Mongols who didn’t defend themselves when attacked, Welk asked if Mongols should kill a Hells Angel who kills a Mongol.
“Killing is never appropriate,” Ventura said. “I’d like to see the person go to prison.”
Welk asked if Ventura could claim ignorance of criminal activity because his chapter leaders in the early 1970s sent him out of club meetings when crimes were being discussed, to protect him, because he was still in the Navy.
Ventura responded that he didn’t know but that sometimes he would be sent from meetings to watch over the members’ motorcycles.
Welk then played part of an interview Ventura gave in 2016. “They’d protect me,” Ventura told the interviewer. “If it got to anything illegal, they’d send me out to watch the bikes. … I thought, ‘At least I’m not going to jail.’”
Ventura then told Welk that other Mongols never told him they were going to talk about anything illegal. “Maybe they were planning a party for me and didn’t want me to know.”
Later, as the cross-examination grew even more combative, Ventura declared: “I believe this entire trial is ridiculous, because of the First Amendment.”
Carter ordered the comment stricken.
The trial is expected to last about another two weeks.