The Border Bandidos
After the meeting in Blaine, I went back to Vancouver to figure out a plan while the DEA, as the “double A” (anchor agency) on this case, drew up the paperwork for my involvement.
One thing I knew for sure, bluffing my way in as a biker was not even a consideration. So the only real option in my mind was to appear on their turf as a regular crook and border runner.
Still, I figured that a bike would be a good thing to have, insofar as it would at least provide an excuse to make small talk with the Bandidos. There was no way I could handle a Harley–they are just too big and powerful for novices–so Andy had rounded me up a 900cc Norton Commando. It was a good choice. Back then, anything other than an American or European bike was considered “Jap scrap.” For example, Mongo, one of the more colourful–and colour obsessed–Bandidos I was to meet, had a sticker on his bike that read “Better to have my sister in a whorehouse than my brother on a Honda.” (The fact that his sister worked as a prostitute in Seattle may or may not have been lost on him.) Many of the hardcore bikers had started their careers on Nortons, Triumphs and BSAs, so the 900cc Commando would do fine.
Andy also had Scott Paterson register me for a one-day course given by the B.C. Motorcycle Safety Association. It took place at the Richmond municipal airport and I learned the basics–shifting, braking and handling–by bombing down a disused runway on a small Honda. I figured I’d learn the rest as I went. (And never told Mongo about the Honda.)
Scott also made arrangements for me to visit the RCMP “barn” in Victoria that week, where a new licence was made up in my name, one that had a motorcycle permit added to it. I was almost ready to go.
The last thing to do was to move the Coachmen trailer stateside. Frank and a buddy of his from the fishing club took care of that, driving it to a trailer park off Highway 5 between Blaine and Ferndale. Frank wasn’t fully up to speed on exactly what I was doing, but he began to figure things out when Andy Smith greeted him at the Sumas border crossing and just waved him right through, the customs officers deferring to his DEA badge. It must have been reassuring to Frank to see that I was working with the good guys.
For the time being, Liz and Charlotte would move in with Frank and Louise. I stayed with them for most of the first month and didn’t use the trailer across the border more than three or four nights a week. I knew the guaranteed way not to get in with a criminal group was to be pushy. If I was always around, they’d start wondering what my game was and question my motives. The best approach was to let them invite me into their world. So I had to get noticed without getting in their faces.
Andy and Co. had told me that the local Bellingham Bandidos chapter held their weekly “church” meetings every Tuesday evening, after which they would repair to the Pioneer Tavern in Ferndale for a round or ten. As far as the cops knew, that was the only routine that, as a group, the Bandidos kept to.
So, at dusk one late summer Monday, I went to the Pioneer to familiarize myself with the bar’s layout and say hello. I had brought over my new car, a souped-up Firebird, in an attempt to even the scales on the mechanical end. Bright purple with a red air breather on the hood (a hood, by the way, that was held down by padlocks), it was not a car meant to be subtle. Completing the muscle-car look were rear air shocks, wide tires made for pulling out in a squeal of burnt rubber, and a chromed chain steering wheel. When the car idled, it vibrated and sounded like a snarling beast waiting to pounce–that is, if the deafening sound system wasn’t drowning out the engine noise.
Driving the Firebird into Ferndale, I felt like a Texas Ranger riding into town to take on the bad guy. Before pulling into the Pioneer’s lot, I did a little prowl and growl around town. It was sleepy quiet. The Pioneer wasn’t much more happening, which was fine by me. I ordered a Pepsi and hung out for a while, playing pool by myself until another customer came in and challenged me to a game. He was a huge man named Chuck who in due course told me that he owned the local bike repair shop. It was a good start–I figured there was no way he could operate such a business without being on good terms with the main bikers in town. I didn’t tell him anything about myself, in such a way that he could only suspect I did something shady.
“So, what’s it you do?” he asked at one point.
“The first thing I do is I mind my own business,” I said definitively. Then, having slammed a door on him, I opened a window, saying something friendly such as “Nice shot,” or “Hey man, it’s your turn.”
Gradually people started to drift in. Every Monday at the Pioneer they held what they called a Turkey Shoot–a small pool tournament. Chuck’s regular partner didn’t show, so he and I teamed up. We did okay but eventually were knocked out, at which point I called it a night.
The next evening I was back not long after eight, again drinking Pepsi and playing pool by myself. Towards nine or nine-thirty the Bandidos started to drift in in small groups. By ten o’clock there were almost a dozen members in the bar and me in the back by myself. It was suddenly a very lonely place to be.
When Chuck came in, I was relieved to see him. He said hi to most of the Bandidos but wasn’t invited to sit with them. Instead, he came and shot some more pool with me. I made a mental note of his status, or lack thereof.
I half expected one of the bikers to come up and challenge me, sneering, “Who the fuck are you?” So I made myself extra small and even avoided going to the bathroom. That would not be a good place to have to explain what I, a stranger, was doing on their turf. But they seemed to have decided on a wait-and-see approach. If they were really wondering who I was, they could always question Chuck later. They might also have noticed the Canadian plates on the Firebird, which may have made them more cautious; their relationship with Canadian bikers and crooks was their financial lifeline. Still, it didn’t make them any friendlier that first evening. If looks could kill, I would have died several times over.
I didn’t push my luck and slipped out before any of them got too drunk and decided to have some fun at the stranger’s expense. At least I’d got on their radar. Certainly, Andy was thrilled that I had been in the same place with so many of them and been able to walk out–even though it meant he had lost a friendly bet with one of the other cops that I wouldn’t make it through the night.
Over that first month, I’d go to the bar two, maybe three nights a week, and always on the Tuesday. Still, I didn’t exchange a single word with any of the Bandidos. I just played pool with Chuck or whoever and played it cool, chatting with the staff and the regulars, sipping my Pepsi in the back. The gang sat around a few tables in the front, ignoring me in their disdainful way.
I also took to visiting Chuck at his bike shop during the day and shooting the shit with him and whoever else was around. Often these were guys who had cordial relations with the Bandidos, so I knew that getting in good with them could help me penetrate the gang. On a couple of occasions I’d invite them back to my trailer for a beer or whatever. Increasingly I would make allusions to my work, which I let on to be smuggling and border running. “I was sneaking across the border a few days ago when this-or-that happened,” I would say. But going any further would have been silly–admitting, for instance, that I was moving drugs across in the trunk of my car or illegal immigrants across by foot; no self-respecting crook would have copped to that.
Still, after a month or so I hadn’t made any real progress and something had to give. Especially since my regular absences from Ferndale had started to become an issue with Corky. Theoretically, he and all the other cops could appreciate that it would only hurt the infiltration if I was around the whole time. I wouldn’t have any mystery, I wouldn’t be away on my nebulous business. Still, Corky was a nine-to-fiver and some part of him deep down must have wanted me to be one too, especially since I was getting a salary that likely eclipsed his.
“We’ve noticed how many times you’ve crossed the border and how long you stay,” he said at one of our meetings. “This isn’t a part-time job, you know.”
“I can go home right now for good if you want,” I shot back at him. I wanted to force him to shut the fuck up. I was all they had, and even if by that point my work still hadn’t produced any useful evidence, I knew they were in no position to flush the probe.
In general, though, my relations with my handlers, Corky included, were solid right from the start. One reason: we were all Vietnam vets.
Andy Smith had been a captain in the Army Rangers, doing special operations that included ambushes and recovering POWs held by the Viet Cong. In fact, he occupied a notable place in the history of the war: he was one of the last eleven people helicoptered off the roof of the U.S. embassy in the early morning of April 30, 1975, during the fall of Saigon. He had a crushed hand to prove i...