“They tested us and we responded…”
There was one major incident reported that might be tied to last weekend’s visit by members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club as part of their U.S.A. Run. A sexual assault on a 26-year-old local woman was reported at a Crested Butte bar about 1 a.m. Saturday. Crested Butte marshals are conducting an investigation of the crime. There have been no arrests in that incident but according to a press release from the marshal’s office, “initial reports indicated that both suspects were wearing motorcycle-type vests with unknown writing on the backs.”
Overall, local law enforcement officials say there were a lot of contacts between the police and the Hells Angels, a few arrests, one Gunnison businessman felt the effects of a Taser, but there were no major confrontations.
“It was pretty mundane for the most part, which is what we wanted,” said Gunnison police chief Keith Robinson.
The majority of the club members stayed in Gunnison through the weekend, with the main compound located at the I-bar Ranch just east of town.
“It went pretty well down here,” Robinson said. “We experienced what we expected. There were lots of traffic violation stops early on. They were testing us and we let them know we had a strong presence. We set the tone that there were rules and they had to follow the rules. By Saturday everyone understood the situation and we had very few stops. The posturing was down by Saturday.”
Compared to the 2002 event that brought in about 370 members of the club, this time nearly 500 Hells Angels came to the valley.
Gunnison County sheriff Rick Murdie said Robinson’s description of the community being tested at the outset of the gathering is accurate. “The lead group came in Tuesday and set things up,” he said. “They set the stage for our response. They would run red lights, or speed, ride their motorcycles on the sidewalks or cut traffic off. We responded quickly and pulled them over when they did those things. We handed out some tickets but mostly we issued warnings. If we hadn’t responded, it would have gotten worse and worse and worse.”
Crested Butte chief marshal Tom Martin said that fewer than a dozen members of the club came up to Crested Butte on Wednesday. By Thursday and Friday there were two dozen Hells Angels checking out town and perhaps 30 rode up on Saturday. “The contacts we had with them were cordial,” Martin said.
The incident early Saturday morning appeared to be an isolated incident and according to the press release involved a local Crested Butte female. The episode “possibly involves two male suspects that are not residents of the area. One suspect is described as a male in his 20s, 6’1’’ with a dark complexion. The second suspect is described as a white male, in his 20s and possibly wearing a ball cap with the letter ‘B’ on it,” the press release states.
Both suspects were wearing motorcycle vests of the type seen on most of the Hells Angel club members.
“The Crested Butte Marshal’s Office does not believe that there is a continuing threat to the citizens of Crested Butte stemming from this incident,” the release continued. “An on-going investigation is being conducted by the Crested Butte Marshal’s Office, with the assistance of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. No arrests have been made at this time. Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to contact the Crested Butte Marshal’s Office at 349-5231.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation had set up surveillance cameras at both ends of the valley. Martin said the suspects in the sexual assault case were not captured on film.
Overall, police said that when the club members were stopped for traffic violations, several of them carried concealed weapons. “Every one of them that we contacted had some sort of weapon, whether it was a gun or knife,” said Murdie. “It would have been unusual if they didn’t.”
However, most of the Hells Angels had permits for the concealed weapons. Still, one Hells Angel was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon since he did not have a permit and was a convicted felon. A local man was arrested on the same charge. “The reason the local man gave for carrying the weapon was that the Hells Angels were in town,” Robinson said.
Two others connected to the Hells Angels also went to jail: a woman associated with the club was taken to jail for a DUI (driving under the influence) and another Hells Angel was arrested for driving with a revoked license.
The most controversial incident in Gunnison might have been the arrest of a local businessman. The owner of the Western Motel, Edward Nowack, was arrested after he came out into the motel’s parking lot and, according to Robinson, interfered with law enforcement officers during a traffic stop of a Hells Angel staying at the motel. The police followed the motorcyclist into the parking lot of the motel and were questioning the rider, when Nowack apparently came out of his office and escalated the incident by “getting in the face” of the officers. Robinson said Nowack was warned to calm down several times but persisted, and was eventually Tased by the officers. Nowack was arrested for disorderly conduct and obstruction.
Nowack says the Taser incident was just one aspect of an overreaction by the police to the whole week. “The incident occurred on private property. I don’t appreciate how the police handled the situation. They pulled over one of the Angels in my parking lot. I stood up and questioned the back-up officers. M-16s were drawn, pistols were drawn against one man. I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “I spoke to the back-up officers and asked them to remove their cars off my property. He told me to get off my property. He started screaming that I was under arrest. I went to call Chief Robinson from my office, and that’s when they hit me three times with the Taser gun.”
Nowack said he served as a police officer in Chicago. “There were major violations of civil rights. In my 32 years of law enforcement I had never seen anything like it. In the future, they need experienced guys,” he said. “We spent thousands and thousands of dollars as hotel owners to get people here and the overreaction of the cops neutralized all that. It was unreal what took place between Tuesday and Sunday. It was cowboys trying to implement cowboy laws. The Gunnison police didn’t even arrive until the end of the incident. It wasn’t just Hells Angels being harassed all week, it was other tourists. Very unprofessional.”
“Everything about these guys was controversial down here,” Robinson said. “Most of them were up and down town buying dinner and being nice. A group of them went rafting and others went fishing. They played softball and all-in-all it was just like there were a whole lot of people in town. They tested the limits and we responded. For the most part, it was pretty calm. We still have a lot of stuff to run down, but I doubt we’ll ever know everything that happened in town.”
Murdie and Robinson said they have heard some criticism of the police response to the motorcycle club visit. “We figured we would get some fallout for what people think of as an over-response,” Murdie said. “But if you look at the situation with the weapons and the background of the club, we felt we were within the correct boundaries. We backed off when they backed off. But personally, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and I’d rather be damned if we do.”
Gunnison police captain Chris Wilson concurred. “These are not doctors and lawyers on a motorcycle ride,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Mt. Crested Butte police chief Hank Smith pointed out that more than 60 percent of the Hells Angels are convicted felons.
Murdie said on a public relations scale of one to ten, “they’re a nine and we’re a one. They had the PR machine going. But we have an obligation to protect the community and the people who live here. If we don’t, we’re remiss.”
“The Hells Angels are used to this and the community isn’t,” added Wilson. “They said they actually feel safe here and when they go to Sturgis it will be ten times worse.”
Robinson said having the main compound out of town at the I-Bar helped cut down on noise complaints compared to the U.S.A. Run of 2002. The club also provided shuttles from the compound to town. “A lot of what they did contributed to there being fewer issues,” Robinson said. “It was kind of what we expected and it worked. The law enforcement we brought in knew what to do and they did it. Arrests were minimal and most everything stayed in the traffic realm. There were some medical issues but that comes with the numbers.”
The police are still investigating an incident where a police car was shot with something from a Gunnison hotel. The projectile left a dent in the vehicle. “We are trying to figure out what it was,” he explained.
The cost to the local law enforcement departments is not yet known but Robinson said a rough estimate of cost to the towns, county, state and feds would likely run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Robinson said local law enforcement officers met with the Hells Angels contacts Sunday morning before they left on their way to Sturgis, S.D. “They said they had a good time and they’d be back,” said Robinson.
“We were told that they like it here,” said Murdie. “They said it was a piece of cake and they didn’t experience many problems.”
The sheriff said people could expect to see a return visit of the Hells Angels to the Gunnison Valley in six to ten years. “I’ll thankfully be retired,” Murdie commented.