CODY, Wyo. — The metal-plated Purple Heart insignia attached to the side of the Harley-Davidson vibrates as the biker guns his motorcycle up U.S. Highway 16.
He’s a “prospect,” amid his probationary period to becoming a full-fledged member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. The back of his black leather vest is empty save for a South Carolina patch curving up from its bottom hem.
He’s not yet allowed to wear the club’s signature winged-death-head patch.
But he'll be damned if he doesn't protect the club’s logo from trademark infringement.
He climbs the hill above the Angels’ USA Run encampment in a roadside depression known locally as The Bowl. His tires puff dust as he pulls onto the dirt overlook, the early evening sun reflecting off his bike's front visor.
He’s not happy to see me or my photographer colleague, who moments before was snapping photos of the camp as bikers set it up on Wednesday, the first day of the club's gathering in Cody.
He strides up to us, no pleasantries returned.
“You’re going to have to delete those pictures,” he says.
Trademark and copyright infringement, he argues. We’re gathering photos of the death head, a registered trademark, on the backs of his brothers below. We’re sneaking around, we’re told.
The message is clear: We’re not welcome.
He fumbles inside his vest with his gloved hand. He looks at us through his wraparound sunglasses.
He’s got a question.
Is he going to have to call his friends up to the hill to explain to us the finer points of the law?
Perry Rockvam hadn’t seen the man in eight years. But the biker, a representative of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, had nothing bad to say to the Cody police chief on Wednesday, the first day of the club’s annual run, the biker equivalent of a road trip and get-together.
The meeting had been delayed a day. It took place anyway, a chance for the watched and the watchers to meet, to set a tone. The meeting was “good, positive,” said police spokesman officer John Harris.
Nobody wanted it to be anything else.
Cody police started preparing months in advance for the arrival of 400 to 500 bikers from the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. Cody had been promised $184,000 in financial support from the state and help from 14 agencies, including federal, state and local law enforcement, by the time of the first biker’s arrival.
The police had taken heat from the community in 2006, as law enforcement swarmed the town during the Hells Angels’ much larger Worldwide Run. Residents weren’t impressed by ticky-tack citations and fines. Police told residents this time would be different. Lesson learned.
The message went out via the city television channel. Everything would be fine as the Hells Angels, considered a criminal enterprise by law enforcement, visited Cody for fun.
Harris is upbeat at the police department's first daily news conference.
“We don’t anticipate there will be any problems,” he said.
Overlooking The Bowl, the prospect wasn’t hearing what he wanted to hear. So he made a phone call, standing atop a low log barrier meant to bar cars from driving over the edge of the hill, looking down toward the camp.
“They don’t want to take my word for it that the death head is protected,” he said, his voice tinged by disbelief.
He hung up. Tried to reason with us. Shooting photos of the large white tent below and a few dozen bikers was like photographers stalking us where we lived.
The bikers were here, in the middle of the country, to get away from all this. Usually law enforcement agents do this kind of thing, and at least they have a noncommercial reason.
We were arguing trademark and media law in the early evening heat with a representative of the Hells Angels. It wasn’t going well.
It’s late Tuesday at the Silver Dollar Bar downtown. The bar was a den of Hells Angels activity during the 2006 run, and the word is it’ll be the same this year. But so far, it’s still quiet. Most of the Hells Angels arriving for the USA Run haven’t yet arrived.
It’s a quiet scene. The sign above the bar reads, “Everyone Who Enters This Place Makes Us Happy. Some When They Arrive; Some When They Leave.”
A few of the club’s members are shooting pool and drinking beer in the back of the bar. One wears a patch on his vest remembering Hector Chavez, a respected member of the Santa Cruz charter of the club. He died in March. His charter raised $6,430 online to pay his funeral expenses.
“We all carry a reflection of you every day since the moment we met,” reads the fundraising page. “You will be missed so much more than you ever thought. Hold a good spot for us brother we will see you soon enough.”
The Hells Angels are just the nicest people.
That’s what you hear from those they meet — so polite, so courteous. No trouble at all. They signed autographs for people at one restaurant like celebrities. So nice.
Did we mention they spend money? They’re great customers. What a boon for local businesses. They buy souvenirs, drink beer, rent hotel rooms. Just guys who like to ride motorcycles, right?
One of the bikers ambles up the bar, orders a couple drinks and strikes up a conversation with us. He chats for a bit, then the drinks arrive, as does a fellow Hells Angel. Time to head back to his friends.
“Have a good night,” he says.
Just the nicest guy.
It’s called the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. But there's another HAMC: the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corp.
Law enforcement considers the club a criminal enterprise and has won court battles proving that the club is a gang. But the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation is a legal entity, and it acts like one, intent on protecting its intellectual property.
The corporation says as much at the bottom of the club’s website: “HELLS ANGELS and the skull logo (R) are trademarks owned by Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation, registered world wide. All logos and designs of Hells Angels are trademark-protected (TM) and protected according to international law. Copying and other use is not allowed.”
Think case law, not outlaw. The corporation is quick to sue those who it believes are infringing on their trademarks. It's sued rapper Young Jeezy, fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Toys "R" Us, MTV star Rob Dyrdek and Disney, among others.
But the Hells Angels are no strangers to crime or violence.
As recently as last year, three full-patch Hells Angels members in South Carolina were sentenced to prison for a racketeering conspiracy, drug and gun trafficking, and money laundering. That came after 12 other members and associates had been found guilty of related offenses.
As nearby as South Dakota’s Black Hills, in 2006, a Hells Angel and a prospect got into a gunfight with nine members of the Outlaws, a rival club.
The Hells Angel shot three Outlaws and two women with the group, then fled the scene. A jury later found the Angel and the prospect not guilty of attempting to kill the Outlaws. Self-defense was the claim.
The Hells Angels aren’t just a legal corporation. Even on vacation, the club continues to be synonymous with inflicted pain. Illegal activity follows them like motorcycle exhaust.
The shotgun’s roar splits the air.
The three Hells Angels crossing the road flinched at the report, then laughed. The shotgun blast was all good, clean fun. The black-powder shot signaled the start of the gunfire show in front of the historic Irma Hotel in Cody.
A duo of police officers walked by on patrol, watching. A Highway Patrol car cruised past.
The bikers watched the show, black-clad and quiet on the edge of a colorful crowd of tourists watching a handful of actors wearing frontier-style clothes act out a Wild West comedy on a blocked-off city street.
One of the Angels wore a small strip on his vest with the lettering “Filthy Few.”
The patch means he’s killed for the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
The black-powder comedy ended in a standoff between outlaws and the good guys, a gunfight ended by the shotgun whose blast started the show.
The Angels had already gone inside for beers by the time the invisible bullets flew.
Atop The Bowl, the Hells Angels prospect has heard enough.
He'd been wounded in combat, wearing his country's flag. Now he was trying to talk journalists into honoring another symbol.
He’d done all he’s prepared to do: argued on the grounds of copyright law, common decency, implied physical violence — and now the law.
He gathers a business card, tucks it away.
“We’ll have our lawyer call you,” he says.
It’s a short trip back down the hill.