HELL HATH NO FURY…
Born Ralph Barger Junior in Modesto, California, son of a father of German origin and an Italian mother. In time-honoured Italian tradition of nicknaming their first-born son as ‘Sonny’, this became his nickname. He grew up in the port city of Oakland. He had an older sister, Shirley.
His father was a docker, but his mother, Kathryn Ritch ran off with a bus driver when Sonny was just four.
He was raised by his Pentecostal grandmother and his father, who was an alcoholic. He used to take Sonny with him on his frequent bar and pub crawls.
Sonny was difficult at school, frequently assaulting teachers and quit in Tenth Grade to work in a grocery store. At 16 he joined the US Army. He was dishonourably discharged after 14 months for being under age and having joined the army without parental permission. He had forged his birth certificate.
He went back to Oakland, living alternately with his father in a worker’s hostel and sometimes with his sister and her children. He got a job as a docker.
With his wages he bought himself a motorbike. They were in fashion after the 1953 film ‘The Wild One’, starring Marlon Brando. Sonny wanted to be a rebel like Brando’s character.
He briefly joined the Oakland Panthers motorcycle gang but they folded soon after.
Along with Don ‘Boots’ Reeves, he founded the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels on the 1st of April 1957. They were affiliated to the mother chapter based in San Bernadino in California. By and large they were a group of disillusioned ex-army veterans. The Angels had a running feud with another motorcycle gang, the ‘Gypsy Jokers’. Sonny wanted a piece of the action.
Reeves designed a patch to wear on their jackets. It was a skull wearing an aviator cap with wings to the side. Known as the ‘Death’s Head’, it is still used by Hells Angels today.
Sonny also created a patch to be sewn onto their jackets saying Hell’s Angels. But the wording was too large, and one character had to be dropped, so they got rid of the apostrophe – and henceforth they were known as the Hells Angels.
As biker violence grew across the nation, the head of the American Motorcyclist Association was reported in the press as saying, “99% of motorcyclists are law abiding.” Sonny immediately created another patch saying 1%, that all the Angels wore.
Sonny was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon (twice) and for possession of marijuana (twice). He also suffered a fractured skull after being clubbed over the head by a policeman.
But other bikers were being arrested too. The leader of the San Bernadino chapter, Otto Friedli was sent to prison, so they merged with the Oakland chapter. Sonny found himself in charge aged 20. And soon it became the largest chapter in the USA.
Sonny was married by now, to Elsie May George, and had a daytime job as a machinist.
In October 1965, some Hells Angels attacked an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Berkeley, California. The Angels were vocally in support of the war, considering protestors to be “traitors”.
The following month there was to be a massive peace march through Oakland. Sonny, together with the leader of the Gypsy Jokers, agreed to meet the organisers of the march, activist Jerry Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg. The talks did not go well.
But Sonny made a public announcement saying the Angels would not be present out of ‘patriotic concern’. He said the “Anti-American demonstrators would encourage violence from us…and only produce sympathy for this mob of traitors.”
He also sent a letter to President Lyndon Johnson offering “100 crack gorillas (sic)” to go into Vietnam and to sort out the Viet Cong. Johnson didn’t reply.
But not everybody was appalled by their actions. Hunter S. Thompson wrote his very first book about the Hells Angels, which sold well, and films were made about them. Thompson said of Sonny, “By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator.”
They had constant running battles with the California Highway Patrol.
A rival gang member once stole his Harley Davidson. He sorted him out with a hammer!
Sonny was fired from his job because of frequent absences and become Technical Advisor for Roger Corman’s 1966 film ‘Wild Angels’ starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. This was followed by a similar job with the 1967 film ‘Hells Angels on Wheels’, starring Jack Nicholson, in which he had a small speaking cameo. He became close friends with both Fonda and Nicholson.
He said he was addicted to, “Bikes, booze, girls and good times.”
But in 1967, his wife Elsie died of an embolism after an illegal abortion.
In 1969, he was appointed advisor to the film ‘Easy Rider’ starring Fonda, Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, which was to become a cult classic. It portrayed the Hells Angels romantically, as counter-culture warriors.
Also, in 1969, the Rolling Stones played a free concert at Altamont, California. 300,000 people attended. They hired the Hells Angels as security, paying them in beer – and it went horribly wrong as the Angels attacked the crowd, knifing Meredith Hunter, a black man in the audience, to death. The concert was recorded in the film ‘Gimme Shelter’, where Sonny is seen holding a gun to Keith Richard, ordering him to hurry up and get playing. He says, “Play that guitar or you’re dead.” Sonny later claimed he was using the gun to protect Richard from a crowd who were angry because The Stones were late on stage. He also claimed self -defence, saying the crowd was attacking their motorcycles. For the rest of his life he maintained The Stones were responsible for the violence.
But he boasted about also threatening Mick Jagger.
As leader of the Angels, Sonny improved relations with the police.
His Hells Angels were trading illegal weapons (stolen or bought) for the release of gang members from prison. They claimed they would rather the police have the weapons than the Black Panthers. It was said in exchange for guns, dynamite and grenades he got 15 Hells Angels freed.
Oakland Police Detective Ted Hilliard, testifying in court, claimed that Sonny had offered him one dead leftie for each released prisoner.
But on a personal level his relations with the police went from bad to worse.
He was arrested three times, charged with drug dealing, kidnapping and murder…and got away with all three. The murder charge was for killing a Texan drug dealer Servio Agero, who had started selling drugs in Oakland. A witness said he saw Sonny shoot Agero whilst he was asleep and then set fire to the house to cover his tracks. After a long trial Sonny was acquitted when questions arose about the reliability of the witness.
But he was not so lucky next time. In 1973 he was convicted of possession of heroin and firearms. As a former felon he received a harsher sentence. He was given a minimum of 10 years. He planned to hand over the reins, but his anointed successor Fillmore Cross was imprisoned too.
So, from his cell in Folsom State Prison he continued to run the Hells Angels. He also got married for a second time, to his girlfriend Sharon Gruhike, a former beauty queen.
He was released after four and a half years. He always claimed he didn’t mind being in prison. “I think doing time is part of growing up.”
In 1979, he was arrested again, along with Sharon and 31 others for racketeering under ‘RICO’ (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act). There were 194 witnesses called in court. Of the 33 people charged, only two were acquitted – Sharon and Sonny.
In 1983 he got throat cancer through being a lifelong heavy smoker, and had his vocal chords removed. From now on he spoke through a vocaliser.
In 1987 he was arrested for gun running and drug dealing in California. But he was put on trial in Louisville, Kentucky for trying to attack and destroy another motorcycle gang, The Outlaws. It was in revenge for the murder of his gang member John Cleave Webb who had been shot in Kentucky by two of The Outlaws. He got three and a half years in prison, but always claimed he had been framed by the FBI.
The main prosecution witness had been the former National Security Enforcer of the Hells Angels, Tony ‘Taterhead’ Tait, who turned state evidence. His testament led to 38 Angels being convicted. It later turned out the FBI had paid him $300,000 – and $30,000 for the conviction of Sonny alone.
Whilst in prison he sent the Chief Prosecutor a postcard saying, “Nice weather – wish you were here.”
When he got out, he held a lavish party – and some of the guests were distinguished Californian politicians.
Then he and Sharon had an amicable divorce. He then married Beth Noel Black.
But soon afterwards, they had a domestic fight and Beth was hospitalised with a broken rib and a lacerated spleen. Beth’s daughter Sharron was also assaulted. He was sentence to just 8 days imprisonment, but Beth divorced him.
He moved to Arizona and joined the Cave Creek chapter but never attended any meetings. He acted in purely an advisory role.
In 2000, he decided to step back from running the Hells Angels. He wrote an autobiography entitled ‘Hells Angel’ followed by a book of biker’s tales and two novels, one of which was eventually made into a film, ‘Dead in Five Heartbeats’.
His autobiography showed he was proud of his time in prison, saying it made him a man. He said he believed in living outside the law. The last chapter of the book was a list of his ‘rap’ sheets.
In his absence, the biker wars got worse. In 2002, at the Hell Raisers Ball, a fight between the Angels and a gang called ‘The Mongols’, led to a death and numerous serious injuries, so Sonny he organised a peace conference in Nevada. It ended in what is called the Red River Riot with three more deaths.
In 2005 he married for a fourth time, this time to Zorana Katzakian.
He began to appear in films (again) and in the US TV series ‘Sons of Anarchy’.
In 2010, Sonny wrote a guide to motorcycle safety entitled ‘Let’s Ride’. He ruefully conceded he had finally become part of the 99%.
Diagnosed with cancer he said, “I’ve lived a long and full life, filled with adventure.”
His advice to others was,” Keep your head up high, stay loyal, remain free and always value honour.”
At his death he was described as a charismatic and shrewd man who made the Hells Angels known throughout the world. “He brought it together, he held it together.”
A message appeared on his Facebook page. It started, “If you’re reading this message, you’ll know that I’m gone.”
RIP – Rider In Prison