For more than two decades, federal law enforcement agencies persecuted the Mongols, a notorious motorcycle club whose members had a long history of murder, assault, drug trafficking and robbery.
In 2018, the government scored a kind of victory. Prosecutors convinced a California jury that these crimes were not just the result of individual cyclists behaving badly, but the work of an organized criminal enterprise that had participated in a campaign of chaos. The club was sentenced to pay a $500,000 fine in what prosecutors hoped would be a down payment for putting it out of business.
But the group that was once the most powerful biker organization in the West aside from its arch-rivals, the Hells Angels, will return to court next week in hopes of overriding racketeering and conspiracy convictions based on what it says are new evidence about its former leader, David Santillan. The Mongols now claim that throughout their attempt to defend the club in the protracted criminal case, their own leader secretly spoke with the government.
A petition for a new trial and the reversal of the half-million-dollar fine, scheduled for a preliminary hearing Monday in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, California, alleges that Mr. Santillan, 52, covertly cooperated for years with a special agent from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In turn, the club said in its petition that the agent appears to have spared Mr. Santillan serious legal consequences for several offenses since 2011.
The unusual legal imbroglio provides a rare glimpse into the hidden and volatile politics of the outlaw motorcycle club and the degree to which law enforcement and its goals can engage in limited cooperation when viewed as mutually beneficial.
A.T.F. and other law enforcement agencies have long gone after biker organizations by co-opting members as informants and infiltrating the groups with their own undercover agents.
The Mongols rely on an explosive video shared by Mr. Santillan’s wife, Annie Santillan, who, during a stretch when she was angry with her husband over his infidelity, had her daughter record a conversation in which he appeared to refer to protection he had received from the A.T.F. agent.
She also said in a text message to other Mongols now filed with the court that her husband had for a time acted as a confidential government informant. “In other words,” she wrote, “he’s a rat.”
Both Mr. Santillan, a Mongolian member for nearly 25 years who was voted out of the club in July, and the agent, John Ciccone, who retired in December after 32 years in the A.T.F., deny that Mr. Santillan acted as an informant during the trial, although Mr. Ciccone’s sworn statement does not address whether Mr. Santillan had previously acted as a confidential informant. Both men also denied the claim that Mr. Santillan had revealed privileged defense information to the government while his motorcycle club was on trial.
The current national leaders of the Mongols said they were convinced that the former president of the club, who controlled the Mongols’ defense team, had acted improperly. “It became clear that Dave had betrayed the club, his oath and everything we hold sacred,” the club said in a statement.
Santillan has acknowledged that he often spoke with Ciccone during a year, usually in the presence of other Mongolian members. He said they discussed issues such as public safety when the Mongols or other clubs were planning parties or motorcycle meetings to ensure members stayed in line and that rival groups kept their distance.
“Never in my life have I ever implicated anyone at the club for some kind of nefarious activity. If you’re a rat, you’re the scum of the earth,” he said in an interview.
In the video, Mrs. Santillan was talking to her husband on speakerphone when he told her that Mr. Ciccone was retiring. “He can’t protect me, he told me, so we have to have an exit strategy, he told me,” a seemingly agitated Mr. Santillan told her.
Ms Santillan said she now felt “terrible” at revealing the communication and that her husband was not actually an informant.
“The only thing he’s guilty of is talking to John a lot and having some kind of relationship with him,” she said in an interview.
Santillan said he spoke with the A.T.F. agent over the years because it helped avert problems. “John looked after not only me, but also the club,” Santillan said. “That’s what I meant by ‘protect’ in the video.”
MongolsThey have been a fixture on the biker scene since 1969, when the club was founded in Montebello, California. The group has about 1,200 members in the United States, most of them Hispanic, and numerous chapters around the world.
During the nearly 13 years he led the Mongols, Santillan seemed to steer the organization away from its previous recruitment of Mexican criminal gang members and a culture of “total underworld activity that the Feds partied on in terms of prosecutions,” said William Dulaney, an expert on motorcycle groups who was previously an associate professor of national security at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.
Mr. Dulaney said Mr. Santillan “introduced new policies, like no more club-run drug business, and made it mandatory that members should have a motorcycle and things like a valid driver’s license and registration and a job.”
As for Mr. Ciccone, he had mastered the craft of conducting complex investigations “using everything from undercovers to informants to wiretaps to subpoenas and surveillance,” said Frank D’Alesio, a retired A.T.F. agent who infiltrated three biker clubs.
“And he was tireless,” D’Alesio said. “He was the guy outside all the time who provided cover support in case something went wrong with undercovers.”
In the case that led to the sentencing verdict against the Mongols, Ciccone had acted as a case manager. The U.S. prosecutor’s office had previously tried and failed to force the Mongols to lose their rights to the club’s trademarked logo, a drawing of a cheeky Genghis Khan-like figure riding a helicopter while wielding a sword, a landmark case that prosecutors believed would help weaken the club by undermining its visual identity. A jury sided with the prosecution in 2019 and ordered the group to abandon the badge, but Judge David O. Carter dismissed the verdict as a violation of the club’s constitutional rights.
This quest to seize the Mongols’ patch was part of a criminal case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2013 under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act. The indictment did not target any individuals, but claimed that the club itself had participated in an organized conspiracy of crimes such as murder, attempted murder and drug trafficking. That is the conviction and fine that the Mongols are now trying to get disregarded.
“In my opinion, the only reason the government filed this RICO case was to take another run on the patch, having failed each time in the past,” said George L. Steele, an attorney for the Mongols who handles a separate appeal in the case. Federal prosecutors have been focusing on the Mongols’ logo since 2008.
The government, in its own appeal, makes another run on the Mongols’ logo, renewing an earlier request for a narrower retribution that would remove the club’s right to trademark exclusivity over the emblem. Such an order would allow anyone to use the image.
The lawyer in charge of the resumption proposal, Joseph A. Yanny, said the Mongols hoped to prove that an inappropriate relationship between Mr. Santillan and Mr. Ciccone during the 2018 trial allowed the government to hear things it shouldn’t have about the Mongols’ defense strategy — and even negatively affected the Mongols’ presentation of their case.
On one occasion during the trial, Judge Carter expressed his displeasure with lawyers for both sides after being told by a U.S. marshal that Mr. Santillan and Mr. Ciccone had been seen chatting at a Starbucks near the courthouse.
In their petition, the Mongols argue that Mr. Santillan could have been pressured to leak strategy and other information to the government as a result of lenient treatment the defense claimed he received during his brushes with the law.
In one of them, according to their court papers, Mr. Santillan crashed his Mercedes in 2017 while driving impaired, damaging numerous cars parked on the street. In another case, in 2014, Mr. Santillan and his wife got into a fight with other people at a racetrack, the Mongols’ filing says.
“There’s no way he’s gotten away with these incidents without more significant legal consequences unless someone in law enforcement is in the background smearing the slides for him,” Yanny said.
Santillan said it was “ridiculous” to think Mr. Ciccone was smoothing things out for him. Santillan produced records from the cases to show that he had been convicted of offences, including driving under the influence, leaving the scene of the accident and disturbing the peace, and that he had been arrested, fined and put to the test.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, said that if a federal agent sought confidential information about a criminal defense, it would be “an extraordinary violation.”
“There could be a particular concern that the defense attorney inadvertently received directions from someone who was aligned with the government,” he said.
Both Ciccone and the U.S. Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the proposal beyond the government’s response filed in court, which said the petition for a new trial was “filled with false and unsupported claims and speculation.”
The judge will most likely consider a number of procedural issues Monday, lawyers said, with further hearings expected before a final decision.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.