Sympathy for the Devils

HIGH WAY: Hells Angels ride into Tapawera during a charity ride for St John Ambulance.
HIGH WAY: Hells Angels ride into Tapawera during a charity ride for St John Ambulance.

As soon as New Zealand's newest gang or, as they would no doubt insist, motorcycle club first donned their Red Devils patches and revved their motorbikes into Nelson a month ago, the inevitable question was being asked: was the region about to see a bikie turf war?

The police certainly raised the prospect after being taken by surprise by the Red Devils' arrival they warned of the possibility of gang confrontations between the newcomers and the long-established Lost Breed Motorcycle Club.

And there is history to back up those who fear confrontation, with a scattering of mostly minor but occasionally spectacular clashes between the Lost Breed and previous new arrivals on the gang scene.

Probably the more immediate question is, why would a small handful of Red Devils rattle the Breed, who are larger in number and have been the kings of the Nelson gang castle for 33 years?

Perhaps the key difference between the Red Devils and others who have previously tried to get a foothold in Nelson is that the Red Devils aren't just a new gang to Nelson.

It's the first time they've been seen in New Zealand, and behind them is the grunt of the global bikie gang, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

That in turn raises the question of all the places the Red Devils could set up in New Zealand, why on earth choose Nelson?

It's not an easy question to answer, especially since the Red Devils wouldn't talk to The Nelson Mail.

Internationally, the Red Devils carry what might seem an unflattering description of being a "puppet gang" to, and official supporters of, the Hells Angels, probably the world's most famous gang.

Formed in 1948 in the United States, the Hells Angels are said by law enforcement agencies worldwide to be heavily involved in drug dealing and other organised criminal activity. Its members would argue otherwise and dispute they're a gang.

Delve online into the murky world of gangs and if you manage to get past the emblems of flaming skulls and repeated references to hell, you'll find the Nelson Red Devils listed as the only New Zealand chapter on the Red Devils' Belgium website.

Member profiles are not included, but it's believed the Nelson Red Devils have four patched members (existing Nelson men) plus supporters. Like the Lost Breed, which is thought to have 18 members plus supporters, most hold down good jobs such as being skilled tradesmen.

While their numbers may be small at this stage, some of the Red Devils have a history of being on the wrong side of the law, according to police information. Nelson police say one of the Red Devils is on life parole for murder as a result of a drug rip-off a decade or so ago, while another is a former president of Canterbury's Road Knights, and was involved in New Zealand's first methamphetamine lab in Cheviot in the mid-1990s, serving jail time as a result.

In a rare move this month, the Lost Breed spoke publicly, saying Nelsonians should be worried about new gangs setting up in the region. At the same time, it said, it is seeking a new beginning and doesn't want confrontation something it has been no stranger to over the past few decades as it has sought to hold on the motorcycle throne.

The Breed, which also objects to being called a gang, says it doesn't condone family violence or the use of the methamphetamine drug P.

Clearly, police are dubious that the Breed have reformed into law-abiding citizens, and time will tell if what the bikers say is true, but independent reports to The Nelson Mail support what the club says about its stance on P, which has wreaked havoc in communities throughout the country.

There has been speculation that the Hells Angels are interested in Nelson, through the Red Devils, because there's thought to be a gap in the lucrative methamphetamine supply market 0.1g sells for $100-$120.

However, Canterbury University criminologist Greg Newbold dismisses this suggestion, saying it is just not very smart to set up in the drug trade in Nelson.

"In reality, if you wanted to be involved and make a lot of money out of crime you wouldn't go to Nelson," he says.

"People who deal drugs in small towns always get busted.

"You would not make money selling meth in Nelson. If they were into the meth market they'd move to a bigger place like Christchurch."

He's been trying to figure out why the Red Devils would want to set up in Nelson and is still struggling.

He says the Red Devils might simply be a group of guys interested in motorbikes who want to ride them in sunny Nelson. They might have chosen Nelson because, with the Breed being the only established gang in the region and no "warrior gangs" such as in a lot of North Island towns, they won't get conflict.

Newbold says if the Hells Angels, who have often tried to establish links in the South Island, are eyeing up Nelson to move into, they might even be attracted by the region's reputation as a retirement centre.

"A lot of Hells Angels are getting older. They might want to go there to retire," he laughs.

Police suspect something more untoward. Nelson Bays police area commander Inspector Brian McGurk says as a puppet gang, it is clear the Red Devils "wouldn't have been able to patch up without the consent of the Hells Angels".

The Hells Angels only has New Zealand chapters in Wanganui and Auckland about 30 members in total after the Hastings chapter folded.

McGurk believes the loss of the Hastings chapter would have been a serious loss of face for the gang, and would have been talked about in the Hells Angels hierarchy. Setting the Red Devils up in Nelson would be a way of keeping some distance from the Hells Angels but also getting a presence in the South Island, McGurk says.

One of the people police spoke to at the Nelson "poker run" motorcyclists' gathering last month, which was the Red Devils' public unveiling, was a former Hastings Hells Angels member now affiliated with the Wanganui chapter.

McGurk agrees that Nelson is an easier place for the Red Devils to break into than areas with more than one established gang, but that police believe the Hells Angels will be driving it for business reasons.

"They [Hells Angels] are active in things like methamphetamine, but our suggestion is they are probably a bit more cunning, and subtle, than just pushing drugs.


''They tend to get themselves involved in cash-based businesses. It's one way of doing money laundering - hiding sources of illegal income and asset protection.''

He gives examples of gambling venues, debt collection, massage parlours, strip clubs and bars.

There is still a market for drugs, particularly cannabis, in Nelson, McGurk says, and by owning places such as bars and strip clubs, a gang, via its door staff, can also shut down competition and control who has access to drugs being sold.

The Hells Angels' global website shows the gang has a level of sophistication, polished PR, and it seems, a penchant for grammar. Among the ''frequently asked questions'' on its website, is whether ''Hells'' should carry an apostrophe. The answer is apparently not, because according to the gang there's more than one hell.

''How does one become a member of the Hells Angels?'' is another common question the gang gets asked, to which it replies, ''If you have to ask the question, you probably won't understand the answer''.

Nelson police say they knew the Hells Angels were looking to set up in the South Island, but last month's poker run - attended by Hells Angels, Headhunters and Road Knights members - was the first police knew of the Red Devils' presence in the region. Not surprisingly, they're now monitoring the situation closely. The weekend before Easter, several Hells Angels members from Auckland made a low-profile trip back to Nelson and went to a birthday party of a Red Devils associate, McGurk says.

''It demonstrates to us there's a really strong connection between the two groups.''

While police have warned of the possibility, there's been no physical confrontation between the Red Devils and Lost Breed yet.

The Breed says most of its members are Nelson ratepayers and they don't want to be gangsters. They say that as a club they don't have an income as such. They've bought a building in Echodale Place, Stoke, and rent out part of that building to a business, which pays their clubhouse's costs such as rates and insurance. They say their bar there is not money-making, but BYO alcohol.

McGurk says people wrongly see the Lost Breed as having a benign presence in the region, as they've been ''rigorous in protecting their area'' when other gangs have tried to come in.

Among the violence that erupted during battles when the neo-Nazi skinheads Fourth Reich and motorcycle gang Highway 61 tried to muscle their way into the Breed's patch 10 years ago were car bombings, a shot fired from the Lost Breed's former Haven Rd pad, unreported assaults and cars being rammed off the road, police say.

''To claim they are a benign presence is quite frankly ridiculous,'' McGurk says.

''When they feel threatened or subject to some kind of competition they are not slow in trying to assert their dominance.''

Since the emergence of the Red Devils, more public wearing of patches, police say, is an example of muscle flexing by the Breed - a club with associations more in line with other long-established motorcycle clubs, such as Christchurch's Epitaph Riders and Blenheim's Lone Legion.

Police believe the Red Devils will try and build their numbers. In the world of gangs and biker clubs, it would be seen as an insult to the Breed that the Red Devils have set up in their face, and there's speculation that if the Hells Angels presence becomes big in Nelson the Lost Breed could be overshadowed and eventually fold.

Despite the Breed's supposed dominance here for so many years, there is more to the Nelson gang scene.

Mongrel Mob members, and ex-members of Black Power and the Nomads are all understood to be living in Nelson, but none of these gangs has a chapter here.

Nelson is one of only a few places in the country where the Mongrel Mob - New Zealand's biggest gang by far - isn't established.

The Mongrel Mob have been keen to set up in Nelson for years, but haven't got large enough numbers here, police say.

McGurk says the Mongrel Mob presence in Nelson tends to be centred around one large family well known to police. Police are aware of their associates - from Porirua/Horowhenua, Christchurch and Invercargill - drifting into the area and staying with the family.

Mongrel Mob numbers were highest in the region about 18 months ago, at a few dozen. Sources say the mob had enough people in the region to form a chapter then, but weren't organised - some moved on and some ended up in prison.

However, the Mongrel Mob don't like the Hells Angels, so it's expected that they'll be watching the Nelson scene and the emergence of the Red Devils closely.

Even the Lost Breed has said: ''They [the Mob] don't get on with the Hells Angels. They're battling them all around New Zealand, so where they [the Angels] go, the Mongrel Mob usually go.''

And that's probably the last thing the Lost Breed wants. There's already been the odd skirmish between the Mongrel Mob and Lost Breed around town, including a fight in Bridge St one night last year. As for the likelihood of confrontation between the Lost Breed and Red Devils, police say their concerns are well-founded, but Newbold thinks they are being ''paranoid''.

Newbold says there will be tension between the Lost Breed and the Red Devils but he thinks they'll eventually co-exist peacefully. ''Wars between bikie gangs are pretty rare,'' he says, at least in this country.

The Lost Breed, whose ages range from mid-20s to 60s, are ''older guys'' and ''not young, stupid idiots'', and as long as the Red Devils don't interfere in the Breed's business there shouldn't be confrontation, Newbold says.

''They're not going to have a fight just for the sake of having a fight ... ''People of that age just don't do that.''


The Nelson Mail