Rebels with a cause

Battle talk: Minister of Police Judith Collins, below, and senior police brief the press after a raid on criminal gang strongholds across five policing districts.
Battle talk: Minister of Police Judith Collins, below, and senior police brief the press after a raid on criminal gang strongholds across five policing districts.

Police have declared war on the Rebels Motorcycle Club of Australia, saying it will not be allowed to establish here. But is it too late? And how big is the threat, really? By Tony Wall.

YOU WOULD think the devil incarnate had arrived in New Zealand astride a Harley-Davidson. "Rebels not welcome here," screamed the press release, as police vowed to stamp out the gang before it begins "peddling the misery of methamphetamine in our communities".

Of course, the Rebels say they are not a gang at all, but a "club" dedicated to riding bikes. To dispel that myth, police released figures showing that the 17 patched Rebels members identified in New Zealand have nearly 100 convictions for serious drug and violence offences between them, and cumulatively have served 77 years in prison. A further 14 associates have notched up an impressive 90 years' jail time between them.

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Police last month claimed to have dealt the Rebels a "severe blow" with a series of methamphetamine raids across the North Island, although it remains unclear how many of those arrested were Rebels and what role they played in the drug operations.

The Rebels claim to have set up chapters in Northland, Auckland, Thames, Manawatu and Christchurch. Essentially, some Tribesmen Motorcycle Club members with familial links to the Rebels in Australia have "patched over".

Now everyone is waiting to see whether the entire Tribesmen gang goes over. Sources say this could lead to a domino effect where clubs affiliated to the Tribesmen, such as the Huhus of Tokoroa and the Greasy Dogs of Tauranga, switch. Other potential affiliates include the Lost Breed of Nelson, the Epitaph Riders of Christchurch, the Outcasts of Hamilton and the Satans Slaves of Wellington. The Nomads of Horowhenua, in disarray since the death of notorious leader Dennis "Mossie" Hines, are also believed to be in talks with the Rebels, even though they are not a motorcycle club.

Jay Hepi
Jay Hepi

The Tribesmen are an interesting bunch. One of the first groups to import and manufacture meth, they lost power and respect in the gang scene when they sampled too much of their own product, earning the nickname "Friedsmen".

A source with contacts in several outlaw motorcycle clubs says the Rebels are trying to unite the "second tier" of homegrown clubs to take on the might of the Hells Angels, which, with its international connections, controls most of the meth trade along with its ally, the Head Hunters.

"The carrot that has been dangled in front of the Tribesmen is the chance to compete with the big boys," the source says. "They want a bigger piece of the meth pie and by aligning themselves with a club that can compete financially and muscle-wise with the Hells Angels and Head Hunters, they can start reaping the rewards. It's a meth war out there; the monetary stakes are incredibly high."

Alex Vella
Alex Vella

The Rebels will employ a "Genghis Khan approach... come with us or we'll squash you," the source says.

"The Rebels, if they pull this off, have basically pulled off a bloodless coup that establishes them as the new big boys on the block. It's a turf war – stay tuned to see if the Bandidos [a US motorcycle club with branches in Australia] try their hand here. They won't want to be seen to be losing ground to the Rebels – wherever their mortal enemy goes, they will follow."

It's the international connections that police fear most.

"Absolutely, that's a real concern to us," says Detective Superintendent Brett Kane from the Organised and Financial Crime Agency. "It seems to be a strategic move on the part of the Rebels to have some international expansion, which New Zealand is part of.

"If you develop that type of criminal network throughout the world, that creates real concern for us and that's why we intend to disrupt their establishment here."

In Australia, the Rebels are involved in meth, cocaine and cannabis distribution and have been involved in intimidation, extortion, inter-gang violence and murder, Kane says.

He says police, along with their colleagues in Australia, have been monitoring movements across the Tasman of Rebels members. At this stage, the gang's presence here seems to be on a relatively small scale, at the level of blood ties. But that could change if all Tribesmen patch over.

"We're watching to see whether it is by gang chapters or individual choice. It's a moving feast really. We're monitoring the situation very closely – there are a number of potential options that could play out here."

ARTHUR VENO doesn't buy it. The professor of psychology at Australia's Victoria University has studied outlaw motorcycle gangs across the ditch and says that while the Rebels are the biggest club numbers-wise, it's simply not a big player on the Australian crime scene, much less the world one.

"The `big four', as the FBI calls them, are the Hells Angels, Bandidos, Pagans and Outlaws. The Rebels aren't even near that league. They do have a few links but, my God, for an international club, they're hardly a major threat. We had the Outlaws move here, which in terms of pure crime, are one of the top international clubs. If you hear those or the Bandidos are coming, that's a different kettle of fish."

Veno says the Rebels are the most "de-centralised" of Australia's motorcycle clubs. "Each little chapter is its own fiefdom that sets up the rules for that chapter. You have a strong percentage of clubs who are old time riding clubs that aren't into crime particularly, and then you have clubs that function like a pyramid scheme for drugs."

He says while the police disclosure that the New Zealand-based Rebels have long criminal histories is "bad news", and the price of meth may come down as a result of its move into the drug scene, he is suspicious of police efforts to paint the Rebels as a major criminal network and threat to this country.

"The cops have a vested interest in it, particularly if there is a law and order campaign going on, if there's a push for greater police numbers or there's a reason to establish moral panic. The bikies serve a purpose to them. Their own bureaucratic empire is what it's about. I'd like to know what's going on in the background... what is it that the police want the public's attention diverted from and why."

Veno says governments need to tackle the demand problem if they are serious about cracking down on drugs, as targeting suppliers has been shown over and over not to work.

"No legislation works. Keep the Rebels out of New Zealand? Nothing works, it spreads. There are clubs that don't go by the name but who are actually Hells Angels in Singapore for Christ's sake, where even carrying a gun is a death penalty. In our western democracies they have tried literally everything to subdue gangs – nothing works is what you keep coming up with."

Veno says there is a long history of links between outlaw motorcycle clubs in New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand's Highway 61s, for example, has members in Australia and Maori Hells Angel Derek Wainohu is president of the club's Sydney chapter.

Several Kiwis have also risen to heights in the Rebels, including Richard "Rebel Rick" Roberts, who was farewelled with a haka after he was shot dead outside a suburban home in Canberra in 2009.

Police have, from time to time, prevented members from crossing the Tasman, Veno says. "I can give you a long list of Hells Angels who are in the same boat."

SO FAR, many Tribesmen are resisting the move to join the Rebels. "It's not a patching over as such," says Peter Hunt, 47, leader of the Tribesmen in the southern Bay of Plenty. "It's just some of our whanau, our cousins, have patched over. It's just that some of them felt obliged to go, with family over there in Australia in the Rebels. We're not too worried, us as the Tribesmen down here in Murupara and the Bay, we're not too fussed; none of us are patching over."

Hunt, currently on bail after a major stoush with the Mongrel Mob in Murupara last year, says his chapter is yet to decide how to deal with the Rebels. Will they welcome them?

"That's still to be decided. It all depends how they treat us, or how they treat the people of Aotearoa, 'cos we're tangata whenua, eh. I think the only thing we have in common with those fullas over there is our rebellious thing against the system, other than riding Harley-Davidsons."

Rebels members have already been banned from Ngawha prison in Northland for trying to recruit new members, and Hunt says jails are an ideal recruiting ground.

"The police have to watch out how they deal with it. There's a lot of disgruntled people in there [prison] with a chip on their shoulder; anything to get back at the public or the world. That will be their opportunity."

So what would be in it for a Tribesmen member to patch over?

"Well, he's giving up a lot, and it doesn't come cheap.

"There's a couple of ways of getting out and that's gracefully with our full blessing or dishonourably. For us, it's a religious thing. We didn't join the Tribesmen just so we can go and join anybody else.

"Bros have died wearing this patch; we can't give up because of the whakawhanaungatanga, or family, behind it."

What would it take for Hunt to patch over?

"Shit, I've got to be in another life before I'd patch over," he says.

"No way. It's too late for me, I've already pledged myself to this patch."

THE BIG BOYS

Police have confirmed that one of the key figures in the establishment of the Rebels Motorcycle Club in New Zealand is a 188cm-tall, 115kg behemoth by the name of Jay Hepi, until recently the Tribesmen MC's northern executive.

The 40-year-old from Whangarei Heads is a keen kickboxer who goes by the nickname "Hardman" and has links to the Elite Thai Kickboxing (ETK) gym in Auckland. He has also promoted fights in Whangarei and coached rugby league.

This being 2011, how do we know that Hepi has handed in his Tribesmen patch and joined the Rebels?

Facebook, of course. Hepi has listed "Rebels Motorcycle Club" under "activities and interests" on his profile page. He may not have intended the hyperlink that takes you from there to a Wikipedia listing detailing some of the Rebels' criminal history: a raid in 2000 where drugs, guns and even a crocodile were seized; the arrest of two Rebels associates for the murder of a Bandidos rival in Victoria; the murder in 2009 of a Rebels member in New South Wales.

When the Sunday Star-Times made contact with Hepi via Facebook, he initially seemed keen to talk, to get the club's side of the story across. He offered to set up an interview with a former Tribesmen member who had been in Australia for 15 years and become "Melbourne state president", and arrived in New Zealand the week before last.

But then came the message: "Sorry but just spoke with bro, no media unless sanctioned by the big boss. Regardless."

The "big boss" is Alex Vella, 57, one of the Rebels' founding members from the late 1960s who makes all public statements on behalf of the 2000 members Australia-wide, and, according to sources, would have sanctioned the setting up of New Zealand chapters.

Vella is business-savvy, and in 2008 won a court case against the ANZ Bank. He sued it for $2.7 million after his former business partner re-mortgaged three properties, including the Rebels' club house, for $2.4 million by falsifying Vella's signature.

Sunday Star Times