U.S. seeking to seize building of Hell's Angels

January 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Seventy-seven E. Third Street is, according to the police, a place to be avoided. But to the Hell's Angels, it is home.

Since 1969, America's best-known and most-feared bunch of Harley-riding, tattooed nonconformists have called the East Village apartment house both headquarters and home in New York City.

Today, jury selection was to begin in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in a trial to decide whether the government can take away the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club's East Coast Valhalla.

Underscoring the government's contention that the group is dangerous, the jury that will hear the lawsuit will remain anonymous, a rarity, if not a first in a civil case, said the trial's lawyers and outside legal experts.

The federal lawsuit was filed under a 1984 law that allows the government to seize property used in drug trafficking.

The Angels' lawyers insist that much of the government's case is inaccurate, as is the public perception of the Angels as uniformly long-haired, beer-bellied marauders clad only in denim and leather.

"In the Hell's Angels, there are probably some people you wouldn't want to have over for dinner, but the media hype about them has been exaggerated," said Nina Ginsberg, who represents Sandy Alexander, former president of the New York City chapter.

Merrill Rubin, the group's lawyer, said, "I think the jurors will see some of their preconceived notions shattered."

The trial promises to provide a rare look into a subculture, with current Hell's Angels in the audience and on the stand as witnesses for the defense, and former members of the group with monikers like "Gorilla," "Wild Bill" and "Pirate," who are now in the federal witness-protection program, testifying for the government.

As if to add a surreal grace note to the affair, the New York City chapter is incorporated under New York State law as a religious, nonprofit organization, so the group fighting the seizure is formally known as the Church of Angels.

The building at 77 E. Third St., between First and Second Avenues, adorned with an American flag and the Hell's Angels insignia, a winged skull, embodies a good chunk of Angels history.

With its ground-floor clubhouse and 10 upper-floor apartments, it has served as headquarters of the New York City chapter, home to a rotating group of members and their families, and a flophouse for out-of-town Angels.

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