The criminal trial of 14 Hell's Angels members in the western German city of Hanover came to a quick and unexpected end only a day after it started. When the main witness for the prosecution refused to provide testimony, prosecutors offered a deal of reduced charges and suspended sentences that most of the accused accepted on Tuesday.
Only a day earlier, the 14 defendants had been facing charges of armed robbery and dangerous bodily injury at Hanover's district courthouse that could have led to stiff sentences. But these simple legal categories seem to sanitize what shocked investigators had called "extreme brutality."
According the prosecution, on March 22, 2006, the defendants in the case ambushed five members of a competing biker gang, the Bandidos, at a car repair shop in the town of Stuhr near Bremen. The Bandidos members were then restrained with tape, gagged and blindfolded. Over a period of hours, prosecutors say the Hell's Angels then took their victims, one-by-one, for beating sessions that were perpetrated using a number of articles, including ax handles, which left serious wounds all over their bodies. One of the Bandidos was then forced at knifepoint to open the money box. To add insult to injury, the Bandidos were then robbed of their emblems, including jackets, clothes, wallets, belts and a number of patches.
Lead public prosecutor Hansjürgen Schulz claimed that the aim of the Hell's Angels' attack was "to shut down the activities of the competing motorcycle gang in the area around Bremen."
A Deal Follows Doubts
While the prosecution might have been confident that it knew what transpired on the day of the attack, that knowledge in no way guaranteed a successful conviction. The primary problem with the case was a lack of evidence. Although officials claim to have secured some DNA evidence from the crime scene, they have not been able to glean much from the vague statements of the victims about their masked attackers.
Furthermore, although one of the accused -- whom court documents only identify as 32-year-old Thomas P. -- had provided information to prosecutors against his "brothers," but in the end he refused to testify, despite his participation in a witness-protection program.
Originally, Tuesday's proceedings were also meant to include testimony by two police officers and the owner of the garage where the crime took place; but with their chief witness refusing to talk, prosecutors instead proposed a deal. The court offered to drop the robbery charges if the defendants pled guilty to the bodily injury charges. In addition, the court offered suspended sentences of up to two years for 11 of the 14 defendants.
Under these terms, the remaining three suspects would face suspended sentences of up to 34 months on account of their previous criminal convictions. The longest potential sentence was reserved for the leader of the Hell's Angels club "MC Westside Bremen," who is alleged to have ordered the attack.
Thirteen of the 14 defendants agreed to the prosecutor's deal. Only Thomas K., who had previously cooperated with the police, chose not to agree to the deal, believing he merited a more lenient sentence because of his prior cooperation.
The leading prosecutor admitted that K.'s decision to not provide testimony in court led his office to offer the deal. "Since the main prosecutor's witness refused to provide testimony," Schulz told the Associated Press, "we risked losing the whole case.
Escalating Turf War
The current case is directly related to a trial that created headlines across Germany this spring. The common element in the trials is Heino B., who was one of the five Bandidos allegedly attacked by the Hell's Angels tried in the current case. The earlier trial found Heino B. and his fellow Bandido Thomas "Addi" K. guilty of shooting and killing Robert K., a 47-year-old Hell's Angel, on May 23, 2007, in Ibbenbüren, a town just north of Münster. The two had believed that K. had been involved in the earlier assault on Bandidos and were seeking revenge. Both are now serving life sentences.
The two attacks, though, are part of a string of violence in an escalating turf war between the rival German motorcycle gangs. Although the Hell's Angels were the first biker gang in Germany, the Bandidos have been trying to expand since a German motorcycle club first joined the international Bandido community in November 1999.
Though the rivalry is fed to some degree by the pursuit of honor and territory, there is considerable money involved as well. Both groups are active in the bouncer milieu, which gives them a large degree of control over the drug scenes in Germany's clubs and discos. Other activities, which combine to generate several million euros in annual profits, include arms trading, gambling, protection rackets, bars and brothels.
Furthermore, as the gangs become more established, they have also been able to extend their reach into more legitimate business activities. In Hanover, for example, the Hell's Angels are believed to also be involved in real estate, beverage distribution companies and security firms. The regional criminal police force in the state of Lower-Saxony, which surrounds Bremen, has reported that the biker groups "act in a manner that is goal-oriented, systematic and marked by a division of labor" and have availed themselves of "top-class lawyers, PR professionals and other specialists" in their efforts to "hide illegal sources of income with legal activities."
The gangs also appear to be growing in terms of size and their degree of dangerousness. Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) keeps records on 3,400 members of biker gangs in Germany spread out in 300 local branches. And, according to a 2005 study on Canada and Europe compiled by Europol, the European law-enforcement organization, 56 percent of Hell's Angels members have been convicted for either assault or charges related to drugs or weapons.
Law enforcement officials have failed to ban the gangs in Germany as a result of high legal hurdles requiring proof of involvement in criminal activities. Although they have succeeded in shutting down individual chapters, their members have usually merely migrated to other chapters or clubs.
This war for dominance accounted for the high state of security at the proceedings in Hanover. Dozens of well-armed federal and state police officers used metal detectors and body searches to keep weapons from entering the courthouse and their presence to discourage the dozens of Hell's Angels and Bandidos members gathered outside from openly confronting each other.
jtw -- spiegel, with wire reports