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Hells Angels members live by the code

If one Hells Angels member is pulled over by law enforcement officers, the entire group traveling with him often will pull over. You'll never see a woman in the gang. And Hells Angels will never go out together without their "colors" -- the winge...

Hells Angels
Members of the Hells Angels hang out near the Lost Isle bar Thursday evening in Carlton. (Derek Montgomery / For the News Tribune)
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If one Hells Angels member is pulled over by law enforcement officers, the entire group traveling with him often will pull over.

You'll never see a woman in the gang.

And Hells Angels will never go out together without their "colors" -- the winged death's-head patch on the back of their leather vests or jackets.

With the arrival of 500 Hells Angels for their annual summer rally in Carlton this week, some of the codes that bind them as brothers have been on display for residents of the Northland.

"[The code] is a part of their mystique," said Julian Sher, an investigative journalist who has studied the Hells Angels since 2000 and wrote "Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs' Crime Empire."

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"It's part of their secrecy and, to some degree, a part of their security," Sher said.

Part of that security means that rank-and-file members can't talk to the media and can never talk to the public about their codes or about other members.

Indeed, Hells Angels members visiting the Northland routinely turned their backs or stopped talking this week when they learned that the person facing them was a reporter.

If they go on a ride, said Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Mark Baker, the Angels have a particular order.

"With the president and the road captain and the sergeant of arms, and the rest of the members and prospects," Baker said.

They pull over together to avoid disrupting the order, Baker said.

Becoming a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the country can take years, said Sher, and often you can only get in by already being known to other members. Even then, you start as a "hang-around," where you're invited to some meetings or to meet members. If you get noticed, you move up to an associate and then to a prospect, which largely consists of gofer work, Sher said.

You can always tell a prospect because the word is stitched on the front of their vest while the backs of their jacket are missing the words "Hells Angels" and the flying skull -- the full colors for the gang.

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Men with the label "prospect" on the front of their vests were seen in Carlton preparing the Hells Angels' headquarters site ahead of the full-fledged members' arrival, and some served drinks to Hells Angels gambling at Black Bear Casino and Resort.

Once an Angel gets the full colors on his vest, don't mess with it.

"You can't touch their vests," Sher said. "Getting your colors is like winning a bronze star, or getting your stripes."

The vest is so sacred, Baker said, that often if one of the Angels gets arrested, "they want to give that jacket to another member to take it."

Protecting the colors applies to accidents and injuries that may require medical personnel to remove a vest or jacket.

John Jordan, manager of SMDC Health System's emergency management services, said his staff prepared for the arrival of the Hells Angels and learned about special considerations required when it comes to the club.

When a traumatized patient arrives at the hospital, it's common for staff to cut garments off an injured person to avoid needless shifting. But Jordon said staff members were told not to cut through a Hell's Angels patch.

"They're sensitive to any desecration," Jordan said.

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Because members are so tightly knit, Jordan said SMDC would treat Hells Angels accompanying an injured member as family members.

If there's a conflict between Hells Angels and a rival biker gang such as the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, which has set up camp across the bridge in Douglas County, Jordon said emergency staff would work to take members of opposing clubs to different medical facilities in the area.

The Hells Angels' code is enforced by strict disciplines of beatings and sometimes expulsion, Sher said.

"They've been known to burn the tattoos off people kicked out of the club," he said.

News Tribune staff writer Peter Passi contributed to this report.

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