SALT LAKE CITY — This is the place — or more so becoming the place — for outlaw motorcycle gangs, a veteran police officer told state lawmakers Wednesday.
"There's been a 300 percent increase in the members of outlaw motorcycle gangs in Utah, compared to what we experienced five years ago," Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Lane Critser told members of the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
Critser, who has worked in gang enforcement since 2008, said the proliferation of gangs and gang members could be attributed to multiple factors. Utah is an "untouched" state, meaning no gang has claimed territory as its own. Also, law enforcement in Utah is unaccustomed to dealing with outlaw motorcycle gangs on a regular basis, he said.
"It's like a gold rush. Everybody is trying to get here and establish dominance in the state so they can run a variety of their criminal activities and make their money in the state," Critser said.
The trend is disturbing, he said, because many long-established outlaw motorcycle gangs have ties to Mexican drug cartels, according to U.S. Department of Justice reports. They also commit insurance fraud and forgery to support their activities, Critser said.
The state also is becoming increasingly attractive to members of outlaw motorcycle clubs because Utah is largely rural, said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.
"A lot of our counties don’t have the manpower or the money to fight them or handle them when they come into town on a run," Ray said.
A number of gangs have conducted national runs in rural Utah, Critser said. In 2008, the Bandidos hosted a national mandatory run in Moab. The Mongols have conducted a run in Wayne County in the past five years.
Two summers ago, the Vagos made a run into Ogden, Ray said. However, several members racked up citations for multiple violations in numerous counties while en route to Weber County.
"By the time they got there, they just turned around and went home. They didn’t want to deal with it any more," Ray said. "Really, you've got to make it expensive and uncomfortable for these guys and they won't want to stick around."
Recently, the Barons, a motorcycle gang with a longtime presence in Utah, hosted members of the Gypsy Jokers gang during the Barons' annual summer run to Wasatch County.
A small group of Gypsy Jokers gang members entered the Rainbow Family gathering outside of Heber City, and an altercation took place. Critser said it was unclear who was the aggressor, but the gang members were arrested on charges of DUI, drug offenses and possession of deadly weapons.
Weaponry seized during arrests of outlaw gang members across the country suggest that some have law-enforcement or military-grade firearms and body armor, Critser said.
A zero tolerance policy in Ventura County, California, helped curb the activities of Hells Angels, he said, meaning every crime, violation or offense was enforced to the fullest extent, whether it was a new crime or a probation violation.
"Basically it got to the point that members of Hells Angels said we don't want to be gang members in Ventura County any more and they left. When they were interviewed, they basically said it got too expensive and it got difficult going to jail every time after committing a crime because they were being watched and there's a system to take care of it," Critser said.
While he offered no details, Ray said he intends to introduce a gang initiative during the 2015 legislative session.
Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, said state lawmakers may want to revisit the gang injunction used by Weber County until it was thrown out of court.
The Utah Supreme Court threw out the injunction ruling that the county did not properly serve summons to gang members.
"This is the same law that California had for nearly two decades, and their Supreme Court said it was fine. And our Supreme Court says we have a problem with this? It was starting to work," Oda said.
He said the state should retool the injunction addressing the court's concerns, then attempt to apply it statewide.
Ray said he believes the state is at a critical juncture in addressing the activities of outlaw motorcycle gangs.
"We’re at the point in Utah, if we take some decisive action, we can actually control the gang issue. We’ve got two choices: We can let it happen and then we have to manage it, or we can step out in front of it and control it," Ray said.
"I think we're still at the point, if we get into action and work this, we can actually control it," he said.