New Docuseries Goes Inside Motorcycle Gang


“Exterminate all the brutes!” With these words, borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hunter S. Thompson concluded his violent, macabre 1967 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Thompson had spent months with the outlaw biker gang and ultimately paid for his persistence when members gave him a brutal beatdown (which, Thompson being Thompson, he seemed to enjoy just a little). The king of Gonzo had gotten closer to the Angels’ inner sanctum than just about anyone else had, a feat that the new A&E docuseries Secrets of the Hells Angels (premiering Sunday) tries to replicate in a smaller, safer, and slicker way.

The Angels, founded in 1948 in San Bernardino County in a climate of postwar disillusion and rebellion, have often presented two very different public faces. We’re just a fun-loving motorcycle club, says one. The other is more honest. Murder, rape, and drug-running have long been widely acknowledged as part of the Angels M.O. This is the stuff with which the new series is concerned, at least the premiere episode made available to journalists. As Thompson discovered more than 50 years ago, you trifle with these people at your own grave risk.

Episode one, “Hell’s Agent,” tells the story of Jay Dobyns, a big, burly ATF agent who infiltrated the Angels in Arizona and came close to losing his mind and soul. Dobyns, along with fellow agent Jenna Maguire (playing the part of Dobyns’ old lady), receives his assignment in the wake of an all-out brawl and shootout between Angels and the rival Mongol gang in the middle of a Laughlin, Nevada casino that left three dead in 2002. (Surveillance video of the throwdown depicts a war zone of leather, fists and bullets; this was not a good day to be trying your luck at the slots). Dobyns describes the byzantine process by which one gains his official Angels patch — as he says with deadpan wryness, “For an organization that doesn’t wanna live by rules, they’ve got a lot of rules— before detailing the caper that ultimately earned the gang’s trust: With the help of fellow ATF agents and some leftovers from a local butcher shop, Dobyns faked the murder of a Mongol and took credit for the kill. This is the kind of initiative the Angels appreciate.


The Dobyns story has the makings of a taut feature film, replete with psychological tension (Dobyns digs into how hard it is to live life as a ruthless biker without starting to think and feel like one) and lots of action. Think Donnie Brasco on a Harley. As-is, the episode boasts a pretty standard A&E aesthetic, with talking heads (including former members and chapter presidents), reenactments and a steadily building narrative. The big boon here is the ATF footage, which shows everything from Dobyns’ interactions with the Angels he’s trying to impress to  behind-the-scenes preparation for the fake Mongol murder, which plays out like a Hollywood stunt (drag the body over here! Spurt the blood over there!).   

Future episodes, each one hour long, will tackle subjects including an Angels plot to assassinate Mick Jagger (the Angels were responsible for the stabbing death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter at the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, after which Jagger was critical of the Angels and vowed to never again use them as security), and the trials of Noel Barger, the ex-wife of Angels kingpin Sonny Barger. With a history stretching back 76 years, and chroniclers like Thompson who have both burnished and punctured their mythology, the Angels would seem to have no shortage of stories, if not secrets, to fill the small screen. Despite the famous imperative, their legend has yet to be exterminated.             



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