Federal judge denies Mongols motorcycle club’s request for new trial

A federal judge has denied a request for a new trial by the notorious Mongols Motorcycle Club, despite claims by the outlaw organization that its former president was a secret government informant who worked against them during their ongoing legal battle with the government.

Several years after a jury deemed the Mongols a criminal organization, the club’s attorneys have in recent months alleged that former Mongols president David Santillan was a government “rat” who was working with now-retired ATF Agent John Ciccone in the midst of a 2018 trial at a Santa Ana courthouse.

Santillan and Ciccone have denied the club’s allegations, and representatives for law enforcement agencies involved in investigating the Mongols have testified that there is no record of the former club president serving as a confidential informant. U.S. District Judge David Carter last week ruled against the Mongols request for a new trial, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Key to the Mongols new trial request was a surreptitiously recorded phone call between an apparently drunken Santillan and his wife, with whom he was estranged at the time. In that call — which the wife later leaked to other Mongols members — Santillan responded to her desire to leave the motorcycle club world by saying “John” was retiring “and he can’t protect me, he told me, so we have to have an exit strategy.”

Mongols’ attorneys also cited reports that Santillan had been seen “meeting” with Ciccone at a Starbuck’s a half-block from the federal courthouse mid-trial, and alleged that the former club president had a “get-out-of-jail pass” from the then-ATF agent.

Santillan denied working against the club on behalf of the government, explaining in recent testimony that his comments during the recorded phone call followed a conversation with Ciccone in which the soon-to-retire agent suggested Santillan take the opportunity to walk away from the club since the next agent assigned to the case may not be as “nice.”

Santillan testified that Ciccone had been “fair” to the club, in his words not putting any “bull(expletive) cases on us.” He described the “meeting” between him and Ciccone at the Starbucks as a chance encounter, and denied colluding with the government during the trial or receiving preferential treatment by law enforcement.

Ciccone testified that his only conversations with Santillan occurred in front of other club members at public events where investigators wanted the motorcycle riders to know that law enforcement was watching. During recent testimony, Santillan’s wife — who has apparently reconciled with him — walked back her earlier claims to other club members that Santillan was an informant.

Attorneys representing the club also questioned whether Santillan was involved in law-enforcement investigations into the powerful, prison-based Mexican Mafia.

An attorney with ties to the Mexican Mafia allegedly tried to reach the president of the Mongols in 2014 as part of an apparent effort to extort the motorcycle club. Santillan would have been the club president at the time, but it was unclear from testimony whether such a meeting with the alleged Mexican Mafia-tied attorney ever took place, or if such an extortion plot ever actually occurred.

In a recent motion urging Judge Carter to deny the club’s request for a new trial, federal prosecutors noted that no evidence supporting the claim that Santillan informed on the club or played a role in law enforcement investigations has emerged despite several days of testimony that stretched over several months.

Formed in Montebello in the 1970s by Hispanic motorcycle riders who weren’t allowed to join the rival Hells Angels, the now-West Covina-based Mongols were infiltrated by several law enforcement agents as part of a multi-agency investigation known as Operation Black Rain.

After a years-long criminal case against specific Mongols members led to more than 75 racketeering-related convictions, federal prosecutors went after the club itself in an attempt to seize the Mongols’ trademarks, including the prized patches that adorn the bikers’ vests.

Following a trial at the Santa Ana courthouse, a federal jury agreed that the Mongols are a criminal organization that supported drug trafficking and encouraged vicious assaults and even murder.

In 2019, Judge Carter ordered the club to pay a $500,000 fine and placed the organization on five years of supervised probation. But the judge overrode a key portion of the jury’s verdict by ruling that taking the club’s trademark would be unconstitutional.

Judge Carter’s decision to block the government from taking the Mongols’ trademarks is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a first-of-its-kind legal argument, the fight to determine the future use of the motorcycle club’s distinctive insignia could ultimately rise to the U.S. Supreme Court.