A federal judge in California has rejected a request by the Mongols Motorcycle Club to vacate its federal criminal convictions, saying the tearful rant by the club president that led some to believe he’s a secret government informant isn’t enough to offset the “horrific” killings that dominated the 2018 trial.
The allegation against David “Lil’ Dave” Santillan “has a stench to it,” said U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, but there’s no evidence to support it. And even if there was, the idea that the Mongols could be acquitted if given another trial “is something this court has a very difficult time believing,” the judge said.
“This case is horrific concerning the magnitude of the murders and the narcotics dealing, and the war between the Hells Angels and the Mongols,” said Carter, who is based in the Central District of California’s Santa Ana courthouse. “There are too many murders.”
The rivalry began with the Hells Angels not allowing the mongols to be members because of their Hispanic ethnicity, Carter said, back in the early days of the Hells Angels and its now-late founder, Sonny Barger. It escalated in 1977 when two Mongols, President Emerson “Redbeard” Morris and member Raymond “Jingles” Smith, were machine-gunned off their motorcycles on a California freeway by Hells Angels who later sent carnations to the morgue that were red and white — the colors of the Hells Angels.
In the 45 years since, there have been “so many acts of violence it’s unfathomable” Carter said in an oral ruling from the bench about 6 p.m. on Thursday. The judge said the violence has been well documented including as recently as 2 1/2 weeks ago in Tennessee when a federal jury convicted six members of the Mongols’ Clarksville chapter involving murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking.
Carter said he couldn’t explain a “bizarre” video that prompted the Mongols to accuse Santillan of secretly working with federal agents. It was released by Santillan’s girlfriend when she was upset about him seeing another woman, and it features Santillan drunkenly decrying the upcoming retirement of John Ciccone, a longtime agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who investigated the Mongols for years, with a tearful Santillan saying “One year! He told me I have one year and then he can’t protect me anymore. … So we have to have an exit strategy.”
It was detailed in a motion for new trial brought in December 2021 by the Mongols’ lawyer Joseph Yanny, who defended the club in the 2018 trial in which the U.S. Attorney’s Office targeted the club’s trademarked patches for forfeiture. A jury convicted the Mongols of racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering, then authorized the forfeiture, but Carter blocked it under the 1st Amendment protections for free expression and speech as well as the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The judge did, however, leave in place the criminal convictions, and he imposed a $500,000 fine that the club is required to pay in monthly installments. Yanny’s motion sought to vacate those convictions and get a new trial, arguing Santillan intentionally tanked the defense strategy by refusing to allow Yanny to call Ciccone as a witness.
Both Ciccone and Santillan denied the allegations in their own time on the witness stand. They said Ciccone told Santillan he was retiring in passing conversation and not as a warning, and Ciccone said he’d never promised to protect Santillan and that his contact with him was public safety driven, aimed at discussing upcoming events and avoiding future problems. Santillan said he could have invoked his 5th Amendment right against self incrimination, but “I came here on my own accord to prove my innocence.”
“I’ve never cooperated. I was never inappropriate with anybody from law enforcement and government. I don’t even like the people they put my brothers in prison,” Santillan said.
Santillan said Ciccone “was fair” and “earned our respect” by not “bringing frivolous cases” against the group.
“He’s easy to talk to. He’s chill. It ain’t being inappropriate just because you’re having conversation with somebody in law enforcement. You’re just being respectful. Respect’s a two-way street.”
He also said Yanny’s argument that federal agents intentionally inflame the conflict between the Hells Angels and the Mongols is an unfounded conspiracy theory.
“We have four decades of warring with the Hells Angels. We don’t need anybody egging it on. It’s already done. There’s so much bad blood, it’s on on sight,” Santillan continued, calling the Mongols presidency “a thankless job.”
“We have issues. That’s the bottom line. When you put that patch on, you’re a target. And your enemies are your enemies and they’re gong to stay your enemies,” Santillan said.
And that’s had murderous consequences, as chronicled in court cases across the country.
The 2018 trial included testimony from Mongol member Christopher “Stoney” Ablett, who’s serving life in federal prison for the 2008 murder of Hells Angels member San Francisco Chapter President Mark “Papa” Guardado. Jurors also heard of a man beaten to death with a pool cue in a bar on Valentine’s Day 2007, as well as a shooting at a Toys for Tots fundraiser and the fatal shooting of a police officer by a Mongols member during a police raid at his home.
Carter held eight hearings between June and October regarding the informant allegations against Santillan, eventually hearing from an array of law enforcement officials who scoured informant databases and found no trace of Santillan.
The judge also incorporated evidence from the federal prosecution of a lawyer accused of working for the Mexican Mafia after he learned of a sealed document in the case that referenced the Mongols. It turned out to be a summary of an interview in which Ciccone said Santillan may have worked as an informant for other agents, but Ciccone testified he said that as a precaution and didn’t know for sure if he was. Carter heard from several other law enforcement witnesses who denied ever working with Santillan as an informant.
The hearings also included a rare look at a relationship between an attorney and client that appeared broken even during the 2018 trial. Back then, another attorney for the Mongols, Stephen Stubbs, told Carter that Yanny had tried to falsify a $511,000 debt to make the Mongols appear destitute, though Yanny said the debt was legitimately owed to him by the club.
The judge’s initial response? “If you two want to go out in the hallway and have a fistfight – I’m just kidding you.”
“I think this has become a public spectacle, and I think that we don’t need it,” Carter continued.
As Santillan and Yanny’s courtroom sparring showed, the financial beef between the two has only grown in the nearly four years since trial. Santillan told Yanny he was purposely “dragging” out the proceedings to get more money from the Mongols, and that he owed Santillan because Santillan had paid Yanny’s debt to other Mongols.
“How much longer are you going to drag it out? Seven more days? C’mon, Joe? You that hard up for money?” Santillan asked from the witness stand during the Sept. 7 hearing.
“I’m not that hard up,” Yanny answered from the lectern as Carter looked on in amusement.
“Yeah, then give me the money you owe me,” Santillan said.
“I don’t owe you a cent,” Yanny replied.
“You found a way to monetize on the club and bring this motion. That’s what this is about. You’ve got an axe to grind,” Santillan replied.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Brunwin mentioned the banter in his argument to Carter on Thursday, saying the discussions are totally irrelevant to the legal argument of whether there was new evidence that warranted the Mongols getting a new trial.
“This isn’t new evidence. These are things that would have been known to the defendant. They knew about their own arguments having borrowed money from during trial,” Brunwin said.
In rejecting the new trial motion, Carter invited Yanny to appeal his ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which already is considering an appeal of the criminal convictions.
“You now have a clear record if they take months or years, at least we have captured this in our lifetime,” Carter said.
Yanny told Law&Crime on Monday he believes Carter’s decision “is incorrect.”
“It surprised me in many ways. I understand the judge’s reluctance to smear the reputation of a retired federal agent and place Santillan potentially in harm’s way with a rat designation,” Yanny said. “Nonetheless, the decision is disappointing.”
Read the most recent briefs on the informant allegations from the Mongols and the U.S. Attorney’s Office below.
(Images: Photos by Meghann M. Cuniff, Mongols logo from U.S. Attorney’s Office brief.)
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