Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Snitch Files: An ATF agent has a story to tell

Los Angeles, California (October 16, 2018) BTN — The following is an account of an ATF agent and his skewed view of motorcycle clubs. What is not amusing is him betraying the trust of the clubs he prospected and joined. His story is presented here, unadulterated and in his own self glorifying words.  

How I Infiltrated One of L.A.’s Most Vicious Motorcycle Gangs—and Lived to Talk About It

ATF agent Darrin Kozlowski went deep undercover to take down the Hollywood chapter of the Vagos
By Mike Kessler and Darrin Kozlowski

On and off for almost 20 years, I investigated and infiltrated outlaw motorcycle gangs as an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. I wasn’t the only agent to go deep undercover, and I don’t claim to be the best. But the work I did took a lot of bad guys off the streets. I infiltrated the Warlocks in West Virginia in a case that took me up and down the East Coast—Florida, South Carolina, Brooklyn, the Bronx—and resulted in 57 federal arrests (including four Hells Angels) and 49 search warrants executed in six states that turned up 175 firearms (including two sawed-of shotguns and one machine gun), one silencer, one pipe bomb, and body armor.

Here in L.A., I infiltrated the Mongols for three years on what was ATF’s most successful undercover case to date and remains the largest single enforcement operation we’ve done. We prosecuted more than 100 members of the Mongols on weapons and drug charges; 79 of those members were hit with RICO charges, too.

Through all these cases, I came to learn what it’s like to be inside the heads of the guys who ride with outlaw motorcycle gangs—their mentality, their conversations, how they perceive the public and their enemies, and their lack of regard for law enforcement and for innocent lives when there’s a confrontation. Like in Laughlin, Nevada, in 2002, when the Mongols and Hells Angels opened fire on each other in a casino, or the 2015 Twin Peaks restaurant shoot-out between the Bandidos and Cossacks in Waco, Texas.

Even though I’m retired, there’s a lot I still can’t say—partly for my own safety and partly because it would be potentially dangerous for other agents. But there’s one case I can talk about: my infiltration of the Vagos in L.A. back in 1997. It was my first long-term undercover case—in Los Angeles or anywhere—and it nearly got me killed.

The Vagos were as bad as outlaw motorcycle gangs got—right up there with other “one-percenter” gangs like the Hells Angels and the Mongols. If you look closely at the patches on their jackets, you’ll see a diamond with “1%” in the middle. That’s their way of saying they don’t live like the rest of us. Some of these guys had rap sheets as long as a traffic jam on the 101. We’re talking about drug running, illegal weapons sales, and any other moneymaking schemes. Of course, they never refer to themselves as “gangs,” and they might have some regular guys as members. Some even hand out toys at Christmas. But that’s to enhance their public image. That diamond is there for a reason. The Vagos had hundreds of members and dozens of chapters, stretching across the country and into Mexico. And they were growing fast. That’s the outlaw motorcycle gang way: Recruit, grow, and take over more territory by any means necessary. These are the same dudes who’d one day kill a Hells Angel in public up in Reno, and then murder someone else in public in Bakersfield. We wanted to go deep and pull them out by the root.

I don’t know what surprised me more, that Junior had been killed or that his girlfriend knew who I was. I’d never met the woman—didn’t even know her name, and, to my knowledge, she didn’t have mine. I’d been cultivating her boyfriend as an informant when he got run down by a car on Sunset. He was riding a Harley I’d arranged for him to use, and the car hit him so hard it lopped off one of his feet. Died on the spot.

This was in early ’97, a few months after I’d transferred to L.A. from ATF’s Milwaukee office. I was an ambitious 31-year-old agent with a wife, a kid, and another on the way. Back in Wisconsin, I’d taken an interest in working outlaw biker gangs, so I learned to ride on a friend’s Honda, then managed to get a Harley that ATF had seized, a Fat Boy with straight handlebars, no windshield, no saddlebags. I rode to biker bars and events. I let my hair grow, dressed the part, tried to understand the scene. I’m originally from Chicago’s South Side—a tough, working-class part of the city. I knew how to be around bad guys because I grew up with a lot of them. I’m not sure if I blended in because I was fairly quiet and soft-spoken, or if I got that way in order to blend in.

After four years in Milwaukee I was reassigned to California and brought the bike, Wisconsin plates and all. My goal, the one I proposed to my new bosses, was to investigate and infiltrate the one-percenters of Greater L.A. After arriving, I got in touch with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. They’d been keeping tabs on these guys. My contact there told me about a potential confidential informant—a CI—named Junior. He said Junior’d tried to join the Hells Angels but had been “run down the road” for some reason. I got Junior a bike and gave him some cash. We started in Hollywood, where he had a connection with the local Vagos chapter.

The name is Spanish slang for someone who does nothing all day—a vagrant or vagabond. They formed in the 1960s in the Inland Empire, and while they do have a Hispanic presence—the Venice chapter back in the day was pretty much entirely Hispanic—they’re mostly white; no blacks. The horned creature on their patch is Loki, a god of mischief in Norse mythology.

But you don’t get to wear that logo as a “full-patch” member without putting in a lot of time. Unless you have enough street cred or contacts to get “windowed in,” the first step is to hang around until they give you permission to refer to yourself as, well, a “hang-around.” Make it through that phase, and you become a “prospect.” Then they give you the “rocker”—the bottom part of the patch that goes on the back of a vest—which means they’re gonna really test you to get the full patch. Junior wasn’t an official hang-around, but I was playing the long game: I wanted him to get his patch, and he’d be able to vouch for me so I could try to get my patch, too.

Junior had some contact with a guy in the Vagos’ Hollywood chapter named Chuck [names have been changed], a short, beer-bellied dude with black-framed glasses. He wore a painter’s cap with the brim flipped up, had ink from neck to toes, and ran a tattoo shop in West Hollywood. Junior started hanging around there, and he was a good CI—showed up on time, took license plate numbers, eavesdropped, reported back to me. In fact I’d seen him a few hours before the accident, at a bar on the Strip where he gave me some information and I gave him some cash.

I was sitting in my office downtown the day after Junior died when his girlfriend called. I offered my condolences and hung up, wondering if I was screwed. “Junior must have talked about me,” I thought. Did his girlfriend know any of the Vagos he’d been hanging around with? Did he tell her he was working with ATF? If the same thing happened today, I’d call of the operation. But I was young, and ATF hadn’t done many of these biker gang infiltrations; there wasn’t a lot of official protocol. So I decided I’d pay Chuck a visit.

I parked my bike outside the tattoo shop. I knew what Chuck looked like from the sherif’s department’s binders, but I had to fake it and ask for him inside. I introduced myself as Koz, which is my real nickname—short for Kozlowski—but I figured if anyone asked, I could say that it was short for “Kamikaze” because of how I rode my Harley or some bullshit like that. I wanted a name that I responded to instinctively.

I told Chuck I was a buddy of Junior’s, that I knew he’d been hanging around the Hollywood Vagos, and that I had some bad news. Chuck knew about the crash on the Strip but not that Junior was involved. We talked for a while, and he told me to come back in a few hours. When I showed up again, Chuck got on his bike and had me follow him east to their clubhouse—basically a two-level cinder-block warehouse at Hollywood and Kenmore—where I rode in and somebody locked the chain-link gate behind me. There were about ten guys, their bikes all lined up. Chuck introduced me. “Wait here,” he said and went in the building with the other guys.

An hour or so later, someone came out and called for me. “Get in here.” As I walked inside, this heavily fortified metal door slammed behind me, and they patted me down for a wire. Now I’m scared shitless, locked in a windowless building with a bunch of outlaw biker dudes who were very likely convicted felons. I had no cover team, and I didn’t have much in the way of what we call a “backstop”—a story about who I am or what I do for a living, though I was at least carrying a driver’s license and Social Security card under my alias.

They patted me down and found my service weapon in my boot, a SIG Sauer semiautomatic. Back then, the LAPD carried Berettas, so I wasn’t too concerned that they’d suspect me of being undercover. Even though their guns were on a table, they let me keep mine. Next thing I knew, I was being interrogated. Four Vagos kind of stood out. There were Tiny Dan and L.A. Lenny, who happened to be badge-carrying L.A. County juvenile probation officers. There was Lars, the chapter president, who was super fit from training as a boxer and whose wardrobe consisted of jeans and a white T-shirt. And then there was Big Rick, a large guy in his late thirties or early forties with a long ponytail, a Fu Manchu mustache, and a “nobody fucks with me” air of authority. He held the title of international sergeant at arms. Outlaw biker gangs are organized like the mafia or the military, which makes sense, since the gangs were started by ex-military guys after World War II.

I was shaking so hard I couldn’t even work the kickstand on my bike. I just dropped it.

So there I was, in what’s essentially a bunker, and I knew I was shaking. I was pretty sure they knew it, too. Big Rick did most of the talking.

“How did you know Junior?”

“Why are you carrying a gun?”

“Why do you have Wisconsin tags on your bike?”

This went on for at least 30 minutes, and I had to wing it. Big Rick took notes the whole time, and I was trying to keep my story straight, thinking, “What kind of outlaw takes notes!?”

At one point, Big Rick said to me, “We have reason to believe that Junior was working with ATF.”

It felt like my head went completely sideways. He didn’t say “LAPD” or “the cops” or “the feds.” He said “ATF.” I have no idea what came out of my mouth next, except that it was pure bullshit. I wasn’t thinking about my wife or my kid or my kid on the way. I was focused on not getting a bullet in the head.

Whatever I said satisfied them. When we got back outside the building, they told me they were going to a bar and that I should follow. They got on their bikes and turned east on Hollywood. I turned west, gunning it to the 101 and the 170 into North Hollywood, where two ATF agents waited for me in a parking lot. I was shaking so hard I couldn’t even work the kickstand on my bike. I just dropped it.

Maybe the Vagos knew someone in the LAPD who pulled the VIN off Junior’s bike and linked it to ATF. In any case, I figured it was a lost cause. But a week later my pager went off. It was Big Rick. I had more bravado on the phone: “You’re probably calling to tell me you checked into my story and learned it’s all bullshit. And guess what? You’re right. You guys had some hair up your ass about who I am, talkin’ about cops and ATF and a bunch of other nonsense. I don’t know any of you, and I had no reason to trust any of you, so I fed you some bullshit and got the hell out of there. I didn’t know where you were going or if you were gonna take a pipe to my head or what. And you know you’d have done the same damn thing.”

Rick didn’t seem fazed. “Hey man,” he said, “I’m just calling because we’re having a function this weekend at the clubhouse. We want you to come back. But leave your gun at home.”

This meant one of two things: Either they were gonna let me become a hang-around or they were gonna kill me.

The Hollywood chapter, which had about ten members who lived all over L.A., threw a regular party called Green Hell. (Sometimes the Vagos refer to themselves as Green Nation.) Plus Loki has sort of a Satanic vibe, what with his horns and all. They also flaunt the number 22, since “V” is the 22nd letter in the alphabet.

Green Hell went from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. at the clubhouse. It was a moneymaker. The guys would go to bars and strip clubs, recruit guests, and offer late-night work to the strippers. There was a cover charge and a cash bar, a pool table, a couple of stripper poles. It drew a big crowd. Hollywood people always showed up. The band Matchbox 20 came one night. The Guns N’ Roses drummer, too. Even a few movie stars came. People liked the underground feel. I don’t think most realized that it was a Vagos party or that if things jumped off, there could be serious violence.

My job was to stock the bar, watch the gate, work the door. At one Green Hell, a guy from the Armenian Power gang was making trouble, and when we tried to throw him out, he put up a fight. I knew I had to put hands on him to avoid blowing my cover. A few of us escorted him to the street and threw him into a parked car, which caused his head to smash the side-view mirror. A few days later, during church—what outlaw motorcycle gangs call weekly chapter meetings—a bunch of Armenian guys came to the clubhouse when I was watching the gate. One of them said, “I wanna talk to Lars.” Lars came out, they walked down the block, and within a few minutes they’d brokered a peace deal. Everything was cool. A few months later, in the parking lot of a nearby restaurant where they all hung out, the Armenian guys showed me a trunk full of machine guns.

On another church night, I was outside by the gate when I looked up and saw a car rolling by. Then a hand with a gun emerged from the sunroof. Blap-blap-blap-blap-blap! I heard the zing of a bullet as it went past my ears. We never figured out who it was.

By that point it was late spring, and I’d gotten more backstops in order: a place to live, some address history. My Harley had California plates, and I had a truck registered to my undercover name. I’d rented a little apartment in a North Hollywood fourplex near Victory and Lankershim with its own garage. I’d park my ATF vehicle, a small GMC truck, a few blocks away and walk to my undercover place and slip in through the alley. Sometimes Vagos would come by to hang out or see what I was up to. I had an ATF cover team in place about 50, maybe 60 percent of the time, doing drive-bys, but a cover team can’t really save you in this type of role; it just keeps an eye out from time to time and cleans up if things go bad.

My best friend from the academy, Frank D’Alesio, was doing the same sort of infiltrating with the Vagos in Las Vegas at the time. It was a coincidence, but we used it to our advantage. Being an Italian American from a Rust Belt city with a mafia presence, Frank portrayed himself as a connected guy with side hustles across the country. He told them that he had a business associate from back East named Koz who was hanging around with Vagos in Hollywood, and I told the Hollywood Vagos about Frank. The Vagos have a rule that’s basically “if it doesn’t have to do with the club, it’s no one else’s business.” Frank and I figured if we followed the rules, maybe they’d respect us enough to do business together.

We would talk at night to keep our stories straight. Pretty soon Frank and one of his informants were making runs to L.A. We’d see each other at Vagos functions, go on errands together—taking packages from Point A to Point B, that kind of thing. We knew better than to ask what was in the packages; it was way too soon for that.

The head of the entire Vagos organization was a scraggly-haired, bald-domed guy called Whitey who was in his fifties and wore a cowboy hat and Fu Manchu. He looked like the comedian Gallagher, or a clown, which is funny because he’d brag that he was the first person to play Ronald McDonald in a commercial. He lived in the San Gabriel Valley. I remember one time he made me and Frank try to sell a bunch of videos of him riding around on a motorcycle. Anything to make money for the gang. We took the tapes to ATF, got some cash, and brought it back to Whitey.

By month three of my hang-around phase, I’d seen plenty—felons in possession of firearms, guys using or selling drugs, the two probation officers associating with known felons involved in a criminal enterprise. I watched and listened and filled out reports as I got to know some of the Vagos. Big Rick would have me to his house in Covina, where he had a lot of weapons. We’d go drink beer and play darts. He was kind of my sponsor, my main point of contact, not unlike Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco. (My original contact—Chuck from the tattoo shop—wound up moving away.) I liked Rick, and I have to admit it felt good to have his confidence in me. People ask if I ever felt conflicted about tricking these guys. Sometimes I did, but you have to reel yourself in and remember they’re part of a criminal organization.

One weekend in the summer of ’97, about four months after becoming a hang-around, I was with a bunch of them headed to Las Vegas for a big officers’ meeting, which happens maybe once a year. They ride in tight formation, wheel to wheel and basically shoulder to shoulder—ranking members up front, rank-and-file in the middle, followed by prospects, and finally the hang-arounds in the back, choking on exhaust and dust. And they ride fast. When you see a pack of them on the highway, there’s a good chance they’re going to a meeting, unless they’re out to show their presence and mark territory. Or they could be on a “run” to a fund-raiser where they’ll take over a park or campground, hand out fliers, charge a cover, sell food and beer—it’s basically a bake sale for bad guys.

On that weekend in Vegas, the Vagos rented out a VFW hall. Whitey, Lars, Chuck, and Big Rick were there. So was Frank, since he was local. We knew we were close to becoming prospects because they’d made us fill out applications. That’s another weird thing: Outlaw biker gangs make the path to membership pretty damn official. They do background checks. You give them a Social Security number, driver’s license—all sorts of stuff, including a fee, which goes toward a private investigator. By chance, I met the PI vetting me. He was hanging around with some Vagos, and when I introduced myself, he was like, “Yeah, man—I know who you are.”

At the VFW hall, Frank and I weren’t allowed to hear the others talk business. We sat in another room, waiting to be called in. I believe I went first. As I walked in, I was facing all the high-ranking officers. They asked, “Are you willing to kill for the club?” They more or less played head games with me to see what I’d say and to test my commitment. But after a few minutes, they eased up and gave me my bottom rocker—the part of the patch that says “SoCal” on it.

It was official: I was a prospect. When they were done with me, they called for Frank and did the same routine on him. Even though you can wear what you want, outlaw motorcycle gang members always wear a denim or leather vest. It’s basically the uniform. The Vagos told me and Frank we had 30 minutes to get the rockers on our vests, so we found an upholstery shop nearby and had our bottom rockers sewn on. Later, when I was with the Warlocks, I was ordered to carry a sewing kit. I think one-percenters are the only outlaws on the planet who keep a needle and thread handy.

Being undercover is a terrible way to live. You actually have three lives: your undercover persona, your family persona, and the persona as a law enforcement officer, doing the paperwork and acting like a respectable civil servant. Even though I knew management had my back, dealing with them was the hardest part. They wanted results faster than I could deliver, and they didn’t understand—not in any real way—that every time I was with the Vagos I could have wound up dead. And at the same time I was wondering if I was gonna get whacked, I had to take mental notes about everything I was seeing and hearing—the guns, where I was told to take a package, who’s in possession of what illegal substances. The only reason it didn’t drive me insane was because I was too busy trying to juggle it all, to keep it straight and survive.

Once you’re a prospect, they own you, especially if you don’t have a straight job. I wished I’d made a real job part of my backstory. They thought my hustle with Frank was the extent of it, so they figured I had loads of free time when, really, I had a family at home. They called me a lot. It could be anything from “Hey, prospect, cut my grass” or “Hey, prospect, take this package over to Big Rick’s place” to just hanging out. Saying no wasn’t an option.

I was missing doctors’ appointments for the kids, coming home too tired to do dad duties, and making my wife deal with the whims of my undercover work. I knew it was tough for her. Later, when I traveled back East to infiltrate the Warlocks, I’d be gone for months at a time, which put a huge strain on my family life. My long shaggy hair, goatee, grubby clothes, and steel-toed boots didn’t help, especially in the suburbs, where I lived during those cases. I can’t tell you how many times I showed up at my kids’ school functions only to see parents and teachers shy away from me. If I wanted to lie low, I’d dress a bit nicer, but I was hardly clean-cut. When I infiltrated the Mongols in L.A., I got fully sleeved out with tattoos, so blending in as a civilian got even harder.

Some Vagos, mostly guys from the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Valley chapters, used to hang out at a bar near Sunland and Foothill boulevards in the Tujunga area. The owners supposedly didn’t like them wearing their patches in the place and gave them a hard time. So that juvenile probation officer, Tiny Dan—he was obese, with close-cropped hair and a dark goatee— decided, “Let’s go to this bar and document how they’re harassing us and discriminating against us.” The idea was to file a lawsuit and make some money. About a dozen of us rolled to this bar after meeting up and establishing the ground rules. One rule was “No weapons of any kind.” The thing is, since becoming a prospect I’d begun secretly carrying my gun again. My thinking was “If shit breaks bad and I’m supposed to help these guys or defend myself, I don’t want to be caught flat-footed.”

We walked into the bar, and the Vagos had a chip on their shoulder from the jump, looking to stir shit up, talking with the bartender about wearing their colors. Somebody must have made a call or tripped an alarm because LAPD showed up within minutes—multiple cars, lights flashing. They brought us outside one by one, lined us up in front of the bar, and started patting us down. One of them found my gun tucked in my waistband and called out, “Gun!”

As I was being cuffed I looked down the line and the Vagos looked at me like, “What the fuck, Koz!? We said, ‘No guns.’ ”

I was the only guy who got arrested, and I had to make it look legit. A neighbor of mine happened to be a ranking LAPD officer based in the Foothill station. He knew I was ATF, but he didn’t know I was undercover until I told him everything in my cell. Even though I had an alias, a fingerprint check would have turned up my real identity because it’s cross-referenced with an FBI database. Tiny Dan also knew a girl at the front desk, which I learned only later; if she’d gotten my real identity, she could’ve spilled the beans. But Dan came and bailed me out the next morning. The whole night, my wife was at home, wondering why she hadn’t heard from me. When I finally saw her, she said, “I see that you’re not dead. So if you weren’t in jail, you’ve got some explaining to do.”

Before I went to court, my ATF colleagues met with the judge, and he agreed to go along with it to make things look by the numbers. In court, he sentenced me to two years of probation and time served at the Foothill station for carrying a concealed weapon. The whole episode actually gave me more street cred, but I hadn’t forgotten about Junior’s girlfriend or the grilling I’d gotten a few months earlier.

By the fall of 1997, about seven months into the case, Frank and I had already been getting hints that we were going to get our full patches when all the Vagos met up at the next national run. This was good news. The bad news? Rumor was that it’d be in Mexico. Working on foreign soil as a federal agent is a bureaucratic nightmare. ATF would have had to notify the Mexican authorities, who could be corrupt or incompetent or simply unwilling to let us work there. And even if we thought we could pull it of, we still had to run it through the proper channels in D.C. We asked, “Hey, can guys in an undercover role dip in and out of Mexico?” The answer wasn’t only no, it was “Hell no!”

The easiest thing would have been to go regardless, hope nothing happened, and come back without telling anyone. But if we got caught, our careers would be over. Frank and I decided our only option was to come up with an excuse not to go. At the time, ATF was part of the U.S. Treasury Department, which had its own federal criminal database. We managed to get something put into the system that red-flagged our aliases for suspicion of trafficking marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. near Brownsville, Texas. That way we could tell the Vagos, “Hey, we got red-flagged a while back and can’t cross the border.” And if they had a source with access to the system, it’d look true.

Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, the national run wound up being slated not in Mexico but in Fontana, near San Bernardino. That happens to be where the first biker gang, the Hells Angels, was founded; in nearby Redlands, a gang called Psychos got started before some of its members split off and formed the Vagos. For whatever reason, Frank, his CI, and the other Vegas guys didn’t go to Fontana, but a hundred Vagos from other chapters made the run to this large property with a long dirt driveway. I worked security in front, bored as hell, watching my cover team drive by now and then. Finally someone from the gathering yelled, “Prospect, get back here. And bring your bike.”

I got on my Harley, and as I rode down the driveway the gate closed behind me; up ahead, they all stood in a horseshoe formation, blocking me. Someone yelled, “Get off your bike, prospect!” I’d barely put the kickstand down when they started pushing, shoving, slapping, even punching me. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was thinking, “Did I do something wrong? Do they know I’m an undercover cop?” I was glad I wasn’t wearing a wire, but mostly I was thinking, “If this gets bad, just claw your way over that fence to the street! Don’t let yourself fall to the ground with a hundred guys trying to stomp you with steel-toed boots.”

Lars, the Hollywood chapter president with a boxer’s build, was in front of me, pushing, yelling stuff I could barely process, like, “You fucked up, Koz! First you got rough with the Armenian. Then you got people coming around shooting at you. Then you get arrested for possession when we agreed not to carry weapons. You’re fucking trouble, man!”

I tried to stick up for myself without getting physical or making anybody angrier. I’m like, “That’s fuckin’ bullshit, Lars. I did what I needed to do.”

Then after a minute or two—it felt like hours—it all came to a stop. Lars handed me my full patch, grinned, and said, “Get that patch on.” Everybody started cheering.

When we left, my cover team was watching for me, assuming I’d be at the back of the pack. But I was closer to the middle. After they finally spotted me, they were high-fiving one another. “He got his patch! He’s in!”

I was excited, too. I’d be able to attend church meetings, learn more about the inner workings of the gang. The six or seven months of work—the stress on me and my family—all of it was paying off.

Halloween came soon after I got my patch, and there was a party at a member’s house in the San Fernando Valley, around Reseda and Parthenia. Some Vagos lived in two or three houses on the same block, and the party was hopping. I was even kind of enjoying myself. But then Lars, Tiny Dan, and a smelly, raspy-voiced guy named Pig Pen Pete found me and said, “We need to talk.” We went to another backyard, which was empty, and Dan, the probation officer, said something like, “Hey, we know you got patched in, but we still have some checking out to do. I’m going to have to roll your fingerprints.” He was acting like it was a formality they forgot about, so I wasn’t getting too hinked up. “Sure man, whatever you need,” I said, trying to play it cool.

Dan pulled out an ink pad and fingerprint cards and took my fingerprints, asking me, “Do you go by any other names?” I told him no, and then we walked back to the party.

A few days later, I parked my government vehicle down the street from my undercover apartment in North Hollywood and walked down the alley so I could enter through the back door as usual. My undercover truck and Harley were in the garage.

No more than five minutes after I arrived, there was a knock at the door. It was Lars. “Hey, we gotta call Big Rick,” he said, sounding kind of cold.

“Alright, what’s up?”

He said, “Let’s just get Rick on the phone.”

When I put the phone to my ear, Big Rick said, “What were you doing today?”

I’m like, “I don’t know. I was out and about.”

Rick’s like, “Oh, yeah? What were you doing?”

“Taking care of some business, nothing related to the club.”

Then he asked, “Well, what car were you in?”

I told him I drove my truck, and he said, “I don’t think you were in your truck.” Turns out Lars and some guys were at my place earlier in the day. “They went in your garage and saw your truck and bike.”

I started backpedaling: “OK, well, yeah, you’re right. I had a different car.”

“What kind of car was it?”

“It’s really none of your concern. I was in someone else’s car, taking care of some stuff with other people. Nothing to do with the club.”

Rick told me to put Lars back on the phone, who didn’t say much to Rick other than “Yeah…yeah…yeah.…” He hung up, turned to me, and said, “We still got some concerns about who you are. Where’s your patch?”

I’m like, “Lars, are you kidding me?”

“We may be wrong about this,” he said, “and if so, we’ll owe you an apology. But right now, I need your patch until further notice.”

I was pissed. I wasn’t about to let these assholes blow up all my hard work. I doubled down: “This is bullshit. This is amateur hour. Why didn’t you sort this shit out before? Is this some kind of joke?”

But Lars said, “Don’t make contact and don’t come around the clubhouse.”

At one of the SFV houses, we found a human skull wrapped in a bag. It wasn’t decorative; it had material on it.

So I gave him my patch, vest and all. He was kicking me out of the Vagos two weeks after I was patched in and seven months into an operation that had taken me away from my wife, my newborn, and my two-year-old. Once I knew Lars was gone, I called my cover team, which rolled by to be sure other Vagos weren’t outside waiting to kick my ass. Then they got me out of there. For the next eight weeks or so, I was back at the office, helping put together all the evidence we had on these guys so we could make some arrests and, hopefully, weaken the gang.

Looking back, I was lucky. According to an ATF agent in San Diego who’d heard it from his own CI, the whole thing could be traced back to Junior, my own informant, and his girlfriend. She’d crossed paths with some Vagos right after I was patched in, and she told them that Junior had been working for the ATF when he died. She even gave them the business card I’d handed Junior, which had my Wisconsin information on it. (I’d crossed out the old phone number and written my L.A. number on it while I was waiting for new cards.) So the Vagos put the pieces together, and according to the CI, they were going to “take care” of me.

Out in Las Vegas, nobody suspected Frank of being undercover. They actually thought he was my target and warned him, “Hey, your buddy Koz out in L.A., he’s with the ATF and he’s been working you.” Frank wound up on the phone with Big Rick and the Vagos president, Whitey, who said something along the lines of “I think Koz needs to be eliminated.” At that point Rick said, “I’m getting off this phone call right now,” and hung up. Frank used me as an excuse to lie low and slowly drift away from the Vagos without suspicion.

Over the next several months, we got warrants for Vagos in L.A., Vegas, and San Diego, and we assembled teams of officers—ATF, LASD, LAPD, and local law enforcement from other counties—to move on multiple locations. That included Rick’s place, Lars’s place, Tiny Dan’s place, the Hollywood clubhouse, and the San Fernando Valley houses from the night of the Halloween party. The raids happened before dawn. I didn’t participate, but I was at the SFV properties right after it all went down. Three Vagos were sitting handcuffed on the sidewalk. Pig Pen Pete was one of them, and he started yelling at me, calling me a motherfucker. All told, my work helped us make 13 arrests on everything from drug and gun possession in L.A. and Vegas to possession of commercial-grade explosives down in San Diego. At one of the SFV houses, we found a human skull wrapped in a bag. It wasn’t decorative; it had material on it.

Frank and I received official recognition from headquarters in D.C., and our work inspired enough confidence to help ramp up and improve the undercover branch. It also helped us avoid making some of the same mistakes again in future cases. Looking back, I did a lot of things wrong and made a lot of mistakes. I was mostly flying by the seat of my pants, but that made me a better undercover agent when I infiltrated the Warlocks and the Mongols.

After my Vagos infiltration, the Hollywood chapter lost more or less half its membership. And when it started to pick back up, I worked behind the scenes as a co-case agent and supervising CIs on a two-year infiltration that netted several arrests across five Southern California counties on charges ranging from drug and gun sales to street terrorism, attempted murder, and murder. It wasn’t lost on us that the number of people we put in handcuffs was 22. And if it wasn’t for my first case with the Vagos, my work—and ATF’s—taking down major players in the Warlocks, the Mongols, the Hells Angels, and the Aryan Brotherhood might not have landed indictments and convictions numbering in the hundreds. We didn’t put them out of business, but we sure as hell slowed them down.

Darrin Kozlowski spent 28 years as an ATF agent before retiring in 2017. Mike Kessler is a regular contributor to Los Angeles. His last piece was about peacocks being poached on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.