As thousands of bikers paid tribute Saturday to slain Hells Angels member Steve “Mr. 187” Tausan, California police described to reporters the strange turns in a biker gang turf war that has left several men dead, wounded or missing and has its origins in a seating dispute at a Santa Cruz, Calif., Starbucks.
Tausan, who was buried Saturday before 3,000 fellow bikers, was shot and killed two weeks ago at a funeral for another Hells Angels member, Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, who was himself shot and killed in September at a casino in Sparks, Nev. Tausan, police say, was shot during a dispute with fellow Hells Angels member Steven Ruiz. Pettigrew died at the hands of a member of the Vagos motorcylce gang.
According to police, Vagos and the Hells Angels have been feuding since January 2010, when several members of Vagos attempted to claim seating rights at a Santa Cruz Starbucks — a well-known Hells Angels hotspot. Fisticuffs ensued, with gang members wielding ball-point pens.
“"It was all about who would be allowed to hang out at the Starbucks downtown," Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark told Reuters News Service. "The Vagos brazenly came in and tried to cement their presence. It was a pretty strong play on their part to establish themselves as the premiere club."
"Only in Santa Cruz would you have biker wars over who's going to control pumpkin spice lattes."
Violence re-erupted several months later when the gangs exchanged gunfire in Chino Valley, Ariz., wounding five and leading to 27 arrests.
The war turned lethal in September when Pettigrew, the president of the San Jose, Calif., chapter of the Hells Angels, was gunned down in a melee at John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel and casino. One Vagos member was wounded and another was shot non-fatally in a drive-by shooting the following day.
According to police, internal blame for Pettigrew's killing fell on the shoulders of Hells Angels member Steven Ruiz, who was with Pettigrew at the time of the shooting. Police say Tausan and several other members confronted Ruiz at Pettigrew's funeral over his perceived failure to protect Pettigrew; under provocation, Ruiz fired on Tausan. Ruiz then fled the funeral, apparently with the aid of at least some members of the gang, who whisked him away in a car, eluding police capture.
Police say Ruiz remains at large.
Violence isn't unknown to the Hell Angels, whom the U.S. Justice Department has classified as an outlaw gang involved in drug and weapons trafficking, extortion, theft, money-laundering and petty crime. The Vagos imbroglio is the second serious gang war in which the Angels have been involved in the last 10 years. In 2002, Reuters reports, an extended conflict with the Mongols motorcycle gang left three gang members dead.