Aging biker club's trial rolls toward finish
Detroit — Paul Darrah, one of the country's highest-ranking outlaw bikers, clutches a wad of toilet paper as security guards roll him into federal court in a wheelchair and lug his oxygen tank.
The vice president of the Devils Diciples Motorcycle Club used to own metal throwing stars and a knuckle knife shaped like the Batman symbol. But today, Darrah is more outpatient than outlaw. Known within the gang as "Pauli," he needs toilet paper to catch mucus shot out of the tracheostomy hole in his neck with a wet sound that startles a deputy U.S. Marshal sitting shotgun in the seventh-floor courtroom.
The 50-year-old from Macomb Township is one of the lead defendants in a racketeering trial winding down three years after the Federal Bureau of Investigation toppled the notorious motorcycle club. The crackdown ended an alleged reign of terror spanning several states that included three murders and brass-knuckle beatings.
The trial is notable for the size and scope of crimes allegedly committed by more than 40 gang members charged in federal court — some of whom, like Darrah, face up to life in prison if convicted of crimes dating to the early 1990s. It also is notable for the contrast between the government's violent portrait of bikers who after 20 years of alleged criminal activity and cooking methamphetamine, appear paunchy, feeble, or, like Darrah, deathly ill.
"Anyone in a motorcycle gang, they don't have a lot of time to go to the gym. They're not working out and eating fat-free food," said Jorja Leap, a gang expert and adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It's not a lifestyle conducive to longevity."
Jurors started deliberating the fate of Darrah and six others Monday, following a nearly four-month trial in the first wave of Devils Diciples prosecutions. Convictions could help the Justice Department obliterate a national gang, with the intentionally misspelled name, based in Clinton Township. It is smaller and less infamous than the Hells Angels, but shares some of the same criminal tendencies — and the same meth cook, according to the federal government.
The Devils Diciples are one in a number of motorcycle clubs targeted by federal prosecutors in Detroit. The Justice Department has secured convictions against approximately 65 members of the Detroit-based Highwaymen Motorcycle Club in recent years.
This week, members of the Phantom Outlaw Motorcycle Club, based in northwest Detroit, are scheduled to stand trial in another wide-ranging racketeering case in federal court.
Formed in 1967, the Devils Diciples has about 150 members, rigid rules, heavily guarded clubhouses and chapters in Chesterfield Township, Bay City, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Clinton Township, Port Huron and Utica. Prosecutors allege that the gang has its own mini economy built around meth — and even has a gift shop.
The online store features several gang products, including Devils Diciples shower curtains ($47.99), thongs ($14.99) and a $13 pink baby bib with the words "My Dad can beat up Everybody!"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin, in a court filing, noted the gang's "marketing genius," writing that the online store's products — "which include attractive 'TALK S--- GET HIT' tote bags, T-shirts and coffee mugs — appear to be reasonably priced as well."
The Justice Department wants to shut down the store and erase the Devils Diciples gang. The U.S. Attorney's Office wants the gang to forfeit, upon conviction, its registered trademark, clubhouses in Clinton Township and Port Huron, a series of websites, the group's Facebook page, online store, and dozens of personal possessions seized during raids.
On the pages of a 38-count indictment and in photos shown to jurors, the seven Devils Diciples members, most of whom are from Metro Detroit, are dangerous and devious. There's David "D" Drozdowski of Fair Haven breaking a biker's jaw. There's Vincent "Holiday" Witort of California allegedly torturing bikers and leaving them for dead in an Arizona desert. There's Patrick "Magoo" McKeoun of Alabama allegedly cooking meth in an underground lab. And there's Darrah, the potty-mouthed alleged meth peddler allegedly talking about drugs hidden in a motorcycle muffler and bad-mouthing a former member nicknamed "Thumbs" during a wiretapped phone call in September 2008.
"You need to get a hold of (expletive) Thumbs and get our s--- back and tell him to shut his (expletive) mouth before he doesn't have one to shut," Darrah allegedly said. "We're going to come out there and jerk his (expletive) head right off."
Showing their age
The nearly 20 years covered in the indictment have taken a toll on the seven Devils Diciples members, some of whom have been jailed for years while awaiting trial. McKeoun, 56, breathes with lungs damaged by cooking meth. The club's longtime national president, Jeff "Fat Dog" Smith, 60, of Mount Clemens, has a potbelly and squints to see jurors. Drozdowski, 38, whose neck tattoo rises above the collar of his dress shirt, tucks reading glasses into his pocket. During closing arguments last week, a balding Witort, 64, swapped a black leather Devils Diciples vest for an argyle one.
In a nod to the allegations of Devils Diciples violence, court officials have boosted security inside U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland's courtroom. Ten deputy U.S. Marshals and court security officers surround the defendants.
Darrah is flanked by at least three guards, though he doesn't appear to pose a threat. The gray-skinned Darrah, his gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, can't even rise for the judge or the jury.
Darrah walked into the Wayne County Jail after being charged in July 2012 but the years awaiting trial, the two heart attacks, a stroke, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart disease, high blood pressure and the tracheotomy have taken a toll, his lawyer Patricia Maceroni said.
A bond request makes no mention of his alleged meth use.
"Mr. Darrah's continued incarceration is threatening his life," Maceroni wrote. "To continue Mr. Darrah's incarceration, given the change in his physical condition, is cruel and inhumane and is endangering his life."
Darrah and other members of the gang, including alleged enforcer Scott "Scotty Z" Sutherland, 49, of Redford and Cary "Gun Control" Vandiver, 55, of Alabama, are charged in an indictment alleging the Devils Diciples was a violent, organized, crime ring. The gang members allegedly generated cash for the gang by stealing and selling motorcycles, running gambling dens, selling marijuana and Vicodin and peddling meth cooked in Metro Detroit homes or imported from across the country.
"If you're going to be a Devils Diciple, this is what (they) do," Mohsin said last week, showing jurors bags of meth seized from members while a projection screen showed beakers and equipment seized during raids at area meth labs used by the gang.
Defense denies conspiracy
Defense lawyers insisted the Devils Diciples was a disjointed club, members were not involved in organized crime and that the government's case was built on testimony from felons, liars, paid informants and drug addicts seeking leniency for their own crimes.
"He's not a part of some big conspiracy," McKeoun's lawyer Sidney Kraizman told jurors. "He's an independent free-thinker. I'm not condoning what he's done — I'm not condoning meth. In this case, he's not guilty."
Defense lawyers denied government claims that the gang's leaders were so tough that orders were followed unquestionably.
Darrah, national vice president since 2004, wasn't an intimidating force helping run the alleged criminal enterprise, his defense lawyer said.
Members mocked his disability. Consider Danny Burby, or "Thumbs," the biker Darrah referred to during the 2008 wiretap, Maceroni said.
"He called Mr. Darrah on the phone and threatened to "come over and shove his trach tube up his ass!'" Maceroni said in arguing for acquittal.
Meth was a constant presence in the lives of several members, according to the indictment and courtroom testimony.
"He snorted every bit he could get and stayed up for days," Drozdowski's lawyer Ryan Machasic told jurors. "My client was a meth addict. That doesn't make it a conspiracy."
Drozdowski was not a racketeer, his lawyer said.
"He doesn't listen to anybody," Machasic said. "My client wasn't even paying his dues."
There was no organized effort to produce or sell meth in support of the Devils Diciples, lawyers insisted.
In fact, McKeoun was a lousy meth cook, his lawyer said.
"Trying to make meth damaged his lungs," Kraizman told jurors.
The defense lawyers are fighting a diverse set of evidence gathered by investigators. Jurors were shown more than a dozen rifles, shotguns and pistols seized during the investigation. There are wiretaps, undercover drug purchases and cooperation from more than a dozen current and former members.
"This is a case that has really been worked on scrupulously for years," said Leap, the UCLA gang expert. "If you start with the evidence and the fact they have wiretaps? Forget about it."