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City will be ready if gathering goes to 'hell in a handbasket'

Forget New Year's Eve. Missoula's real Y2K problem comes in late July when the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club runs into town.

"We take the threat of the Hells Angels real serious," Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson said at a Monday briefing of city and county officials. "They don't always do bad, but when they do something bad, it goes to hell in a handbasket real fast. They show no intent to 'take over the town' or terrorize us. But there's always a level of violence associated with their visits."

Between 400 and 500 club members and as many as 1,500 family members, prospective club recruits and hangers-on are scheduled to visit Missoula on July 27-31.

Lawrenson said intelligence reports from the U.S. Department of Justice considered the Hells Angels the largest organized crime syndicate in the world - bigger even than the Mafia. Nevertheless, the government's best effort to break up the club using anti-organized crime laws failed in 1983, Lawrenson said, because federal agents couldn't find enough evidence proving that convicted members were operating as a team.

"They also court the media well," he said, "trying to sway public perception that they're not the hell-raisers we in law enforcement believe them to be."

While the group's stated intention for visiting Missoula was "to shop, fish and hike with their families," Lawrenson said, his federal sources say 75 to 80 percent of the club members coming to Missoula will be convicted felons. The club is believed to be involved in international drug dealing, and may have chosen Missoula in part to intimidate rival area drug runners and disrupt their organizations, Lawrenson said.

"This has nothing to do with the fact they ride motorcycles," said Janet Stevens, the city's chief administrative officer. "I understand citizen frustration about stereotyping. But more people would be angry if we were unprepared. I think it's like Y2K - the community was pleased that we geared up for the unknown."

Lawrenson said he's been assured by Hells Angels leaders from Spokane that members will not start any problems. But they do intend to finish any. That makes the biggest challenge keeping local trouble away from the motorcycle club, he said.

And local trouble can come in all kinds of guises. It may be from neighborhood bullies looking to test their courage against someone with a national reputation. It could come from communications breakdowns with the anticipated 30 or 50 international law enforcement officials who follow Hells Angels' activities, but don't always coordinate with the local police.

Lawrenson said at previous "runs," or conventions in Lake of the Ozarks, Ark.; Ventura Calif.; and Steamboat Springs, Colo.; the Hells Angels have fenced off the hotels, businesses, bars or campgrounds where they gathered, and even posted armed guards and video cameras. Fights have occurred when unsuspecting travelers have tried to enter a hotel only to be told by a club member their reservations were canceled.

"This is sort of a guy thing, but you'll mouth off to a Hells Angel about going to see the manager, and he'll physically pull you out of the car and trash you with a ball-peen hammer," Lawrenson said. When a shooting occurred at the Hells Angels hotel in Steamboat Springs in 1996, club members barred police from investigating for several hours, while they removed all evidence from the site.

To handle the Missoula run, police and sheriff's departments are expecting to put 20 more officers on the streets than usual during the five-day gathering. To handle everyday law enforcement, reserve officers and reinforcements from the Montana Highway Patrol may be called in. And the city is considering seeking help from the Washington and Idaho highway patrol departments to protect the highways while the Montana Highway Patrol is in Missoula.

The extra staffing could cost about $30,000, according to City Finance Officer Brentt Ramharter. The Police Department already has put aside $15,000 of its budget toward the event, and is looking for grants and other assistance to build up its financial reserves.

Missoula County Commissioner Michael Kennedy said police got themselves in lots of trouble during the World Trade Organization Seattle demonstrations because individual officers didn't know how to respond to unusual situations. Lawrenson agreed and said the Missoula police and sheriff's departments were going to set up extensive training and guidelines to prevent officers from igniting trouble.

"I don't want to be over-projectionist by any means," Lawrenson said. "We've met with these people and been assured there will be no problems. I wish we could take that at face value."

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