Man against Mongols

The late Hunter S. Thompson made his first literary mark in 1966, with the publication of Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. The book offered one of the first glimpses inside the notorious outlaw motorcycle gang. The godfather of gonzo journalism had much in common with the criminals he profiled—affinities for motorcycles, weaponry and methamphetamine, to name three. Yet, throughout the narrative, he never really becomes one with the outlaw motorcyclists. It seems even a renegade such as Thompson was too civilized for the Hells Angels.

William Queen, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) could afford no such luxuries during the 28 months he spent undercover investigating the Mongols, the Southern California outlaw motorcycle gang that by the 1990s had supplanted the Hells Angels in notoriety. To succeed, he literally risks his own life to become a full-fledged member of the Mongols. Queen documents his hair-raising exploits in Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America’s Most Violent Motorcycle Gang.

The year was 1998, and, according to Queen, outlaw motorcycle gangs, or OMGs, had become “nothing less than the insidious new face of global organized crime … just as organized as traditional Cosa Nostra families, and indeed more violent.” Law-enforcement officials estimate the OMGs—which include gangs such as the Angels, Mongols, Pagans, Outlaws and Bandidos—control billions of dollars annually through the illegal drug trade. Illegal guns, stolen motorcycles and various other criminal enterprises account for millions more. The stakes are high, and gang members, many of whom are violent ex-convicts if not meth-addled psychopaths, are more than willing to kill and maim on a whim.

Into this milieu enters Billy St. John, né William Queen, astride a gleaming black Harley-Davidson provided by ATF. The customized hog would turn out to be just about the only perk Queen would earn in an investigation that would cost him his family, his girlfriend and very nearly his life. The Mongols, Queen writes, are not the largest OMG, nor are they “the sharpest knives in the drawer.” But they are easily among the most violent, evidenced by the skull-and-crossbones patch many members wear, indicating that they have killed for the gang.

Paranoia is a prerequisite for membership in the Mongols, and “St. John” is accused of being a cop from the very beginning. Nevertheless, over the course of two years, the ATF undercover agent keeps a straight face and rises from the lowly rank of prospect to a fully “patched-in” member of the gang, eligible to wear the Mongols’ colors on his black leather vest.

His loyalty to the gang is constantly tested. Early on, a biker named Rocky insists that Queen snort a line of crank. He fakes it, knowing that if he’s caught, Rocky just might slit his throat. Queen spends his time escaping from one life-threatening circumstance after another, all the while compiling evidence against the gang.

Although Queen can hardly match Thompson as a prose stylist, he brings a level of honesty to Under and Alone that takes the OMG exposé to a higher level. As he rises through the ranks, the line between Queen the ATF agent and St. John the Mongol blurs. When his mother dies, his newfound biker buds show more sympathy than his aloof ATF handlers, and Queen genuinely questions who he is and whether he’s on the right side.

The answer to that question is in the results of the investigation. Of the 54 Mongols indicted on evidence collected by Queen, 53 were convicted, for charges ranging from gunrunning and drug dealing to murder. Queen’s ex-wife and their two sons were forced to move to another state for their own protection. The Mongols are still out there, waiting to retaliate. It’s that fact that makes Under and Alone a highly courageous book.