The tens of thousands of bikers at this year's Laughlin River Run motorcycle rally will find twice the usual number of police, plus motorcycle searches for drugs and weapons, a ban on cans and bottles, and a curfew for those under 18.
The changes come a year after a brawl with guns, knives and wrenches killed two Hell's Angels and one Mongols motorcycle gang member and injured at least 12 other people at Harrah's Laughlin hotel-casino. Another Hell's Angels member was shot to death in California.
The bikers attending this year will have to cross checkpoints before they even enter the town for the rally, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday.
Police at checkpoints and volunteers will distribute fliers listing laws and event rules — including a 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for anyone younger than 18.
Most hotels will ask the expected 80,000 motorcyclists not to wear gang emblems or logos, said Andre Carrier, an executive at the Golden Nugget hotel-casino and chairman of the town's organizing committee. Some hotels will have metal detectors at entrances.
"What we're trying to do is ensure their safety," said Lt. Thomas Smitley, head of the Las Vegas police substation in Laughlin, a town of 8,000 on the banks of the Colorado River. "We'll be proactive and highly visible."
After last year's brawl, the town briefly considered canceling the five-day rally.
"But it's an important event for us — important for our brand, important for our economy," Carrier said.
In 1983, the first River Run drew fewer than 500 people. It has grown into a signature event for this town 100 miles south of Las Vegas, near the Arizona-California state line.
The rally now pours an estimated $25 million into town; weekend room rates at nine major casinos jump from $40 per night to $190 or more.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people are there to party, to play," said Maryland state police Lt. Terry Katz, a past board member of the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association and a former rally attendee. "The problem is the 1 percenters."
These days the riders of $20,000 Harley-Davidsons are more likely to be doctors or lawyers than outlaws.
"We're a group, not a gang, said Davy Weller, 56, a retired insurance broker with homes in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Las Vegas.
"Our feeling is it was an isolated instance," he said of last year's violence. "I'd be shocked if there were any problems this year."
Katz, who has been studying motorcycle gangs nationwide since the mid-1970s, said gang members use gatherings like Laughlin to stake turf and display power. Officials noted that last year's violence came after months of skirmishes between Hell's Angels and competing biker gangs such as the Vagos, Pagans, Bandidos, Outlaws and Mongols.
"There was shadowboxing leading up to it," said Patrick Schneider, assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, and current president of the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association.
Schneider said recent sources of worry have included the March 22 slaying of the Hell's Angels chapter president in Cave Creek, Ariz., hometown of Hell's Angels chief Ralph "Sonny" Barger, and the stabbing two days later of a Mongols member near Reno. Authorities aren't sure if the two deaths are connected.
"I can tell you that something's going to happen," said Tim McKinley, a retired San Francisco FBI agent who investigated the Hell's Angels for 15 years. "But I would be surprised if it's in Laughlin this year because of the massive police presence."
Hours before last year's fatal fight, Mongols and Hell's Angels members squared off at a Hell's Angels T-shirt stand. Within hours, a phalanx of motorcycles rumbled from the north end of the Laughlin strip to Harrah's, where the Mongols were staying.
Casino surveillance cameras recorded the violence.
Prosecutors and detectives are still dissecting videotape and matching faces with names of the more than 120 Hell's Angels and Mongols members they detained and questioned after the fight. Only one person has been charged, and those charges were later dropped.
Last year's 135 uniformed officers will be boosted this year to more than 300. There will also be undercover officers and motorcycle gang specialists from as far away as Finland. Medical and police helicopters will be based in Laughlin and Bullhead City, Ariz., a city of 42,000 across the river.
"We'll have no tolerance for criminal conduct and no tolerance for lawlessness," Smitley said.
By Ken Ritter
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