At first, the Hells Angels biker appeared defiant as he was led into a courtroom at the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia.
Mark “Lightning” Baker stared down the FBI agents, U.S. marshals and prosecutors who were sending him to jail. Then, he grinned and lifted his shackled hands, extending his middle finger.
He did it again and again, sometimes using both middle fingers to make his point, as he waited Wednesday morning for his sentencing hearing to begin.
Within 30 minutes, however, the 50-year-old Baker was crying as he begged U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie to have mercy on him.
“A meth addiction caused me to make some bad decisions,” Baker said.
Currie sentenced Baker to about 15½ years in prison on racketeering conspiracy, narcotics conspiracy and firearms charges.
Baker was one of three Rock Hill-based Hells Angels convicted in March after a five-week trial. Their sentencing hearings on Wednesday wrapped up a years-long investigation into the motorcycle gang, which prosecutors say was running drugs and guns.
A second Hells Angel, Bruce “Bruce Bruce” Long, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for 13 counts, including racketeering conspiracy, drug and firearms trafficking. The third defendant, David “Gravel Dave” Oiler, was sentenced to about 16½ years.
After the sentencing hearings, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles held a press conference during which prosecutors, federal agents and local police displayed more than 100 machine guns, rifles, shotguns, revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and silencers that had been seized from Hells Angels members. They also displayed dozens of bags of drugs that had been confiscated, including methamphetamine, cocaine, prescription drugs and “bath salts.”
“What we did was remove these weapons from the street, put these defendants in jail and make the communities safer,” Nettles said.
Nineteen Hells Angels and their associates were indicted in May 2012 after an investigation that involved wiretaps, undercover videos and a confidential informant who claimed to be a former mobster. Sixteen were convicted in the case, with most pleading guilty to reduced charges.
The Hells Angels Rock Hell City Nomad Chapter was a criminal enterprise whose members sold drugs and guns then gave kickbacks to the gang, prosecutors said.
“This isn’t a group of individuals who came together because they enjoyed riding motorcycles,” said David Thomas, special agent in charge of the FBI office in South Carolina.
Police got wind of the Hells Angels after hearing complaints in Lexington and Rock Hill about drug and gun trafficking. They also heard the Hells Angels were involved in a territorial dispute with a rival biker gang, the Outlaws.
Lexington Police Chief Terrence Green said his department became involved in 2010 when two Hells Angels rallies were held in town. The first, known as the Sin City rally, attracted more than 300 bikers, Green said.
“People said they were trying to help the community,” Green said.
Instead, the Hells Angels were setting up their operations based out of a now-demolished bar called the Dog House, he said. He asked the FBI for help.
“We said, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ when we saw all of these bikers coming in,” Green said.
Since the indictments, the Hells Angels have insisted they are a club of brothers who bond over their passion for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Any crimes committed by members are solely the responsibility of those individuals and not the entire club, they said.
John Delgado, Baker’s defense attorney, pointed out that none of the Hells Angels who went to trial were convicted on the first charge in the original indictment, which spelled out a racketeering charge against the members and alleged that the Hells Angels were a criminal enterprise.
The racketeering conspiracy charge the three were convicted on was for their participation in money-laundering, Delgado said.
“The first count is always the most important. The government is supposed to win on every count against every defendant,” he said. “That was a real stain on the prosecution. They couldn’t get it over on this jury.”
Delgado also criticized what he described as an “obscene amount” of money spent on the investigation and prosecution, estimating it was in the millions. The confidential informant, Joseph Dillulio, was paid $159,000 in cash, he said.
Nettles refused to place a dollar amount on the case.
“This isn’t a business,” he said. “This is about justice. We spent no more than was necessary to dismantle an organization that was bringing harm to the community.”
While Nettles said the Hells Angels chapter in Rock Hill had been disbanded, the bikers remained loyal to their group even as they were hauled to prison.
Baker, who was the Rock Hill chapter’s president, expressed his love and loyalty to the Hells Angels during his sentencing. He apologized to the club and its members for any problems he may have caused. He also expressed regret to his family and his bosses at McGirt Trucking in Charlotte, where he had worked for 25 years.
Baker said he had always been a part of three things – the Baker family, the trucking company and the Hells Angels.
“They all had one thing in common, LSH – loyalty, strength and honor,” he said. “I will die a Baker. I will die working for McGirt Trucking. And I will die a Hells Angel.”