CARLTON, MINN. - A middle-aged man in a leather jacket fueled his motorcycle and rumbled off in a light sprinkle. Next on his agenda: a buzz cut at Power's Barbershop in quiet Carlton, Minn., population 810, where he was the only road hog in sight. After that: repair a broken zipper on his jacket.
Welcome to Hells Angels week, apparently as mundane as it is allegedly dangerous. The motorcycle group started rolling into Carlton County on Sunday. Their presence had hardly registered with most residents by Thursday, even though their numbers had swelled to about 300 by the afternoon, and despite an infamous criminal reputation that prompted authorities to blanket this usually quiet area with officers and squad cars. "What I imagined were constant bikes going back and forth," said Don Rostollan, who owns Spirits Restaurant and Bar and a convenience store across from the temporary Hells Angels headquarters at the Lost Isle Bar on Hwy. 210. "I'm kind of surprised you don't see more."
The Hells Angels are in Carlton County in preparation for their annual convocation in Sturgis, S.D., concentrated on Hwy. 210 at the Black Bear Casino Resort and Lost Isle Bar, which was barricaded for maximum privacy. Residents say the bikers are polite, respectful folks. Authorities say they're a gang with ties to the drug trade, and a beef with a nearby Wisconsin motorcycle gang that has some concerned about the potential for violence.
Asked why authorities are being so cautious when many Hells Angels describe themselves as a "brotherhood," Cloquet Deputy Police Chief Terry Hill flatly replied, "Well, the FBI classifies them as a gang."
The FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement all assisted a phalanx of city, county and state authorities in Carlton and St. Louis Counties.
Perhaps dampened by on-again, off-again (but mostly on-again) rain showers Thursday, the Hells Angels were hardly the visual and auditory force many expected. A dozen or so sat underneath an awning at the Black Bear Casino waiting for shuttle vans -- the type that spirit away the infirm, the weary and convention-goers with lanyards around their necks -- to whisk them back to Lost Isle Bar. Dozens of sleek and shiny motorcycles leaned into the spitting rain, idle and quiet.
"It's kind of awesome," said Marge VanValkenburg as she ambled through the Black Bear parking lot. "It's a little scary. I think they're mostly harmless."
One Hells Angels member looked like her father, said Susan Calhoun, who manages a convenience store across from the Lost Isle Bar. Another biker asked Cozy Cafe waitress Tracy Burns where he could buy some wild rice. One ordered a "double shot espresso" at a coffee shop.
"Good guys," Burns said of the handful that have stopped by the cafe. "Good tippers."
Authorities aren't as convinced. Federal prosecutors have charged them with using mafia-inspired racketeering laws with limited success. Minnesota officials have successfully won drug and money laundering cases against local members. A Seattle jury found the Washington branch to be a "criminal enterprise."
A 43-year-old New York member was arrested Wednesday night in Carlton County for driving under the influence, according to the sheriff's office. He refused to take a field sobriety test, and was found to be riding a motorcycle reported stolen in New Jersey. He posted bail Thursday.
Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said there had been no major incidents involving the Hells Angels. Authorities ticketed 24 Hells Angels for speeding and 71 non-members for minor traffic violations between Tuesday and Thursday.
Some residents said authorities have unnecessarily searched and photographed members. Authorities declined to address questions about their tactics and Hells Angels members declined to speak to the media on their own behalf.
"From what we're seeing, they're keeping to themselves," Lake said.
Boxcars and RVs lined the perimeter of the Lost Isle Bar parking lot as motorcyclists funneled through a tightly controlled entrance Thursday.
Despite the Hells Angels' history and shrouded proceedings, many residents said that authorities' increased presence was a bigger concern. Some business owners said they saw a drop off in local clientele because many feared being stopped by authorities, and that the Hells Angels weren't making up for the loss. Many held on to the hope that more bikers would arrive this weekend to boost business -- all but one.
"They're probably not going to be shopping for art," said Sue Chapin, who sells nature-inspired watercolor paintings out of a neon green and pink shop.
If only Chapin had known that wild rice and espresso were tops on the Angels' shopping to-do list.
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391