The Hells Angels have got their clubhouse back.

The motorcycle club wrestled it back from the government after more than four years of legal battles Monday when a federal jury in Minneapolis decided that the building was not used "substantially" to promote the use and distribution of drugs.

"It's a very sweet victory," said Deborah Kay Ellis, the attorney representing the club.

Officially, the building at 3234 Washington Av. N. in Minneapolis belonged to the Minnesota Church of Angels. Government prosecutors started forfeiture proceedings in late 2003, when some Hells Angels members were being prosecuted on drug and money-laundering charges.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen granted the government's motion for summary judgment and ordered building's forfeiture three years ago. But a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. District Court of Appeals reversed her order last March.

The panel noted that the government's key witnesses stood to gain sentence reductions by testifying. So the motion for summary judgment came down to one piece of objective evidence: Less than a gram of methamphetamine found in a 1991 search.

In her closing arguments Friday, Ellis urged jurors to reject the government's portrayal of the clubhouse as drug outlet. The government didn't even find enough drugs for a hit, much less a foreclosure, she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Alexander recounted testimony from a string of witnesses who described drug parties, contractors being paid in drugs, drug stashes and drug deals that took place there.

The Angels remodeled the clubhouse, erecting security fencing and installing security cameras and recording equipment, Alexander said. He argued that club members used intimidation to keep people from talking to police. Why would they do that unless illegal activities were going on? he asked.

Ellis, anticipating the tactic, had argued that the government was depending on jurors to draw negative inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence. "Where are the drugs?" she said. "This is a drug case, and there are no drugs."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen, who heads the Minnesota criminal division, helped prosecute the case. "Although we are disappointed that the jury did not find in the government's favor with respect to this particular property, the investigation of the Minnesota chapter of the Hells Angels was extremely successful nevertheless," Paulsen said.

"Over a dozen members and close associates of the Hells Angels, including the president and vice president, were convicted of federal drug trafficking charges and sentenced to lengthy prison terms," he said. "The power of the organization has been greatly diminished."

Ellis said the club has eight or nine members left. They're very happy, she said Monday evening. "I told them I'd call for the key tomorrow," she said.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493