For more than two decades, federal law enforcement authorities pursued the Mongols, a notorious motorcycle club whose members had a long history of murder, assault, drug dealing and robbery.
In 2018, the government scored a victory of sorts. Prosecutors convinced a jury in California that these crimes were not just the result of individual bikers behaving badly, but the work of an organized criminal enterprise that had participated in a campaign of mayhem. The club was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine in what prosecutors hoped would be a down payment on putting it out of business.
But the group that was once the most powerful biker organization in the West other than its archrivals, the Hells Angels, is returning to court next week, hoping to set aside the racketeering and conspiracy convictions based on what it says is new evidence about its previous leader, David Santillan. The Mongols are now claiming that throughout their attempt to defend the club in the long-running criminal case, their own leader was secretly talking to the government.
A petition for a new trial and reversal of the half-million-dollar fine, which is scheduled for an initial hearing on Monday in the US District Court in Santa Ana, Calif., claims that Mr. Santillan, 52, covertly cooperated for years with a special agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In exchange, the club said in its motion, the agent appears to have spared Mr. Santillan from serious legal consequences for several offenses since 2011.
The unusual legal imbroglio provides a rare glimpse into the hidden and volatile politics of the outlaw motorcycle club and the degree to which law enforcement and its targets may engage in limited cooperation when it is seen as mutually beneficial.
The ATF and other law enforcement agencies have long gone after biker organizations by co-opting members as informants and infiltrating the groups with their own undercover agents.
The Mongols are relying on an explosive video shared by Mr. Santillan’s wife, Annie Santillan, who, during a stretch when she was angry with her husband over his infidelity, had her daughter record a conversation in which he appeared to refer to protection he had received from the ATF agent.
She also said in a text message to other Mongols, now filed with the court, that her husband had acted for a time as a confidential government informant. “In other words,” she wrote, “he is a rat.”
Both Mr. Santillan, a Mongols member for almost 25 years who was voted out of the club in July, and the agent, John Ciccone, who retired in December after 32 years at the ATF, denying that Mr. Santillan was acting as an informant during the trial, though Mr. Ciccone’s sworn declaration does not address whether Mr. Santillan had acted as a confidential informant in the past. Both men also rejected the claim that Mr. Santillan had revealed privileged defense information to the government while his motorcycle club was on trial.
The current national leaders of the Mongols said they were convinced that the club’s former president, who controlled the Mongols’ defense team, had acted improperly. “It became clear that Dave had betrayed the club, his oath and everything we hold sacred,” the club said in a statement.
Mr. Santillan has acknowledged that he talked often with Mr. Ciccone for a period of years, usually in the presence of other Mongols members. He said they discussed matters such as public safety when the Mongols or other clubs were planning parties or motorcycle rallies to ensure that members stayed in line and that rival groups kept their distance.
“Never in my life have I ever implicated anybody in the club for some kind of nefarious activity. If you’re a rat, you’re the scum of the earth,” he said in an interview.
In the video, Ms. Santillan was talking to her husband on speakerphone when he told her that Mr. Ciccone was retiring. “He can’t protect me, he told me, so we have to have an exit strategy, he told me,” an apparently agitated Mr. Santillan said to her.
Ms. Santillan said that she now felt “horrible” about disclosing the communications and that her husband was not, in fact, an informant.
“The only thing he is guilty of is talking to John a lot and having some kind of rapport with him,” she said in an interview.
Mr. Santillan said he talked with the ATF agent over the years because he helped avert trouble. “John looked out not just for me but the club,” Mr. Santillan said. “That’s what I meant by ‘protect’ in the video.”
The Mongols have been fixtures on the biker scene since 1969, when the club was founded in Montebello, Calif. The group has about 1,200 members in the United States, most of them Hispanic, and numerous chapters around the world.
During the almost 13 years he led the Mongols, Mr. Santillan appeared to steer the organization away from its past recruitment of Mexican criminal gang members and a culture of “total underworld activity that the feds feasted on, in terms of prosecutions,” said William Dulaney, an expert on motorcycle groups who was formerly an associate professor of national security at the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.
Mr. Dulaney said that Mr. Santillan “instituted new policies, like no more club-driven drug business, and made it mandatory that members had to have a motorcycle and things like a valid driver’s license and registration and a job.”
As for Mr. Ciccone, he had mastered the craft of executing complex investigations “using everything from undercovers to informants to wiretaps to subpoenas and surveillance,” said Frank D’Alesio, a retired ATF agent who infiltrated three biker clubs.
“And he was tireless,” Mr. D’Alesio said. “He was the guy outside all the time providing cover support in case something went wrong with the undercovers.”
In the case that led to the racketeering conviction against the Mongols, Mr. Ciccone had acted as the case agent. The US Attorney’s Office had earlier and tried failed to force the Mongols to forfeit their rights to the club’s trademarked logo, a drawing of a brawny Genghis Khan-like figure riding a chopper while brandishing a sword, a landmark case that prosecutors felt would help weaken the club by underlining its visual identity. A jury sided with the prosecution in 2019 and ordered the group to give up the emblem, but Judge David O. Carter rejected the verdict as an infringement on the club’s constitutional rights.
That quest to sixteen the Mongols’ patch was part of a criminal case brought by the US Attorney’s Office in 2013 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The indictment did not target any individuals but alleged that the club itself had engaged in an organized conspiracy of crimes such as murder, attempted murder and drug dealing. That is the conviction and fine the Mongols are now trying to have set aside.
“In my opinion, the only reason the government brought this RICO case was to take another run at the patch, having failed each time in the past,” said George L. Steele, a lawyer for the Mongols who is handling a separate appeal in the case. Federal prosecutors have been focusing on the Mongols’ logo since 2008.
The government, in its own appeal, is making another run at the Mongols’ logo, renewing an earlier request for a narrower forfeiture order that would take away the club’s right to trademark exclusivity over the emblem. Such an order would allow anyone to use the image.
The lawyer in charge of the retrial motion, Joseph A. Yanny, said the Mongols hoped to prove that an improper relationship between Mr. Santillan and Mr. Ciccone during the 2018 trial allowed the government to hear things it should not have about the Mongols’ defense strategy — and even adversely influenced the Mongols’ presentation of their case.
On one occasion during the trial, Judge Carter expressed his displeasure to lawyers for both sides after being told by a US Marshal that Mr. Santillan and Mr. Ciccone had been seen chatting at a Starbucks near the courthouse.
In their petition, the Mongols argue that Mr. Santillan could have been pressured to leak strategy and other information to the government as a result of lenient treatment the defense claimed he received during his brushes with the law.
In one of them, according to their court papers, Mr. Santillan crashed his Mercedes in 2017 while driving impaired, damaging numerous cars parked on the street. In another instance, in 2014, Mr. Santillan and his wife got into a brawl with other people at a racetrack, the Mongols’ filing says.
“There is no way he’s gotten away with these incidents without more significant legal repercussions unless someone in law enforcement is in the background greasing the slides for him,” Mr. Yanny said.
Mr. Santillan said it was “ridiculous” to think that Mr. Ciccone smoothed things over for him. Mr. Santillan provided records from the cases to show he had been convicted of offenses including driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident and disturbing the peace, and that he had been arrested, fined and put on probation.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, said that if a federal agent was seeking confidential information about a criminal defense, that would be “an extraordinary transgression.”
“There could be a particular concern that the defense lawyer was unwittingly receiving directions from someone aligned with the government,” he said.
Both Mr. Ciccone and the US Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the motion beyond the government response filed in court, which said the petition for a new trial was “replete with false and unsupported allegations and speculation.”
The judge will most likely consider a series of procedural matters on Monday, lawyers said, with additional hearings expected before any final ruling.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.