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The God Dare

Originally published February 22, 2012 in Sierra Lodestar


            187.          

            After spending a year with Baltimore P.D.’s homicide unit, journalist David Simon tried to describe that singular, reoccurring moment when a detective confronts a crime scene: “You look at the body as if it were some abstract work of art, stare at it from every conceivable point of view in search of deeper meanings and textures.”


Down Red Bluff in the late 1980s


            Sonora Police Chief Mark Stinson faced that same moment when he probed homicides for the Red Bluff Police Department. He learned to be what east coasters call “true murder police” — a detective who stands over human cryptograms and attempts to be the estimating decoder that brings a suspect to trial. Where you’re ‘Homicide,’ you’re the most cerebral weapon the public can count on. You absorb grim nuances. You map morbid equations. You seek visualized meanings; and, every so often, you process inconceivable glimpses of irony. And that was the case on the early morning in 1989 when Stinson was called to a suspicious death investigation on Deborah Drive in the west part of the city. 

            The house was in a low-income subdivision, with a run-down apartment complex to the rear of it. Red Bluff police had been dispatched to the street numerous times, but dwellings on the housing track itself seemed relatively tame. Stinson arrived at the scene to find a sergeant detaining three bikers. There was a body inside the house. Stinson’s eyes moved over the layout: Blood; a middle-aged man; a bullet hole in the right temple; a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson magnum lying on the floor.                                  

            The three leather-clad suspects were led into different rooms. Stinson was already sure one of them was a character well known to the Red Bluff Police Department, a man essentially thought of as a faker. The Faker had earned his reputation by tearing along downtown’s state theater on his Harley-Davidson, hanging out in bars like the Watering Hole and the Crazy Horse, donning the burning death’s head logo of the Hells Angels. There was just one problem: an investigation by gang intelligence had determined the man was not a real Hells Angel at all. The Faker, it seemed, had gotten his hands on the Hells Angels’ patchwork and was using it to self-mythologize in the seedy bars and dimly lit gas stations of west Red Bluff. He was thriving on an underground awe for rebels he’d never hammered his accelerator along side of.   

            But, as Stinson dug into his spattered crime scene, he eventually realized that the man lying dead on the floor had held a very different impression of The Faker. 

            The victim had blown into town three weeks before, unknown and bent on finding hardened bikers to run with. He soon crossed paths with The Faker, whom he was sure was a Hells Angels lieutenant linked into chapters in the state’s high north. It was exactly what the victim was looking for.         

            Fabrications. Evasions. Lies. Omissions. A good investigator learns that deception is almost instinctual for suspects and witnesses alike when a body is down, badges are out and questions need to be answered. Stinson played verbal chess with his suspects until he knew the same story was emerging from each solo interview. All the important details matched. Every bizarre nuance tracked the same. According to Faker, and his two comrades, the dead man had spent weeks partying with them before suddenly announcing he had money — a lot of money — to buy an arsenal of automatic weapons and a massive load of methamphetamine. He was looking for the right man to make deal with. Most outlaw bikers in Red Bluff snorted meth; but the quantity that this Johnny-come-lately was requesting veered into the domain of major drug traffickers. The Faker immediately became suspicious. All three bikers confronted their new acquaintance, accusing him of being the most unforgivable thing in the criminal word: a “snitch.”

            Still believing he was in the midst of card-carrying Hells Angels, the accused man began to panic. He grabbed a .44 magnum that rested on a nearby table. Banging the gun’s cylinder open, he dumped its bullets onto his hand. He then reloaded a single round in the fat, steel pistol. “I’m not a snitch,” he told the bikers as he spun the .44’s cylinder. “I’m not! I’m not a snitch, so help me God!” He took a breath, moving his finger on the gun’s trigger as he added, “I’m not a snitch. If I’m lying, I’m dying.”

            Before the bikers could react, a sudden clasp of thunder filled the room. The three men stood in stunned silence, looking around at a scene filled with gun smoke and blood. They decided to call the police.

            A gunshot residue test concluded that the victim had died of contact wound to the head. Two days later, Stinson learned that the dead man had recently been arrested by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for transporting three pounds of methamphetamine.

            “It became pretty clear that the victim was an informant for the D.E.A.,” Stinson says. “After they caught him with all that meth, he ‘rolled over’ and joined their side to save himself.“


The Hells Angels continue to recruit
in northern California

            From what Stinson could piece together, the informant had floated into Red Bluff and targeted what he thought was the Hells Angels’ biggest player on the scene. “He didn’t know he was talking to was a fake,” Stinson recalls. “And so he was trying to set up a major buy: I mean, he wanted pounds and pounds of meth from these guys, as well as machine guns. When he put that .44 caliber to his head, he must have believed he was surrounded by men who would execute him on the spot if he admitted the truth. In reality, they probably wouldn’t have done anything to him, because they were pretending too.”

           

            The faker walked away from Stinson’s investigation no worse for the wear; but he may have ultimately paid a far greater price for impersonating a Hells Angel. Not long after the bloody episode of Russian Roulette, The Faker was found dead in a ditch next to his motorcycle. “Someone ran him off the road,” Stinson remembers. “It was extremely suspicious. The investigators involved could never prove it, but their theory was that real Hells Angels had taken care of him for falsely flying their colors.”

            As for the dead informant, Stinson has for years pondered the series of events that led to that moment of putting a .44 caliber to his head and yelling, “Gold help me, I’m not a snitch. If I’m lying, I’m dying.” The story eventually became a kind of parable in the lore of the Red Bluff Police Department. “Well,” Stinson says today, “maybe the wasn’t the best choice of words, because for years some of the officers I worked with would say that, in the end, ‘God prevailed.’