Did a Biker War Erupt Over a Starbucks?

Seattle Weekly: By all accounts, the Hells Angels and Vagos motorcycle clubs are at war. In a clash between the two gangs last month at a casino in Nevada, the president of the Hells Angels' San Jose Chapter was shot and killed and a Vagos member wounded. A retaliatory drive-by felled a Vagos member the following day, and other skirmishes have spilled blood in California, Arizona, South Dakota, and elsewhere. A report yesterday from Reuters dubbed the ongoing conflict "the biggest biker feud in nearly a decade." But did it really all begin as a turf war over which gang could hang out at their local Starbucks?

On the afternoon of January 27, 2010, two Vagos were cruising through downtown Santa Cruz, California with a third member, 37-year-old Thomas Froberg, following close behind in a Chevy van, according to police testimony quoted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The club had recently moved to establish a new chapter in the city -- Hells Angels territory.

The local Hells Angels didn't take kindly to the encroachment. A group spotted the Vagos and took off after them, reportedly on foot. Froberg swerved across three lanes of traffic to cut them off, and jumped out to fight. The bikers wielded ball-peen hammers and crowbars in the melee that followed. At some point, the Hells Angels pinned Froberg to the pavement, ripped his green Vagos shirt and stomped him.

Froberg's buddies eventually came to his rescue, and the group scattered before police arrived on the scene. Froberg was caught a few blocks away, however, and charged with gang participation and fighting in public. His mugshot (pictured above) shows a boot print on his forehead left over from the brawl.

"It was all about who would be allowed to hang out at the Starbucks downtown," Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark told Reuters. "The Vagos brazenly came in and tried to cement their presence. It was a pretty strong play on their part to establish themselves as the premiere club . . . Only in Santa Cruz would you have biker wars over who's going to control pumpkin spice lattes."

The image of a fearsome pack of Hells Angels swinging crowbars to protect their lattes and unwittingly sparking a nationwide gang war in the process is certainly amusing, but it may not be entirely accurate.

Jorge Gil-Blanco, a retired California cop, now an outlaw motorcycle gang expert with the Western States Information Network, has tracked the escalation of the Vagos-Hells Angels beef and says the bad blood between the gangs can actually be traced to an earlier incident in Orange County that soured historically amicable relations between the clubs.

"They had a major brawl at a swap meet and ended up fighting each other with motorcycle parts," Gil-Blanco tells Seattle Weekly. "Basically after that incident, the Vagos started to expand and said 'Why's everybody so afraid of the Hells Angels?' That was the real turning point."

"I seriously doubt this is all just because of Starbucks," he adds. "The Hells Angels saw the Vagos in downtown and assaulted them. They wanted to show we're the top dog and you guys aren't starting a chapter here. In fact, the Vagos actually pulled out [of Santa Cruz] after that."

Santa Cruz police did not respond to messages inquiring about the city's caffeine-crazed bikers.

Founded in San Bernardino in the 1960s, the Vagos have since expanded to Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Mexico. Gil-Blanco says they don't currently have a presence in Washington. The gang is also known as "Green Nation" for their preferred color, and their mascot is Loki, the Norse god of mischief. But while the green matches the Starbucks cup, the devilish Loki bears little resemblance to the Norse "twin-tailed siren" logo of the Seattle coffee empire.

A Starbucks barista, who answered the phone at the downtown Santa Cruz store but declined to give her name, says she's been working there for several years but can't recall any outlaw biker customers.

"There are motorcycle groups that hang out here," she says, directing further questions to Starbucks corporate headquarters, "but I've never seen any Hells Angels."


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