This is where the war began.
It was Oct. 22, 1999, a blustery Friday. Wayne (Wiener) Kellestine, the grizzled boss of the St. Thomas Loners and one of the most feared bikers in Ontario, was off to a wedding.
For weeks, the world's most powerful biker gang had courted the Loners, hoping to assimilate them and gain a beachhead in the lucrative Southwestern Ontario drug trade. For weeks, thanks to Mr. Kellestine's obdurate sense of independence, they had failed.
But within moments of his 4-by-4 pulling up to the deserted crossroad in this sleepy hamlet southwest of London, Ont., Mr. Kellestine would discover an elemental truth about the Hells Angels: They don't take no for an answer.
The car appeared out of nowhere, moving at high speed. Inside were David (Dirty) McLeish and Phil (Philbilly) Gastonguay, both Angels associates.
One or the other - the court records are unclear - opened fire on the Kellestine vehicle with a shotgun, blowing out its windows and showering the interior with glass. Both vehicles then raced away, the occupants making frantic cellphone calls. The simmering feud had turned to open warfare.
That first skirmish was brief. As part of a separate investigation, RMCP drug officers had tapped the principals' cellphones, including Mr. Kellestine's, and within 48 hours all suspects in the botched murder bid were behind bars.
But the unbridled violence of the clash, its openness and boldness, would become familiar in London in the years ahead. The Hells Angels were determined to come to this part of Ontario. But here, in marked contrast to the rest of the province, they faced determined resistance, first from iconoclasts like Mr. Kellestine, and then from the Hells' traditional rivals, the Outlaws.
From 1999 to 2002, when the conflict reached a peak, beatings, brawls and shootings became common.
"They used to drive by and taunt each other," said Detective Constable Mark Loader, the provincial Biker Enforcement Unit's point man in London. "For the H.A., their priority is to absorb other gangs and gain territorial control. In order to do that, they either have to befriend or fight their rivals."
Before it was over, this bustling city of 360,000 would see an unprecedented - for Ontario - mobilization of public opinion against outlaw bikers. The Hells Angels nonetheless succeeded in becoming the dominant organized criminal presence in the area, as they have across Canada.
Although their formal presence in London dates back only three years, the Hells Angels now have extensive interests in the city's strip clubs, tattoo parlours and half-dozen exotic-massage joints (called "rub 'n' tugs" by the locals). They or their associates hold interests in at least two car dealerships. They're deeply involved, police say, in intimidation and extortion. And, as in the rest of Ontario, they do a booming trade in cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana and prescription drugs.
Nowadays, London's Hells Angels and their associates rarely swill cheap beer in dingy bars with their Harleys parked outside, sources say. They drive BMWs and Hummers and frequent martini bars with dress codes. Their links with legitimate businesses are extensive.
Indeed, some wealthy Angels associates here are more influential than many full-patch gang members, sources say. They choose not to wear a patch because "they don't want the heat," a police officer says.
But for all their wealth, the Hells Angels' hold on the city's underworld is still founded on the threat of mayhem. In contrast to nearby communities such as Kitchener-Waterloo - where the Angels vigorously promote themselves as good citizens - intimidation, beatings and other violence, much of it drug-related, are common.
"One guy had his ankle and wrist busted," the officer recalls. "He ran a tattoo parlour and they wanted to take it over. So they broke the hand he does his work with."
Violent incidents - as many as four a month - go unreported because the victims are too terrified of the Angels to complain, sources say. "They not only enforce their turf aggressively, they try to absorb others' aggressively," Det. Constable Loader says. "You can't be a threat to them, or you're going to meet resistance. You'll be met with confrontation."
The Hells Angels' conquest of Southwestern Ontario began, as wars often do, with a clash of two unyielding personalities.
As the gang's ultraviolent Quebec wing plotted its big push eastward in late 1999, London was solidly in Outlaws territory. Their clubhouse on Egerton Street, near the Western Fairgrounds, was a local landmark. Their leader, Mario Parente, was not a man to be shoved around.
So the Angels turned first to smaller prey.
John Coates, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound Hells Angels associate from Sherbrooke, Que., was brought in to recruit his elder brother Jimmy, a member of the Loners, a mid-tier biker gang in nearby St. Thomas. Along with other Loners, Jimmy Coates appeared amenable to the overtures. Loners boss Mr. Kellestine was furious, and forbade further contacts, let alone a change of loyalties.
"This got back to John Coates," recalls Constable Mike Keegan, now a senior investigator in the London RCMP's drug section. "He was incensed. His basic view was, 'No one can tell us what to do.'"
When the breakaway Loners began making regular visits to the Sherbrooke clubhouse, Mr. Kellestine stripped them of their colours; for good measure, one rebel was also pistol-whipped and robbed.
After the Oct. 22, 1999, assassination attempt on Mr. Kellestine, Mr. McLeish, Mr. Gastonguay and the two Coates brothers were charged with conspiracy to commit murder; they eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bodily harm.
They had also moved up in the world. Even though the murder plot failed, the Coates brothers had earned their spurs.
"The deal was partly, 'If you do this you become a member,'" says a police officer familiar with the case. "There was some oversight from Sherbrooke. And when they got out and opened up their club here, John Coates was running it."
Described as bright and a good conversationalist, the 38-year-old Mr. Coates had grand plans for his new fief. Unlike most Ontario bikers, who prefer to amass wealth quietly, he craved notoriety.
"He wanted to be like Sherbrooke," recalls a police officer familiar with both Coates brothers. "Hence the gang wars, the intimidation...He wanted the H.A. in London to be just like Quebec."
When the brothers and their friends left prison and resurfaced in London as Hells Angels prospects - one year away from full-patch status - in April, 2001, they quickly began making waves.
To start, Mr. Coates opened a Hells Angels clubhouse at 732 York St., just up the road from the Outlaws clubhouse, home to eight full-patch members. The choice of address appeared deliberately provocative.
Mr. Coates placed a sign board out front, to congratulate new members and rail against perceived anti-biker discrimination. He also began aggressively recruiting Outlaws to his banner.
The Outlaws pushed back, exerting intense pressure on members not to defect. Some Outlaws switched sides and suffered violent retaliation. Brawls were common.
"We had standoffs all the time in town, groups of people on each side, looking to fight," a local police officer says. "There were many police interventions."
In late June of 2001, the Outlaws clubhouse in nearby Woodstock was burned to the ground. A month later, an Outlaws soldier was intercepted en route to the Hells Angels clubhouse on York Street. Body armour and various weapons, including a pipe bomb, were found in his car.
By then, the London Hells Angels were busily establishing their credentials as extortionists and gangsters.
In July of 2001, court documents show, prospect member Douglas (Plug) Johnstone approached Gerry Smith, a London-area car dealer entangled in a financial dispute with a former business partner.
Wearing his Hells Angels vest, Mr. Johnstone demanded that Mr. Smith - now in Ontario's witness-protection program - cough up $70,000. When Mr. Smith brought up the legal agreements he had signed, Mr. Johnstone said, "I don't care what they say. You're going to have to pay the money."
Some days later, Mr. Smith received two visits from Jimmy Coates. Though not as large as his younger brother, the 39-year-old elder Coates is a big man - roughly 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds - and he, too, sported his gang colours. On his first call, he was reasonably friendly. On his second, much less so.
"We know where you live," he told the businessman. "We know you have a wife. We know you have a daughter."
Mr. Smith called the police.
A few days later, with investigators now monitoring every word, Mr. Johnstone and Jimmy Coates came to Mr. Smith's home and banged on the door, causing his wife to cower on the floor in terror. That was the cue for a third man, a muscular Hells Angels associate named John Walkinshaw, to introduce himself.
Mr. Walkinshaw calmly informed Mr. Smith that he didn't want "anyone to get hurt."
At the three men's extortion trial in January of last year, London Crown Attorney Elizabeth Maguire stressed that the bikers brandished no weapons and never physically harmed their victim. Such was the terror inherent in the Hells Angels death's-head logo, it wasn't deemed necessary.
"The weapon of choice was a Hells Angel," Ms. Maguire said in her final summation. "The weapon that was held to Mr. Smith's head, his wife's head, his daughter's head, was the Hells Angels."
All three men were found guilty and sentenced to between three and four years.
On Jan. 7, 2002 - coincidentally the first day of the extortion trial - the war burst back into public view with a late-night shootout between Hells Angels supporters and Outlaws holed up at 434 Egerton, next door to the Outlaws clubhouse.
As in the Kellestine shooting, the backdrop was an intense effort by the Hells Angels to expand.
Throughout the previous year Hell Angels prospect members had been aggressively - and successfully - recruiting Outlaws. In late November, Outlaws David (Hammer) Macdonald and Shaun (Cheeks) Boshaw joined up. In December, a dozen more patched over. Other Outlaws, faced with an ultimatum of "switch sides or retire," chose to retire.
But former Outlaws club president Thomas Hughes refused to do either. So, just after midnight, he was paid a visit by four members of the Jackals, a belligerent Hells Angels puppet club newly established by John Coates.
Gunfire ensued. One Jackal took a bullet in the belly. "I was just going to bed when I heard this 'pop, pop!' Then I heard tires squealing, then 'bang, bang, bang!'" one neighbour on the normally quiet residential street told a local paper.
Mr. Hughes was charged with four counts of attempted murder. He also faced nearly two dozen additional charges after police found handguns, ammunition, rifles and explosives at his home. After the attempted-murder charges were stayed, he was sentenced to 30 months in jail.
By now, London politicians and police were under intense public pressure to defuse the biker war. Then in January, 2002, tension rose higher still. Word went out that Outlaws from elsewhere in Canada were travelling to London to back up their beleaguered brothers, together with some Texas-based Bandidos, long-time Hells Angels rivals.
The venue for the confrontation would be the 2002 London Motorcycle Show, organized on the grounds of the Western Fair by event promoter Larry Pooler - a full-patch Hells Angel, attached to the flagship downtown Toronto chapter based at 498 Eastern Ave.
Mr. Pooler, a tattooed Santa Claus with twinkling brown eyes, a hacking cough and gapped front teeth, says it's a ridiculous notion that a showdown was planned. He breezily dismisses links between Ontario's Hells Angels and their Quebec brethren, whose war with the rival Rock Machine has left 160 dead in the past decade, including two prison guards and an 11-year-old boy.
Violence and chaos, the 54-year-old biker opined in an interview at his rambling rural home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., are endemic to Quebec society. "Their whole society is corrupt and vicious and violent," he said. "It always has been, since the 1600s. That's nothing new."
Law-enforcement efforts targeting the Hells Angels in Ontario are thus nothing more than discrimination, he added. "If I was black or wore a turban, my pockets would be lined with gold and civil suits. But I'm just a poor-white-trash biker."
Mr. Pooler is not entirely poor. In addition to his 1992 Harley FXRT (which he boasts is the same model used on the 1980s television series CHiPS), he drives two cars, an Astro van and a Mercedes turbo diesel. His house and barn sit on 81 acres of land.
In 2001 and 2002, he hosted late-night raves that attracted thousands of paying visitors. Until 2002, his event company, 2-4 The Show Promotions, ran London's annual motorcycle-trade show, one of the top five events of its kind in Canada.
But all that changed abruptly one Saturday afternoon in February, 2002, a month after the Egerton Street shooting, when 120 Outlaws and Bandidos faced off with 110 Hells Angels and Jackals on the grounds of the Western Fair.
Some of the bikers wore body armour. Others displayed buck knives on their belts. All wore full colours.
The Bandidos, who had ridden up Highway 401 from Detroit, arrived in a cluster. They made a public show of greeting the Outlaws, then stalked slowly through the show, surrounded on all sides by Hells Angels, as surprised onlookers scurried out of the way.
A team of 40 police officers physically separated the two rival gangs, then insisted that the Bandidos and their supporters depart. Otherwise "there'd have been fights," says an officer who was there. "I was guessing a shooting or a stabbing."
Mr. Pooler and others insist the police made a mountain out of a molehill. London Police Chief Murray Faulkner says that's nonsense: "If the police weren't there, we were in for trouble. Big-time."
Either way, the Western Fair board barred Mr. Pooler from future use of its grounds. London Mayor Anne Marie De Cicco launched a successful campaign to ban the London Motorcycle Show from the city as long as it's run by the Hells Angels.
So in 2003, Mr. Pooler held his show in nearby Woodstock.
This year, due to police pressure, there was no show at all, leaving Mr. Pooler complaining that he is being deprived of his right to make a living. Authorities in London reject that, saying the biker is free to take his show anywhere he chooses. If he can find a host.
"It only takes one incident like that for everybody to realize that the economics of this is a secondary issue to the safety of people," says a senior city official who asked to remain anonymous for fear of Hells Angels retaliation.
"Do we have to wait till somebody gets shot here to realize that it's not right to support stuff like this?"
If the authorities in London were by now wearying of bikers and their battles, so too, it appears, were the protagonists. The Coates brothers' high-profile, Quebec-style tactics risked turning the Ontario Hells Angels into Public Enemy No. 1, just like in Quebec. And that, everyone realized, would be bad for business.
Early in July, 2002, John Coates and his Sherbrooke Hells Angel sponsor, George (Beau-boy) Beaulieu, were summoned to a meeting at a North Toronto motel with Gerald (Skinny) Ward, president of the Niagara chapter, and William (Billy) Miller, head of the North Toronto chapter.
Mr. Coates was bluntly told that "you're done" as far as London was concerned, says a source familiar with the meeting. The Coates brothers and a few of their close associates were moved to the Niagara chapter under Mr. Ward.
London, meanwhile, would now come under the direct control of the North Toronto chapter, led by Mr. Miller.
John Coates's ouster introduced a period of relative quiet, at least in public. The plan, police say, was to cut overt ties with Quebec and get the Angels out of the media spotlight. The unfinished war with the Outlaws was to go on hold.
As things turned out, it never resumed. Police had begun infiltrating the Outlaws in the late 1990s, when they were still Ontario's pre-eminent biker gang, and the effort came to fruition just as the Angels were having their growing pains.
The Biker Enforcement Unit inadvertently handed victory to the Hells Angels when, on Sept. 25, 2002, it smashed Outlaws networks in 11 Ontario municipalities in co-ordinated pre-dawn raids.
More than 50 people were charged, including most of the Outlaws' upper echelon. The gang has never recovered. As a result, since the fall of 2002, the Hells Angels have, despite periodic arrests, controlled London's biker underworld.
And they are solidifying their hold. In addition to their own operations, the Hells Angels now supply a network of up to 30 mostly Somali-born youths who cook cocaine powder into crack and peddle it on London street corners, sources say.
Every so often, London's Hells Angels come into public view. Dirty McLeish, of Kellestine-shooting fame, now the London chapter's sergeant-at-arms, is back in jail awaiting trial on numerous charges connected with a string of small-town bank robberies last spring.
On May 1, the gang's London chapter held a big party at its headquarters at 14 Swinyard St. - both to inaugurate the riding season, and as a welcome-home party for Mr. Miller, who had been in jail for a year on weapons and gaming-related charges.
But for the most part, London's Hells Angels are staying out of the public eye. As they burrow deeper into the community and become more adept at insulating themselves with proxies, they're getting harder to stop. The big reason is fear - the power of the patch.
"Guys don't want to tell," one police officer flatly declared.
"You do your six months, nine months, 18 months, get out in good time, you're in good standing with the club. Anybody in their right mind would take that over giving evidence and putting up with what the H.A. would do to you."