By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
* This article was modified on Aug. 15, 2011.
The backroom of Illusion Motorsports is full of bikes: some are set aside like museum pieces, others are jacked up on work tables, here a line of stripped-down and refurbished Harley-Davidsons, there the odd Triumph or Victoria. But two motorcycles in particular stand out inside the construction-in-progress custom-motorcycle shop in a Garden Grove business complex just off Interstate 405 at Golden West. They're distinguished less because of their physical appearance than for what they say about the store's owners, Rodrigo Requejo and Rusty Coones, and the amazing turn of personal fortune both men have experienced in the past few years.
The first bike, an Illusion Hellrazor with a 114-cubic-inch engine custom-manufactured exclusively for the shop, belongs to Kurt Sutter, the creator of the biker drama Sons of Anarchy that airs on FX. Requejo and Coones built the bike for Sutter earlier this year, but Sutter sent it back in for a custom fender and a one-of-its-kind aluminum fairing. It's the second bike Sutter has purchased from the store; the first was custom-made for the show in 2010, and then donated to the Wounded Warrior Foundation, a San Diego charity that benefits wounded and disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Sons of Anarchy camera crew filmed Requejo and Coones building the bike from scratch for a special feature for the upcoming DVD release of the show's third season. Coones' heavy-metal band, Attika7, for which he plays lead guitar alongside vocalist Evan Seinfeld of Biohazard fame, also contributed two songs to the second season, as well as one (so far) for the upcoming fourth season. Sutter and his wife, actress Katey Sagal (who plays Gemma on the show), met Coones a few years ago on a toy run in the San Fernando Valley.
"My first impression: 'Fuck, he is big,'" Sutter says. "Then I was struck by his enthusiasm and genuine love of bikes and the motorcycle subculture. Plus, he was a huge Sons fan. We became friends when he started talking about bikes."
Sutter says that although he has been riding motorcycles for 20 years, the Hellrazor was his first custom-built motorcycle. "The bike is an incredible mix of art, power and comfort," he says. "Beautiful to look at, a force of nature on the road and easy to ride. I fucking love it."
While Sutter's Hellrazor symbolizes the success Coones and Requejo now enjoy, the other bike in question speaks to the dark days the two men shared in the not-too-distant past. It's a 2004 West Coast Chopper Dominator, gleaming with a spotless, satin black paint job, resting on a rack high up on one wall of the shop. It was a surprise gift to Coones from his pal Jesse James, who personally built it in celebration of Coones' Dec. 27, 2004, release from federal prison for his alleged role in what police, prosecutors and newspaper articles at the time described as Orange County's biggest drug-smuggling network.
Even as Coones walked out of prison a free man that day, Requejo was behind bars, having just been arrested for murder. For weeks, Requejo sat in jail, facing either the death penalty or life in prison without parole until finally being cleared of any wrongdoing. Both men look back at their pasts with a healthy dose of humility.
"You have to make the best of the bad," says Requejo, whose burly frame belies his soft-spoken, philosophical nature. "Every day, we're here making people happy, working on their bikes and having a good time. Life's been good to us. You have two guys who could have gone way down the wrong path and somehow made a U-turn."
* * *
A 6-foot-5-inch tower of tanned flesh and muscle, Howard Irvine Coones, known to friend and foe alike as Rusty, has piercing hazel eyes beneath his black-nylon skullcap. Scrolling down the back of both of his bulging biceps are flaming letters spelling out "Hells Angels." Coones is the founder of the Orange County chapter and current president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the club, which he refuses to mention by name, much less discuss in detail, because its rules preclude members from doing so.
Coones was raised in the small Sacramento-area farming town of Madera in the 1960s. His father owned a crop-dusting business, and Coones began flying as a youngster, which is also when he began riding Harley-Davidsons. His dad wasn't too enamored of the hobby, and after a girl crashed into Rusty, totaling his bike but leaving him miraculously unscathed, his dad gave him an ultimatum. "He told me, 'If you get another Harley, I'm going to kick you out of the house, and I'm going to fire you,'" Coones recalls.
With nowhere to stay and no work to speak of in rural California in 1974, it seemed as though Coones' riding days were over. "But once you get a Harley, you get kind of hooked," he says. "So the day I got the insurance check, I went out and got a bike." Sure enough, Coones' dad both fired him and evicted him from the house on the spot. "So I rode my bike down here to Orange County and got a job with my uncle doing plumbing, and I've been here ever since."
By 1982, Coones was firmly entrenched in Southern California's outlaw-biker scene. He'd also developed a penchant for dealing drugs and collecting firearms, which were confiscated from his mansion in Laguna Canyon when police busted him there on drug and gun charges that year. After getting out of prison two years later, he returned to Laguna Beach and operated Lords of Limos and Custom Inc., a business that custom-built cars, limousines and motorcycles. A 1988 Los Angeles Times article about a local car-show appearance by surgically enhanced Playboy model—and mistress of disgraced televangelist James Bakker—Jessica Hahn describes Coones as a "33-year-old bodybuilder" who picked Hahn up at John Wayne Airport and drove her to the event in his "$75,000 gleaming silver limo truck with a computerized bar."
In 1986, Coones met his future wife, Katherine, a half-Italian, half-Mexican firecracker of a woman who goes by the nickname KO; he immediately began courting her, hoping she'd move into his million-dollar mansion. "Rusty is very kind and generous, a cement-covered marshmallow," she says. "He's never hurt me or lied to me and treats me like a princess. I remember when I met him, he had one of those $3,000 cell phones that was as big as a shoebox. He built me a walk-in closet in his home. He showered me with gifts and jewelry, and he had an airplane, a Cessna 210, all black and custom-painted, and would say, 'Let's fly up to San Francisco together.'"
Despite the bling, Coones insists that he went straight after his prison stint. Besides operating a successful bike shop and limo service, he opened First Step Treatment Centers of California, a rehabilitation facility for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. Coones' younger brother was a heroin addict, and Coones had spent years trying to save him. "Even though I was into a lot of illicit-drug stuff, I wasn't a user," Coones explains. "But he was, and I would get him off the drugs and clean him up, and then he would go right back to it. It went on like that for seven or eight years."
In 1981, his brother shot himself in the head. "Rusty always carried that guilt," says KO. "He felt that it was his fault that he couldn't save him."
Local police, however, remained determined to put Coones back in prison, even going so far as to put local informants to work, trying to lure him into drug deals. One Sunday afternoon in 1991, Coones was drinking a beer at a biker bar in Laguna Canyon when a stranger asked if he could buy him a beer. Coones pointed at his own bottle and declined the offer. The following week, the same man showed up and once again offered to buy Coones a drink. Again, Coones, who already had his own, refused, at which point the man began to ask him for advice on how to invest cash from a court settlement he'd just received.
"I've got all this money I want to invest," he began. "What would you do with it?"
"Me, personally, I buy used bikes and sell them—that's my thing," Coones responded. "And real estate; I've never lost money on real estate."
"I'm thinking about something more lucrative," the man said.
"You know, coke . . ."
Coones didn't let the stranger finish his sentence. "Get the fuck out of here," he commanded, leaning over the table. "I'll beat your ass."
For the next month, Coones watched the same helicopter hovering near his house and following him around town. He knew the cops were suspicious because of the size of his house and the fact he'd just taken a loan against the property for $400,000 cash. "So I'm flush with money and doing cars and bikes and trying to remodel the property and sell it, and all the time, I'm legit," Coones insists. "They didn't know that. They thought I was good for 100 kilos of coke."
Coones knows that number for a fact because it was in the search warrant police used to raid his house one morning in 1991 while he was meeting with a city official about his rehab program. A 60-man task force led by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents backed by two helicopters surrounded his house and blew open his unlocked front door. They wrestled to the floor two guests who were sleeping in different rooms and had to call a fire truck after one of the explosions set off a small fire. One of the hapless houseguests, who, like Coones himself, was never arrested, later told Coones he overheard police saying that 21 bullets had been discharged inside the house as police went from room to room, rifles at the ready.
As it turned out, the police claimed to have an informant who said Coones had a house safe full of cocaine and machine guns, thus they were expecting armed resistance. "They looked like idiots," Coones says. "There wasn't anything to find. I told them they were years too late. They could justify that on the search warrant in front of any judge because, back in 1982, when I did get arrested there, I did have machine guns in my room. I had quite a collection."
The next time the cops surrounded Coones' house didn't go so well, although the search came up empty for guns and drugs once again. Appropriately enough, the raid took place on D-Day: June 6, 1999. Under cover of darkness early that morning, Coones slipped out of his house in Garden Grove, having long since sold his Laguna mansion. He knew he'd been under surveillance for weeks by FBI agents driving everything from Dodge Intrepids to beat-up Volkswagen buses. Coones drove to KO's house in Orange. He knew his time was running out: The helicopter hovering somewhere nearby told him the feds were closing in on him.
"Man, it's coming down this morning," he said to himself. He told KO to get dressed. It was like a scene out of the film Goodfellas' climax, in which a coked-out Henry Hill becomes increasingly paranoid about the helicopter following him—except Coones wasn't on drugs. As the noise from the helicopter grew louder, he looked out the window and saw a California Highway Patrol car pull up three doors down. Several officers from the multi-agency task force that was hunting him crouched behind the vehicle, while others began to surround the wrong house. Not wanting any neighbors to end up dead, Coones calmly walked out the front door, his hands raised.
Seconds later, just after 6:30 a.m., Coones was arrested in a massive operation targeting what authorities billed as a Hells Angels-tied smuggling scheme that brought untold quantities of methamphetamine from California to Hawaii, much of it stashed inside Harley-Davidson motorcycles, netting profits of $1 million per week. Among the 15 people arrested that day were John Ward, a 31-year-old drug kingpin from Orange who was known in Las Vegas as a flashy whale with a $25,000 Rolex on his wrist and whose fleet included Porches, Mercedeses and Ferraris, and Bryan Kazarian, an ambitious young deputy district attorney whose job was targeting street gangs in Orange County.
Unlike the other defendants, all of whom tried to work out plea deals, Coones refused to talk to the police or even his lawyer, who made the mistake of telling Coones he could get his bail reduced if he talked to the feds. "I had been taught since I was a youngster that you maintain your right to remain silent," Coones says. "It doesn't matter if you're innocent or guilty. You don't talk to them, and that's that, and that's what I did. I never cooperated, never interviewed, and they didn't expect me to cooperate because they knew that wasn't going to happen."
Coones eventually pleaded guilty to a single count of drug conspiracy for providing Ward with 108 pounds of ephedrine, a component of the highly potent methamphetamine known as "ice" that Ward was trafficking. "In actuality, I did have involvement in ephedrine and hooking people up," he acknowledges. "I introduced one party to another, and I never actually had my hands on it, but I was involved in that conspiracy."
After 21 months at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, Coones was sentenced to just more than eight years in federal prison; a jury later convicted Ward, who received a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole, while former prosecutor Kazarian, who was promptly fired by DA Tony Rackauckas, got off with a relatively lenient 33 months and a disbarment that was later reversed; he now works as a defense attorney in Westminster. While Coones admits to knowing Ward, he says he never met Kazarian.
"But according to the police reports, the prosecutors and the papers, I was supposed to be associated with him," he says. "It was so outlandish, and most of it was trumped up. They brought up every expert on the Hells Angels they could find."
Although Coones insists the club had nothing to do with his predicament, his status as a high-ranking Hells Angel turned him into a minor celebrity in the war on drugs while he was behind bars. After his arrest, KO took over Illusion Motorsports, selling motorcycles and other gear to pay Coones' legal bills and to keep the business' various state and local licenses current. To raise cash for Coones to use at the prison commissary, she sold "Free Rusty" T-shirts, and she set up a website to keep friends updated on his case and on which she published occasional essays by Coones about the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of the drug war. While in prison, Coones took up the guitar and began writing songs, including "Lockdown" and "No Redemption," which he still performs with Attika7.
One of Coones' biggest supporters was fellow bike-builder Jesse James, who had worked with Coones on motorcycles and befriended him years before his arrest. During the four seasons that James appeared on Monster Garage, he wore several different "Free Rusty" T-shirts during taping in a quiet tribute to his friend. Then there was the motorcycle James built for Coones just days before Coones got out of prison. Actually, James gave the bike to KO because he wouldn't be able to do it in person.
"He told me that he and Sandy were leaving for Cabo," KO recalls, referring to James' then-wife Sandra Bullock. "'We won't be here when Rusty comes home, so you have to give him the bike.'" James knew that Coones had lost all his motorcycles to legal bills and would have nothing to ride. "He had tears in his eyes when he handed the keys to me. He said, 'KO, a Hells Angel needs a motorcycle.'"
* * *
Just six days before Coones walked out of prison a free man, Rodrigo Requejo was driving his battered Ford Dually truck home from a long day at Twisted Metal, his now-shuttered bike shop, when he took his eyes off the road for a few seconds, fumbling for his cell phone. When he looked up, he'd pulled up close behind a pickup. The then-31-year-old Argentinean immigrant and self-employed bike builder swerved around the vehicle and kept driving, unaware that his maneuver had antagonized its occupants. After exiting, he was sitting at a red light when two angry young men rushed his car and pulled him to the pavement.
What happened next is a blur in Requejo's mind. "They beat the hell out of me, man," he says. "I was in a big fog. I got hit so hard in the head and chest and everything. I thought I had pulled out a knife and scared them away. I didn't have a drop of blood on me." Covered in bruises, Requejo managed to fight off his attackers and retrieve his truck, which had rolled away. It wasn't until he saw the news the following day that he realized he had in fact stabbed both men, who turned out to be twins, and that one of them, Justin Ammann, died from his wounds.
The surviving brother, Jason, told police that Requejo, who was a Hells Angels prospect at the time, had forced them off the road and attacked them, yelling the name of the motorcycle club. Based on that version of events, police arrested Requejo, who was charged with murder and attempted murder, with a special-circumstances enhancement alleging the crimes were carried out for the benefit of the Hells Angels. Because of his status as a club prospect at the time, Requejo refused to give his side of the story to police; he even denied being involved in the fight when he was arrested.
"Who's going to believe me?" he wondered. "I'm a Hells Angels prospect. They are going to hang me for this. Had this happened at another place, where there were no witnesses, I'd be gone."
Indeed, at his arraignment, the judge coolly informed Requejo that, if convicted, he'd be eligible for the death penalty, despite the fact he'd never been arrested for a violent crime. In the end, Requejo was spared by pretrial media coverage. Eyewitnesses who saw what really happened came forward to contest the official story, saying it was the two brothers who started the fight and that Requejo had acted in self-defense.
On Feb. 3, 2005, after more than a month behind bars, prosecutors dropped all charges against Requejo. He had been living with two death sentences hanging over him, given that the Ammann brothers were members of the Orange County Skins, a violent white-supremacist street gang that had green-lighted a hit on Requejo. "I don't have a problem with them now," Requejo says. "But while I was inside, I had to watch out."
One inmate had torn a gang rival in half with an AK47, Requejo recalls. Another had murdered his probation officer; stolen his badge, gun and car; and led police on a freeway chase that ended in a shootout. When the cops caught up with him, they found the probation officer's ears in the man's pocket. "I was locked up with dudes who were nuts—you could see right through them," he says, "but there were dudes who were swearing their innocence up and down, and I could honestly believe a couple of them."
Requejo had first met Coones when he was 18 years old and Coones and another hulking Hells Angel showed up at his dad's motorcycle shop. He ran into him again at a bike run not long after he left jail. Requejo reintroduced himself. The two began talking about bikes, and before long, Requejo had shuttered Twisted Metal and become Coones' business partner in Illusion Motorsports. "We've been going at it since," Requejo says.
There was one hitch in the promising partnership, however. On July 27, 2008, several Hells Angels, including Requejo, were drinking beer at Blackie's By the Sea in Newport Beach when they got into a brawl with members of Phil Aguilar's Set Free Soldiers, an evangelical-Christian bike club (see "He Shall Be Set Free," Nov. 25, 2010). Requejo says he threw the first punch when a friend of one of the Set Free Soldiers "disrespected" one of the Hells Angels at the bar. Requejo told the man to mind his own business. "Fuck you," the man responded.
"For me, one 'fuck you' is one too many," Requejo says. "I wouldn't have cared if the president of the United States was there or 100 cops; if somebody tells me, 'Fuck you,' I am going to punch him in the mouth, and that's exactly what I did."
What happened next is well-known, and the security-video footage has since gone viral on YouTube: A dozen or more massive bikers explode in a blur of fists and flying pool cues before, just as suddenly, both sides withdraw and calmly leave the bar. Although he wasn't arrested, Requejo was already on probation for carrying a knife—he claims it was of legal length—so police charged him with seven felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon. They also raided his house; while officers ransacked his home, Requejo's mother suffered a heart attack and had to be taken to the hospital.
The first thing she did when she recovered was to beg her son to quit the Hells Angels. "I didn't want to quit," he recalls. "These were my friends, but she's my mother, man. If she had died in that hospital, I would have blown my brains out. I couldn't have lived with that on my conscience, her dying over me doing something stupid. So I did what I thought was right at the time."
* * *
Following the infamous Blackie's bar fight, Requejo pleaded guilty to one assault charge in return for probation, which is now just weeks from running out, at which point the charge will be expunged from his record. Nowadays, he divides his time between his two daughters, age 7 and 15; the bike shop; and racing the only sidecar bike with a Harley-Davidson engine in it at Costa Mesa Speedway on weekend nights. Not a day goes by when he doesn't regret killing another person or that he doesn't ponder the possibility of things working out differently. "What if I had my seatbelt on and I could have hit the gas before they pulled me out?" he asks. "What if I had locked my doors? The fate of that poor guy—I am never going to live that down. I took somebody's life. I'm going to have to answer to the man upstairs for that someday."
Nevertheless, Requejo is grateful for how well life is going now for both him and Coones. "It's a hard life we both have lived," he says. "At one part in both our lives, we had the great potential to be gone away forever, and I was thinking, 'I could never eat a steak or get a cup of coffee from Starbucks in the morning or lay down with a woman again.' Those things go through your mind."
Coones is also a busy man. Besides his work at the shop, he's often up halfway to dawn practicing with Attika7, who have played venues ranging from the Galaxy Concert Theatre and House of Blues in Anaheim to Irvine Lake. He was recently offered a principal role in a three-part film trilogy that has yet to be formally announced.
Thanks in part to his continued membership in the Hells Angels, police love to keep tabs on his movements. When Coones showed up for a Boys & Girls Club toy run in Santa Ana several weeks ago, police wouldn't let him ride with his club patch on. Coones refused to take it off as a matter of principle.
He doesn't complain about such incidents. "I'm just glad I'm where I'm at now and not having to go through the hard times I had," he says. "It's pretty exciting. We have a lot of things going on these days. We get to create art that rolls. Our work is fun; our play is fun. It's a good life."
Although it has been years since he was a member of the Hells Angels, Requejo says the police haven't forgotten about him, either. "I tell Rusty all the time, 'No matter how well we're doing in life, you always have one foot in the successful life and one foot in a prison cell somewhere,'" he says. "It's a balancing act. You have to put more weight on the good foot than the bad because it's easy to put more weight on the other foot and be gone. It's like you have a sidecar of doom."
Requejo is the first to admit he still has his "wild side." One Christmas Day a few years ago, he was eating brunch with his family at Costa Mesa's now-closed Omelette Parlor when he heard a familiar voice behind him. He walked around the corner and saw a table of police officers, including the one who had previously arrested him for carrying a knife. The cops stopped talking, and the one whose voice Requejo recognized walked up to him, facing him nose to nose.
"So I heard you quit," the cop said, referring to Requejo's resignation from the Hells Angels.
"Yeah, you heard right," Requejo responded.
"So you're done, huh?" the cop continued. "You quit. You're done?"
"Let me tell you something," Requejo answered. "I quit, but I'm not done. I'll never be done."
The cop walked back to his table, and Requejo rejoined his family.
This article appeared in print as "Hell Raisers: For Rusty Coones and Rodrigo Requejo of Illusion Motorsports, life has been one wild ride."