This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 12, 2006
P.E.I. Police Shut Down Hells Angels Store
When the RCMP in sleepy Charlottetown conducted a series of drug raids last month, one casualty was the local Route 81 franchise. The store, one of a handful of outlets across Canada that stock a kitsch line of Hells Angels merchandise - from T-shirts to belt buckles - had never been very welcoming. Signs outside read "Private property" or "Beware of dog." Advised another: "There is nothing in here worth losing your life over." Nor had it been frequently open, not during regular hours, anyway. On May 25, just over a year after its founding - and 1½ years after Route 81's arrival in Canada - police made that permanent, shutting the store down and reportedly seizing its merchandise. "What I can tell you is that any assets from this business, we believe are proceeds of crime," RCMP Sgt. Dave Thibeau told one local reporter.
The move, which other Route 81 owners in the Maritimes and Ontario are no doubt watching closely, follows a period of stunning expansion by the Angels, who, despite troubles in Quebec, have seen 16 new chapters open in Ontario since 2000. Next month, in Windsor, the gang's Ontario branch will celebrate its fifth anniversary. "It's going to be a big party," says Guy Ouellette, a former head of biker intelligence for the Sûreté du Québec.
As the gang's retail arm, Route 81's role in that expansion is unclear. Donny Petersen, the Angels' normally garrulous spokesman, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Police, too, are loath to discuss the gang's business interests, though they have said in the past that dollars spent at Route 81 stores support ORGANIZED CRIME. And the Angels brand, which the club argues is one of the most recognized in the world, does sell: Ouellette recalls a raid in Montreal five years ago that uncovered a $100,000 Internet retail business.
But beyond the fact that 8 and 1 correspond numerically to H and A in the alphabet, Route 81's exact relationship with the Angels is something of an unknown. "It's not a business association whatsoever - none of this money goes to Hells Angels," maintains Mike Holliday, a co-owner of Route 81 Ottawa. But Holliday, whose partner is an Angel, allows that "Most of the stores are owned by members or associates or family. Not just anybody can open one. You have to be approved and you have to know somebody." Holliday, who says Route 81 Ottawa manufactures its own merchandise, is evasive about who grants that approval: "If you want to talk to those guys, phone the Route 81 in Toronto." Those calls, too, went unreturned.
Ouellette, for his part, argues that the relationship is unimportant. Though other observers worry the stores provide the Angels with a money-laundering mechanism, he believes they are merely the gang's public face, a networking and PR tool. Here too, Holliday disagrees. "There's a lot of people out there who do want to buy this stuff," he says. "That's the only reason we're selling it."
Maclean's June 12, 2006