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Biker gangs shoot up casino

In the middle of the night, rivals square off in Nevada's deadliest casino shooting. Three are killed.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

LAUGHLIN, Nev. -- Denise Massey was gambling with her fiance on the first floor of Harrah's casino Saturday when she noticed 20 to 30 bikers suddenly converge.

"Next thing you know you just hear "bam, bam, bam,' " she said. "All of a sudden they're running and just shooting at each other."

In the worst shooting inside a Nevada casino, rival motorcycle gangs armed with guns and knives clashed, leaving three dead and at least 12 wounded as terrified gamblers ducked for cover.

The brawl, involving 60 to 70 people, broke out between the Hells Angels and the Mongols during an annual bikers event that draws tens of thousands of roaring Harleys and Hondas to this riverside gambling town 80 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

"We do have a number of suspects in custody, including at least one shooter, who was arrested with his weapon," said Lt. Vincent Cannito of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which patrols Laughlin. More than 200 people were being interviewed, and multiple arrests are expected.

The killings took place during the 20th annual River Ride, which brings as many as 100,000 riders and spectators to this desert outpost of about 8,000 residents along the Colorado River in a corner of the Nevada badlands. The resort town has nine casinos and attracts about 5-million visitors a year.

Police said that multiple shots were fired and that some of the gang members went after each other with knives, bar stools and fists. The melee, which began at 2:15 a.m., was captured by the casino's video cameras.

Two police officers discharged their weapons, one accidentally during an arrest, and one during a gunfight with the brawlers. Authorities said the accidental shot is not believed to have hit anyone. They would not discuss the outcome of the other shot.

Tirso Dominguez of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said two men died inside the casino and one died outside. Their names have not been released.

A fourth victim was found dead along Interstate 40 early this morning near San Bernardino, Calif., and police suspect the killing is related because the man, a motorcycle gang member, had been shot.

Scores of officers from Nevada and Arizona had been deployed to Laughlin this weekend to provide security for the gathering. Several hundred more poured into the area after the fight, and police closed highways and the bridge that connects Laughlin to Bullhead City, Ariz. The routes were reopened later in the morning.

Harrah's was in lockdown, with guests escorted from the casino and the hotel, as police continued to search from room to room for other possible victims or suspects.

Chris Welton, 42, of Carson City was playing poker when the shooting began.

"Shots just started going off," he said. "There were dead bodies. Pretty nasty. There was a guy about 10 feet from me. He was dead. His buddy was trying to revive him."

John Davidson, 39, ducked beneath a blackjack table.

"There were shell casings landing right by us," he said. "I had to pull the dealer down. She was screaming."

Cannito described the bikers involved as "the notorious one-percenters," meaning the one-in-a-hundred motorcycle enthusiasts who claim membership in so-called outlaw gangs.

"We're not mincing words," Cannito said. "These are the bad guys. It doesn't matter how many toy runs they do, these are still outlaw and often criminal gangs."

Cannito was referring to the motorcycle club practice of collecting toys for children before Christmas, riding around with teddy bears and wrapped packages to deliver them to hospitals or children's homes.

Saturday's violence mars a culture that draws an overwhelming number of law-abiding, peaceful "weekend warriors" who enjoy riding their gleaming chrome machines.

Most of the riders in town for the event appeared to be middle-aged, male and sporting a paunch.

"These are club riders. These aren't bad boys and gangbangers," said Jeffrey Schwartzman, an insurance agent from Phoenix, who was attending with his wife. Schwartzman explained that, for all the leather chaps and dangling chains, "most riders live normal, boring lives, going to work and taking the kids to soccer practice."

During the River Ride, most of the bikers drive their motorcycles up and down Casino Drive or park and visit the tents and booths selling cold beer and merchandise.

Authorities warned of the danger for further violence.

"The rumors of retaliation have already hit the street," said Larry Tunforss, spokesman for the Fire Department in Bullhead City, Ariz., which is across the river from Laughlin. "Our police department is beefing up intensely. There's a definite concern of further incidents."

-- Information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post was used in this report.

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