Photo: San Joaquin County Sheriff Pat Withrow speaks during a press conference on Friday. (PHOTO BY SCOTT LINESBURGH)
A funeral for Hells Angels founding member Ralph “Sonny” Barger is scheduled for Saturday at Stockton 99 Speedway.
Its organizers and host insist it will be a tranquil event. The motorcycle club will keep the peace, they say.
But San Joaquin County Sheriff Pat Withrow disagrees.
During a press conference Friday, Withrow continuously referred to the Hells Angels as a “criminal” group and said he asked Stockton 99 promoter Tony Noceti not to host the event, to no avail.
“Despite my office communicating grave concerns for the safety of the attendees and our community, (the propietors) of the 99 Speedway continued with their event planning and disregarded the input from all our law enforcement partners,” Withrow said. “Subsequently, my office and numerous allied agencies have mobilized and dedicated an extreme number of resources.”
Barger passed away three months ago from liver cancer. The 83-year-old helped establish the Hells Angels in 1957 and was arguably the group’s most famous member. For many years, he was even considered the national leader and received two felony convictions during his tenure. However, later in life he became an author and actor.
The Hells Angels first approached the Oakland Coliseum as a potential venue for Barger’s funeral, but were turned down.
A friend then asked him to hold the funeral at Stockton 99, and that’s what he’s going to do, Noceti said. He gave his word to them and the Hells Angels.
“I made a commitment, and they are working class people, just like us,” Noceti said. “I have been assured by the club that they will police the event and keep the peace.”
When informed of Noceti’s confidence in the club’s security plans, Withrow remarked “If Mr. Noceti believes that statement, he’s either dumb as a stump or afraid for his life.”
The sheriff says there have been 4,500 reservations for the funeral. But federal enforcement officials expect much more.
He thinks the event should be canceled due to safety concerns and the excessive financial costs to local law enforcement that will likely incur, Withrow said. But since the funeral is scheduled to proceed, his department and other law enforcement agencies will be on high alert Saturday and have a plan of action in case of trouble.
The sheriff’s office was informed of the funeral plans at a meeting last month, Withrow said. He later met one on one with Noceti, where he asked him to cancel the event, to no avail.
Withrow says he even tried to get an injunction to stop the event. But that never happened because the funeral is being held on private property, and therefore the Sheriff’s Office has no legal right to cancel it.
The sheriff has made it clear that those who attend the funeral do so at their own risk.
“I will not put my officers in harm’s way,” Withrow said. “This is not like an active shooter at a school. These are people who are choosing to hang around with outlaw motorcycle gangs — and that’s not a safe place to be.”
Andrew Sarisuk, vice president of the Stockton Chapter of the Hells Angels, said that social media messages about possible violence and rioting is “just wrong.”
“This is a funeral. It’s a historic day for us,” Sarisuk said.
Withrow hopes the Hell’s Angels do keep things under control, saying that would be “fantastic.” But he noted there are also other issues at play, such as other gangs in the area. Withrow says a truce was made between the Hells Angels and rival gangs to keep rival gangs away from the funeral, but the truce does not affect those coming to or leaving the site.
Citizens should exercise caution Saturday, Withrow warned, especially in the area of the speedway on North Wilson Way. But he assured that all the law enforcement agencies are prepared.
“We are ready for this, the public does not need to be worried for their safety,” Withrow said. “I just want them to be aware that this is going on so that they can make good choices.”
Barger’s funeral is scheduled from 2 p.m.-8 p.m Saturday.