Adventure in Sturgis
A retired Moffat County sheriff's deputy who took part in the biggest drug bust at this year's notorious Hell's Angels rally in South Dakota talks about the character and the characters of the event
Karl Hoffman stands and surveys the crowd. As Hell’s Angels ride by on their rumbling Harleys, making their way through Sturgis, S.D., he twirls his handlebar mustache and eyes their every move.
Two women interrupt his probing stare when they walk up to him with American flags painted across their chests as their only upper body cover.
“Sir, do you think these are legal,” pointing to their patriotic adornment. They ask with concern because of a $75 indecent exposure fine.
“Ma’am, I believe you’re going to be all right until tomorrow when the ordinance is passed that you have to wear tassels,” he replies.
They thank him and walk away.
Hoffman rolls up his window, takes a sip from his iced cappuccino and thinks to himself, “Man, I love this job.”
For the last nine years Hoffman, a retired Moffat County sheriff’s deputy, has journeyed to Sturgis during the first week of August for the world’s largest motorcycle rally. There he is a member of the police force hired on to keep the rally orderly.
“It is a paid vacation for me,” he said. “The crowd is wonderful and for the most part it’s just the biggest carnival in the world.”
The rally is also an opportunity for law enforcement agents to gather and spend time together.
“Law enforcement is also like a big brotherhood,” he said. “We gather to share information, talk about the year and discuss new tricks of the trade.”
Some of the information that the officers traded during the 2002 rally was how sophisticated the “outlaw riders” were becoming.
Hoffman perused a law enforcement guide with information about the Hell’s Angels and other common criminal bike gangs. The guide had pictures of key chains, video cameras and even tire pressure gauges that could be converted into guns. There was also a picture of a camper full of high-tech surveillance and radio scrambling technology that the Hell’s Angels used in Gunnison, Co., to throw off police surveying the hotel at which they were staying.
This year more than 1.2 million tourists flocked to Sturgis during the rally and, according to Hoffman, law enforcement agencies made 800 to 900 arrests.
“For the ratio of citizens-to-arrests that is very low,” he said. “It does get rough and tumble sometimes but, for the most part, people are there just to have a good time and behave accordingly.”
Hoffman, who owns Skull Creek Trading Company in Craig, was involved in one of the biggest arrests in Sturgis in several years during his duty this year.
He and his partner were patrolling a park when they saw a vehicle that was parked suspiciously. They checked it out and ended up finding two one-ounce bars of cocaine in the vehicle. Hoffman said the uncut drugs were worth anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 and it was one of the biggest drug busts in the history of Sturgis.
“It is a great experience for an officer of any rank at the rally because we run our whole case from arrest to filing to going to court.” he said. “I will probably end up going back to Sturgis this year for a couple of court cases.”
Mixing alcohol and motorcycles sometimes doesn’t go well and there are always a couple of tragedies. At this year’s rally seven riders were killed, Hoffman said.
“Some people take a course, buy a bike and think they can ride,” Hoffman said. “Then they get up here and can’t control the bike in a big crowd, especially if they’ve been drinking.
“A majority of the deaths come from inexperienced or drunk riders.”
Hoffman, however, said he wasn’t sure who was more dangerous drunk riders or gang members.
“Seeing Hell’s Angels ride up with their gang colors sewn onto flak jackets is pretty scary,” Hoffman said, after twirling his handlebar mustache for a while. “But I’m not sure they’re as much of a threat to the innocent public as an inexperienced rider.”
Remembering his nine years of experience Hoffman said, “You could fill your paper with all of my interesting stories.”
But Hoffman said he would never forget being a bodyguard for Hulk Hogan and several WWF wrestlers.
“I still don’t understand why the biggest guys there needed a body guard,” he said.
He also recalls providing protection for several Playboy bunnies.
“I was making sure to guarding them pretty close,” he said.
Other memorable moments have come from all of the questions Hoffman has been asked while at the rally.
The “dumbest question” winner goes to a tourist who asked, “Do you know where I could find a T-shirt?”
“There are probably 3,000 T-shirt vendors on the main street of Sturgis,” Hoffman said. “My only response was, ‘Well we can fit you with a striped shirt at the jail if you’d like.'”
Hoffman’s opportunity to become an officer at the rally came by way of a former colleague in Craig who moved to Sturgis after his duty here.
Jim Bush, the chief of police in Sturgis, who has come down and hunted with Hoffman, told the Craig resident that he hopes to have the retired deputy there for 20 years.
“If I can, I’ll be there until they ask me to not come back,” Hoffman said. “Strangely enough, the cooperation and spirit there renews my faith in mankind.”
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