Inside Hells Angels Founder Sonny Barger's Tragic Life

Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Hells Angels, has died (via TMZ). According to NBC News, the 83-year-old was battling liver cancer. Upon Barger's death, a message was posted on his verified Facebook page that stated "I've lived a long and good life filled with adventure. And I've had the privilege to be part of an amazing club." Barger added, "Although I've had a public persona for decades, I've mostly enjoyed special time with my club brothers, my family, and close friends." Per the New York Post, he died at home on June 29 surrounded by family and his wife, Zorana.

Britannica reports that the Hells Angels, a motorcycle club, was established in 1948 in Fontana, California. Barger, however, didn't join until 1957 when he opened a chapter in Oakland, California (per The Independent). The Daily Mail writes that he is credited with taking the organization and making it go international. Now, there are chapters in Europe, South America, and more. Nevertheless, Barger remains a polarizing figure.

On one hand, he is applauded for making the Hells Angels icons. On the other hand, the group's bad reputation and scores of legal issues have led many to believe that the Hells Angels are nothing but a criminal gang (per Far Out Magazine). Barger himself previously expressed that the Hells Angels were "card-carrying felons" (via The Independent). Even so, it seems that finding the group gave him a purpose and relief from his troubled youth.

He had a tumultuous childhood

According to The U.S. Sun, Barger was born in Modesto, California on October 8, 1938. From an early age, his life was imbued with turmoil. TMZ reports that when Barger was only 4 months old, his mother abandoned him and his alcoholic father was left to raise him. The family later moved to Oakland sometime when he was still a child (via the Daily Mail). During his school years, Barger began to get into trouble. At one point, he was suspended after an altercation with a teacher. Barger decided to drop out of school in the 10th grade and join the army.

As he was only 16, he provided the army with a forged birth certificate (per TMZ). A year later, he was caught and Barger was honorably discharged. In his autobiography Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, he wrote that he established the Oakland chapter of the group not long after returning home (via Organized Crime Research). Prior to this, Barger had joined his first motorcycle club in 1956. However, he opted to start his own as he "felt no brotherhood" in the group.

By 1957, Barger, per The Independent, had formed the Oakland Hells Angels and became the organization's impromptu leader. Unbeknownst to him, the Hells Angels already existed. Barger decided it was best that each chapter of the group be affiliated with each other and "function under the same rules" (per Organized Crime Research).

Sonny Barger's legal issues

Since its inception, Far Out Magazine reports, the Hells Angels and Barger specifically have been accused of promoting a lifestyle that is riddled with crime and debauchery. As The Independent explains, Barger quickly became infamous for his tough-guy persona and his run-ins with the law. In his 1989 book, "Hell's Angels: 'Three Can Keep a Secret If Two are Dead,'" author Yves Lavigne writes that 29-year-old Servio Winston Agero was shot dead and his house was set on fire after selling the group bad drugs. In 1972, Barger and three other members of the Hells Angeles were acquitted of his murder (via New York Post).

Moreover, the Daily Mail states that Barger has faced a slew of other legal issues. In 1979, he was charged with ​​violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Barger was acquitted. Beyond this, he's been involved in notorious incidents, including the death of a man at a 1969 Rolling Stones concert. Held at the Altamont Speedway in California, the band hired the Hells Angels for security. The group, however, resorted to violence when they were unable to control disorderly fans. Ultimately, this resulted in one Hells Angel stabbing a concertgoer to death. When the Rolling Stones considered canceling the rest of their show, Barger reportedly pulled a gun on the group (per Reuters).

He spent time in prison

The New York Post writes that despite being acquitted twice, Barger did go to prison for other crimes he committed. In 1973, he was convicted on drug charges. "Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs' Crime Empire" by Julian Sher and William Marsden writes that Barger was sent to Folsom State Prison. He was released in 1977. In 1987, Barger was arrested after an FBI raid found weapons and explosives. After a 12-week trial, AP News reported, Barger and other Hells Angels members were found guilty of conspiracy. Prosecutors argued that they were planning an act of retribution in Louisville, Kentucky.

According to the Daily Mail, Barger and the Hells Angels wanted revenge for the death of fellow member John Cleve Webb. The authorities contended that the explosives would be used to "kill, maim or threaten" (per the New York Post). Additionally, Barger was convicted of stealing a government manual. Despite his conviction, he stated, ″I think it was a devastating blow to the government, and I couldn't be happier with the verdict except if I had been found innocent myself″ (via AP News). Per the book "Angels of Death," Barger spent 59 months in prison in Phoenix, Arizona, and was released in 1992.

He was addicted to drugs

According to "Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs' Crime Empire," Barger undoubtedly abetted the Hells Angels into creating a booming drug business. This was due to Barger and other members being heavy drug users themselves. When he was charged with ​​violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, he admitted that he used and sold drugs, including heroin (via "Hell's Angels 'Three Can Keep a Secret If Two are Dead'"). However, he noted that these were his "personal affairs" and did not represent the rest of the Hells Angels. Per The New York Times, Barger was charged with violating the act in the first place because it was believed that he and the Angels were trafficking drugs.

Although he was acquitted, The New York Times writes that Barger was later charged with possessing heroin and cocaine. In his autobiography "Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club," he acknowledges that drug use in the group was rampant (via Organized Crime Research). Barger wrote, "I snorted so much coke I didn't know what I was doing from one moment to the next." Moreover, he blamed his cocaine addiction for his legal troubles. He added that "My cocaine mood swings got me into a lot of deep criminal s*** and would ultimately land me in Folsom Prison" ( per Organized Crime Research).

He was first diagnosed with cancer decades ago

Although Barger died of liver cancer (via NBC News), Distractify reports that he was first diagnosed with throat cancer back in 1982. Per the Daily Mail, he had to have his vocal cords removed. An excerpt from "Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club" that was posted on his verified Facebook page states that he lost the ability to talk due to the surgery. According to The Washington Post, a hole was made in his throat to allow him to speak. This resulted in giving him a rough and growly voice. It's believed his throat cancer stemmed from Barger smoking three packs of Camel cigarettes daily for 30 years.

This, however, reportedly did not stop him from smoking (via the Daily Mail). In 2010, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer (per US Magazine). Barger recovered after his prostate was removed. Besides being a Hells Angel, Deadline writes that was also an actor and starred in a few episodes of "Sons of Anarchy," a motorcycle drama series on FX. Additionally, Barger was an author and wrote several books about his life and adventures with the Hells Angels. After his death, he released a goodbye message on his Facebook that read, "Keep your head up high, stay loyal, remain free, and always value honor." Sonny Barger is survived by his wife, Zorana (via TMZ).