For 18 months, between 2005 and 2007, Dave (Shaky) Atwell acted as a police informer, “ratting” on his fellow members of the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle gang in downtown Toronto. Wearing a wire, he gathered evidence that helped convict 15 men, mostly on drug trafficking charges.
Still alive to tell the tale and living under a different name, Atwell relives his harrowing ordeal as an informer and gang member in The Hard Way Out: My Life with the Hells Angels and Why I Turned Against Them, co-written with Jerry Langton. It’s part exposé, part confessional, explaining how a middle-class kid from a loving family in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough ends up joining an outlaw motorcycle gang.
In his teens, Atwell was known around town as a scrappy bouncer, working the door at bars. That led to a career in security, where he was mentored by a former British Royal Marine. Atwell quickly rose through the ranks, flagged as a “natural.” By the age of 21, he was a bodyguard for Toronto’s business and media elite. However, his enthusiasm for riding motorcycles led him into another world. This book describes that world, replete with drugs, fear, betrayal and revenge.
Atwell eventually became a sergeant-at-arms (in charge of discipline) of the Angels’ downtown Toronto chapter—and, later, the highest-ranking member in in the world to co-operate with the law. His information helped lead to 169 charges against 31 people linked to the Hells Angels, as well as the seizure of $3 million in drugs, plus cash and property. Atwell says those who were convicted are now out of jail.
In a phone conversation organized by a third party, Atwell, now 52, called Maclean’s contributor Joanne Latimer. They spoke about his double life as a biker and a police informant, as well as the grim reality of living under the witness protection program.
Q: You grew up playing hockey in Scarborough. Your dad was an executive with a paper company. How did you end up being a member of the Hells Angels?
A: My way in wasn’t typical. I was working for a security firm doing VIP protection in 1998 when I bought a Harley-Davidson. I loved riding, so I joined the Toronto chapter of a motorcycle club called the Para-Dice Riders—who became Hells Angels. I’d met some of the Para-Dice Riders at the Falcon’s Nest [bar] where I was a doorman. They invited me back to the clubhouse one night. I joined the club as more of a social venture, not a career. I didn’t know the guys as gang members, but as motorcycle enthusiasts, hockey players, neighbours, dads and drinking buddies.
Q: Were the Para-Dice Riders selling drugs and breaking the law?
A: At the individual level, yes, some. But not everyone. My sponsor for the Para-Dice Riders told me that I didn’t have to do anything illegal. At the time, I held a private investigator licence with the Ontario Provincial Police. Several club members were federal employees with security clearance to handle mail and air cargo. They were all characters who liked to ride and have a good time, but criminal activity wasn’t across the board and it wasn’t Hells Angels’ calibre.
Q: Did joining the Para-Dice Riders jeopardize your job?
Not at first. My boss at Intercon Security said I could join a motorcycle club as long as I didn’t do anything illegal or get arrested, and as long as I didn’t join the Hells Angels. The Hells Angels weren’t in Toronto yet, but they moved into the province a year later.
Q: In December, 1999, your motorcycle club “patched-over”—meaning, changed the crests on your vests—to become one of the 14 new Hells Angels chapters in the province. How was the transition?
A: It was really tense. Most motorcycle clubs in Ontario had a rule against mixing with the Hells Angels because of the way they do business. It was also seen as a betrayal to patch over because a Hells Angel killed a member of a Toronto gang called the Vagabonds over a $10,000 drug deal. There was a vote, and 51 per cent of the Para-Dice Riders decided to join the Hells Angels. The other 49 per cent could remain Para-Dice Riders, and many did. My friends were part of the 51 per cent, so I went with them.
Q: How did you feel about becoming a Hells Angel?
A: I had my apprehensions, but I was told that nothing would change except the patches we wore on our backs. We didn’t have to kick up 10 per cent of our earnings. My sponsors at the Para-Dice Riders had to vouch for me, or else I never would’ve been accepted. I don’t have what it takes to become a member of an established chapter of Hells Angels.
What does it take?
A: That predator instinct and natural criminality—people who can take advantage of things like the fentanyl epidemic in Canada. They’re feeding it.
Q: Tell me about the life of a typical Hells Angel.
A: You wake up every day and worry about two things: how not to get caught and how to stay a Hells Angel. Getting your patch is hard, but keeping it is harder. It’s so political. Guys start smear campaigns and try to get you kicked out over petty things. There’s jealousy between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Some of them were living in backyard sheds, some were making a fortune. You have to pay club dues to buy into the clubhouse and help sell the supporters’ gear, like T-shirts, which makes a lot of money. We drove all around the province, even in pouring rain, for mandatory parties. It was very corporate. There were chapter meetings with catering and high security. Someone took minutes. Within two years of the patch-over, it wasn’t about riding your motorcycle and partying anymore. It was about being a cog in a money-making wheel.
Q: When did you start dealing drugs?
A: In 2002, I sold weed and 100 Percocets to a woman who worked at the clubhouse. She turned out to be a police informant. I was arrested in a sweep with other members and spent 20 months on bail, living at my dad’s house. He didn’t approve of the Hells Angels, but he liked individual guys. I was ready to do my time and I wasn’t going to rat my way out of it. In the end, the charges were stayed. By then, I wanted out.
Q: Couldn’t you walk away?
A: I couldn’t leave because I owed the Hells Angels a huge legal bill, plus house fees, and I couldn’t work security anymore. I’d lost my job. While providing executive security at a party in Rosedale one night, [former prime minister] Paul Martin showed up. So, his security detail ran all the licence plates in the vicinity and one plate—mine—came back “OMG.” That’s not Oh My God. It’s for Outlaw Motorcycle Gang member. I handed the Mounties my business card and said, “That’s me.” My boss got a visit from the Biker Enforcement Unit. He gave me six months’ pay, wiped out my laptop loan and had to quietly let me go.
So, I became a full-time biker, with a duty to serve the club. That meant becoming more involved in selling drugs. I’d make $1,700 per kilo of cocaine, delivering it a few blocks [away], stashed in a KFC bag. I’d rent a car or take public transit to make the dead drops. That was my life. I lost a lot of old friends. Everyone was surprised when I became a Hells Angel, but I saw the individual, not the patch. When I saw what the patch did to those individual people, it turned me off.
Q: Did you become a police informant to beat a jail sentence?
A: No, I wasn’t up on charges. I didn’t rat my way out of doing time. It was a really hard decision, but I wanted to right a wrong and my life had spun out of control. I met with two Mounties who had approached me, then made a deal with a lawyer from the OPP to inform for 18 months.
Q: What was it like, being an informer?
A: It was torture. I lied from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. My dad couldn’t know. My girlfriend at the time couldn’t know. I put on weight. I’d have to go out and gather evidence, then bring it back to the safe house. I’d take off my wires and we’d review hours of tapes to qualify conversations. My girlfriend suspected I was seeing someone else. It tore me apart. At one point, I had constant tremors and ringing in my ears.
Q: For your efforts, the police gave you $450,000 plus $1,000 per week when you testified. Did you do it for the money, Dave?
A: When I signed up to be an agent for the police, I didn’t know about the money. It was a leap of faith. At first, I refused to take any money because it was about righting a wrong. Then my old friend, an ex-Royal Marine said, “Dummy, take the money.” My [police] handlers said, “Dave, you never belonged there. You were always an enigma.” The police operation was called Project Develop because they had to develop me into a criminal. They also gave me $1,850 every week in cash, which was the amount the OPP determined was the average cost of being a Hells Angel.
Q: That’s a lot of money. Were you doing coke while informing?
A: Well, I had to keep things the same, or it would be suspicious, right? Maybe I took that one a bit far (laughs). For my own protection, I got a gun from a guy at the clubhouse and learned to shoot it inside a sock to avoid fingerprints. The cops never approved the bullets.
Q: Did your fellow gang members suspect you?
A: Yes! I know they did because Doug Myles [who was eventually found guilty of charges relating to trafficking GHB, the “date rape drug,” as a result of Atwell’s information, but was not found guilty of any charges relating to being a member of an organized crime group] called me into his garage and asked, outright, if I was a rat. He told me the only reason I didn’t have a bullet in my head was because of my long-term service and reputation as a decent guy. I acted really pissed off and indignant, and got out alive. Then my handlers pulled me.
Q: What was it like to testify against your ex-brothers in arms?
A: It was awful. I had to wait two years for the trial, in isolation. There were about 18 lawyers coming at me, asking questions designed to attack my character. The members were sitting in the same room with me. If looks could kill! I had a nervous breakdown after that.
Q: After years in witness protection, are you still afraid for your life every day?
A: It would drive me absolutely nuts to think that they’re looking for me every time I walk out of my apartment. But I’d have to be nuts to think they’re not. It’s a solitary life. You can’t get to know anyone because they want to get to know you and they ask all these questions. I’ll never ride a bike again. I’ll never own a home or work anything other than a [blue collar job] because you can’t get those things without a backstory. It’s not a glamorous life, but I’m not a predator on society anymore. As long as you’re doing good things instead of bad things, it’s easier to close your eyes at night.
Q: Do you every regret not going into law enforcement?
A: In today’s age of terrorism, I regret not going into the military. I never had the marks. I’m sure I could’ve got tutoring if I really wanted to join the Army or Navy. I applied to the Durham police. I made it to the interview stage, but I was then charged with assault while working security, so I withdrew my application. Even though the charges were dropped quickly, I never got back to it. There was a career for me in security where I didn’t have to file a bunch of paperwork to different sergeants with their own agendas.
Q: How do the Hells Angels continues to exist? Because of police taking bribes?
A: Absolutely not. There might be one bad apple occasionally, but there are enough checks and balances to keep officers on the straight and narrow. Plus, they’re pretty well-paid.
Q: How do you see things changing for the Hells Angels?
A: The law enforcement resources they had in the ’80s and ’90s to crack down on the Mafia and bikers have been shifted to terrorism. It’s a good day for organized crime. But I know there are still informers among high-ranking members of the Hells Angels. I wasn’t the only one, I know for a fact.
Why did they call you Shaky?
A: There are two schools of thought. One is that I shake down guys for money. That was a reputation that I didn’t really earn. Yes, I did some collection work, as a non-Hells Angel, for a company that lent money to restaurants, but my method of collecting was figuring out a payment plan so they could stay in business. That’s not the Hells Angels way.
Others say my nickname goes back to when I was prospecting [like pledging] to join the Para-Dice Riders. I got fed up one day and wanted to quit, so they said my allegiance was “shaky”.
Q: How have you changed?
A: Those seven years I was in the club—that’s not me. There were the 35 years before the club, and the seven-odd years after that define Dave Atwell.