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CALIFORNIA - Expecting the best, prepared for the worst for American Heat motorcycle weekend

OFF THE WIRE
Thousands of motorcyclists will rumble into Palm Springs this weekend for the American Heat Motorcycle Rally.
The annual gathering fills hotel rooms with a colorful array of motorcycle enthusiasts, from rowdy hard-core bikers, to the average joes, to wealthy doctors and lawyers.
The gatherings have always been accompanied by ambivalence on the part of police and businesspeople, who balance the desire to bring in 5,000 visitors with the need to keep the streets safe.
The feeling is heightened this year by the recent outbreak of deadly violence between rival biker gangs during a festival in Nevada, and subsequent police raids against the gang believed responsible for the slaying of a rival member.
Members of that biker gang, the Vagos motorcycle club, maintain a presence in the Coachella Valley and have attended American Heat.
The last time violence at a festival left known biker gang members dead — in 2002 — Palm Springs city leaders opted to cancel American Heat.
Still, after a decade of hosting the rally, Palm Springs police acknowledge only one serious incident, the firing of a gun outside a bar near Interstate 10.
They say they have the experience and manpower to ensure a safe American Heat weekend, even after the Sept. 23 shootout in Sparks, Nev., during a multi- city motorcycle festival.
We've been policing this event for over 10 years. It's a safe event,” said acting Palm Springs police Capt. Dennis Graham.
Jeffrey Pettigrew, a Hells Angels San Jose chapter leader, died and two Vagos Motorcycle Club members were wounded in the fight inside John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel-casino.
The Vagos club then became the target of a Southern California police sweep Thursday that resulted in 12 arrests and confiscation of hundreds of guns.
Graham said the department is aware of the Vagos- Hells Angels situation and are ready to respond in case of any retaliation.
“If something like that occurs, we'll be prepared for it,” Graham said Monday. “We have information that helps us prepare every year, and we believe we have the latest information we can get.”
The department deploys added patrols during American Heat, expected this year to draw more than 5,000 bikers, although Graham declined to specify how many additional cops will be on the streets this weekend.
In 2002, Cathedral City leaders considered hosting American Heat after Palm Springs passed, but the City Council voted 3-2 against the idea. They cited the same concerns as Palm Springs over potential retribution among bikers.
“There was a lot of tension in the motorcycle gang world at that time about a lot of things that were going on,” Graham said Monday. “We're always concerned.”
Then, in 2003, the Palm Springs City Council voted 3-2 to bring back American Heat, but not without strong opposition from then-police Chief Gary Jeandron and his command staff.
“Yes, it fills up hotel rooms, but it's putting Palm Springs on the line,” police Cmdr. Mike McCabe told the council at the time. “It's a powder keg with a match next to it that can explode at any time.”
In addition to the gun incident outside the bar, in which no one was hit, there also have been several “serious” fist fights — which are common at large venues where alcohol is served, Graham added.
Nonetheless, Palm Springs police officers patrolling American Heat often must step in to keep the peace when rival gangs cross paths.
That was a reason Lee Weigel, who was police chief in 2002, recommended discontinuing the event.
Weigel, who is presently running for re-election after his first term on City Council, said he still believes American Heat puts the city and police officers at undue risk.
“I have not been in favor of the event,” Weigel said Monday. “These folks are serious, you know? It's not like a game with them, it's the real thing,” he said of motorcycle gangs.
Graham said he understands Weigel's concerns but added the 89-member police department has “appropriate staffing” to ensure “everyone plays well and goes their separate ways.”
American Heat attendees usually live within 300 miles of Palm Springs, and local motorcyclists say it's not out of the question for the rally to draw “1 percenters,” the term used to describe the number of overall motorcyclists who cause problems.
But even if antagonists are few in numbers this weekend in Palm Springs, one troublemaker will be enough to threaten bystanders, Dallas resident Henry Jorden-Brooks said as he toured downtown Thursday.
He's in Palm Springs through this weekend and will avoid the motorcycle rally because he doesn't want to be around if a Nevada-like shooting occurs.
“It only takes one armed person in a large crowd to cause problems for everyone,” Jorden-Brooks said. “Bad gangs exist, and one could show up.”
But what tends to be overlooked, local motorcyclists say, is that average citizens are among motorcycle enthusiasts in attendance.
“Just because they're in motorcycle clubs doesn't mean they're going to tear up the town,” said Cory Burch, 27, a Desert Hot Springs father of four who's ridden motorcycles for six years.
Rather, he said, people will come to have fun with friends and family and to celebrate motorcycling.
“If there was a huge problem, people wouldn't bring their kids,” Burch said.
North Palm Canyon Drive will close between Amado and Arenas roads as people attend an event its organizer compared to Palm Springs' weekly street festival.
“Aside from having some motorcycle folk dressed in motor gear intermixed with the local crowd, it looks like VillageFest,” event coordinator Randy Burke said.
Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism Director Mary Jo Ginther estimates the rally pumps “tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the local economy every year.
At least six Palm Springs hotels, including the Hilton Palm Springs, Hyatt Regency Suites and Hotel Zoso, are sold out, said Aftab Dada, the Hilton's general manager.
Motorcyclists come every year to socialize, be entertained and see the newest equipment on the market.
“We sold motorcycles to women in their mid-60s and early 70s,” said Halle Fetty, co-owner of Valley V Twin Motorcycle Sales and Service in Indio.
A daily stunt show will take place and two dozen members of the Coachella Valley Boys & Girls Club will perform live music.
Reach Desert Sun reporter Colin Atagi at (760) 778-4645 or Colin.Atagi©thedesertsun.com and Marcel HonorĂ© at (760) 778-4649 or marcel.honore©thedesertsun.com

http://www.mydesert.com/article/20111011/NEWS01/110110303/Expecting-best-prepared-worst-American-Heat-motorcycle-weekend?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|Frontpage

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