Sonny Barger, Hells Angels leader and legendary outlaw, dead at 83

Sonny Barger, founder of the Oakland, California charter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, autographs a copy of Post magazine during an event at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership August 23, 2003 in Quincy, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the tough-living leader of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, has died after a brief battle with cancer. He was 83.

A statement on his official Facebook page Thursday read: “If you are reading this message, you’ll know that I’m gone. I’ve asked that this note be posted immediately after my passing.”

Sonny Barger / Facebook

Barger’s former lawyer, Fritz Clapp, confirmed the death to the Washington Post, saying the cause of death was liver cancer.

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Barger was the founder of the first chapter of the Hells Angels in Oakland, Calif., in 1957.

He attained near-mythic status as a rugged hellion and a cool charismatic leader of men who called themselves 1 percenters — apart from the straight-living 99 per cent of the population. Much of that 99 per cent was genuinely fearful of the Angels with their menacing appearance, rumbling Harley Davidson motorcycles, violent no-limits lifestyle and black leather wardrobe adorned with the club’s sacred winged skull patch.

Portrait of American biker and founding member of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels Sonny Barger (born Ralph Barger) as he sits at a table, San Francisco, Calif., January 1979. Janet Fries / Getty Images

The Hells Angels have a long history of violence, crime and intimidation and Barger was proud of the club’s reputation. He even took to calling himself part of a group of “card-carrying felons.”

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Barger himself was convicted of marijuana possession, heroin dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, firearms possession and conspiring to blow up the clubhouse of a rival motorcycle gang in Kentucky. But he told the Los Angeles Times the total 13 years he spent in prison was “not much, considering all the fun I’ve had.”

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Barger was born Oct. 8, 1938, in Modesto, Calif. As a teen he dropped out of school and joined the army with a forged birth certificate until he was honourably discharged 13 months later when they found out he was too young to serve.

From there, he moved to Oakland, bought a motorcycle and joined a club called the Oakland Panthers. He soon realized the Panthers were not into his “raising hell” ways, and he found new friends in the Hells Angels.

He rose to the rank of leader of the club in part thanks to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

“In any gathering of Hell’s Angels … there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum Leader … the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts,” Thompson wrote. “By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator … Barger’s word goes unquestioned.”

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Barger’s most recent battle with cancer was not his first. At the age of 44 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and had his vocal cords removed. In 2012 he had his prostate removed after another cancer diagnosis.

In 2000, Barger added best-selling author to his resume with the autobiography Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. In 2010 he co-authored Let’s Ride, a best-selling guide to motorcycling ownership and safety, and went on to write several biker-related novels.

He is survived by his wife Zorana.

With files from Reuters

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