On Sept. 24, an estimated 7,000 people flocked to Stockton 99 Speedway in San Joaquin County, California for Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s funeral. Barger died aged 83 on June 29 after a battle with cancer. The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office warned residents that the event could become dangerous. But, friends, family, and fellow bikers were only there to mourn and celebrate Barger’s life.
The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, Stockton Police Department, and California Highway Patrol maintained a highly visible presence at the event. Still, no significant incidents occurred at the funeral, according to the Sheriff’s Office, even though Hells Angels rivals would possibly be in attendance.
About 7,000 people showed up to mourn Barger, mostly from all over California. Though, some wore colors from Minnesota, New Jersey, and Nebraska. Barger’s family and friends spoke from a flower-covered stage on the track infield. From 2 pm to 8 pm, mourners gathered around the stage to listen to speeches about Barger’s life from his friends and family. The funeral featured a slideshow, speakers, and a performance from the Fryed Brothers Band.
Sonny Barger’s Early Life As Founder of the Oakland Hells Angels
Ralph “Sonny” Barger formed the Oakland, California chapter of the Hells Angels in 1957. The Modesto native joined his first motorcycle club, the Oakland Panthers, in 1956. He later started riding with Don “Boots” Reeves, and the two formed the Oakland Hells Angels. There were other Hells Angels chapters in California, though, and Barger and Reeves traveled all over the state, bringing the chapters together into one club, the Hells Angels.
Otto Friedli was the founder of the original San Bernardino Hells Angels, but with him in prison, the club made Barger the national president of the Hells Angels in 1958. He moved the club headquarters to Oakland, then brought all the chapters together plus other California motorcycle clubs, and proposed that they ally with each other under a “one percenter” patch. This denoted them all as outlaw motorcycle clubs, referring to a comment made by the American Motorcycle Association that 99% of motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens. That leaves the 1% as outlaws.
Violence, Drugs, and Prison Time Followed the Hells Angels
Sonny Barger’s life as president of the Hells Angels was rife with drug charges, attempted murder, fights, violence, altercations with police and citizens alike, and stints in prison. In 1987, he and twelve other Hells Angels were arrested on narcotics, weapons, explosives, and conspiracy charges during raids done by the FBI, ATF, and California State Police. Sergeant-at-arms of the Anchorage, Alaska chapter, Anthony John Tait, volunteered to be a paid informant for the FBI two years earlier, which led to a total of thirty-eight arrests of Hells Angels members across four states.
Barger was present at the Hellraiser Ball in 2002, when members of the rival Pagan’s Motorcycle Club ambushed Hells Angels members. This resulted in one death and at least 10 injuries, with one Hells Angels member charged with second-degree murder and seventy-three Pagan’s members charged with racketeering.
Sonny Barger was prominently featured in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Barger also wrote his memoirs in 2000, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. In his later years, he was an advocate for motorcycle safety.
Barger was also a consultant for and made appearances on Kurt Sutter’s FX series “Sons of Anarchy” in the finales of seasons 3, 4, and 5. In 1983, Barger was diagnosed with throat cancer, and in June 2022, he died of liver cancer.