The Real Life Sons of Anarchy

In 'Gangland Undercover' Damon Runyan plays the real-life Charles Falco, one of the DEA's most daring undercover agents ever.
In 'Gangland Undercover' Damon Runyan plays the real-life Charles Falco, one of the DEA's most daring undercover agents ever. Courtesy History Channel

Sons of Anarchy may have just ended, but the History Channel is jumping in the saddle — Gangland Uncover, premiering Tuesday, February 24, is based on the 2013 memoir Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws: My Infiltration of America’s Deadliest Biker Gangs by Charles Falco, the DEA’s most daring undercover agent of California biker gangs. In 2001, Falco was earning over $500,000 a year dealing methamphetamine when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) raided his Southern California home and offered him a choice: Spend 22 years in prison without parole, or become an undercover informant. Falco joined with the DEA, spent a few years working small drug cases, and was then given a bigger assignment, this time with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) — infiltrate the Vagos Motorcycle Club, a biker gang considered to be the “largest urban terroris” organization in the U.S. at the time. Gangland Undercover offers a real-life look into how these gangs operate, so Falco says not to expect any Hollywood theatrics. “Sons Of Anarchy tries to give a romantic view of that lifestyle,” he says, speaking in a laid-back drawl from an undisclosed location (Falco is still in the Witness Protection Program.) “There is no romantic view. These guys are thugs, and more than anything, they’re murderers, drug dealers, and bullies. They don’t like normal society and they hate normal civilians.”

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In 2003, Falco began working under the ATF as an informant in Operation 22 Green, hanging around Southern California bars that the Vagos chapter members would frequent. His assignment: to target the Vagos under the federal VICAR statute (Violent Crime in Aid of Racketeering) and establish the gang’s international officers along with the officers of each chapter. “People think ‘dumb biker gangs,'” Falco says, “but these guys are sophisticated, high-level criminals. They’re structured like the military and have a strict set of rules. It’s all about warring with other biker gangs over territory. It’s like a normal street gang, but much more sophisticated. So for me, they’re not bikers — they’re gang members who ride bikes.”

Despite having zero prior knowledge of biker gangs with the exception of things he’d seen on television (“I’d never even ridden a Harley,” he admits), Falco knew he had to find a way in — so he came up with a story that involved a Vagos member coming to his aid in a prison fight. For days, Falco went over his account in detail, trying to anticipate any possible question he might encounter. If the gang doubted his story, they could easily kill him. “I must have spent a week thinking about it every night,” Falco says. “When you do an infiltration like that, or do any type of undercover work, you want to go through every possible scenario in your head so that you’re ready for what they’re going to say or what action they might take.” The gamble paid off, and Falco soon went from the status of “hangaround” to “prospect.” With this title came a grueling initiation process, which entailed everything from light hazing — “I had to stand up at a bar and sing ‘Like A Virgin’ on karaoke in front of 150 bikers” — to hard crime. “The most nerve-wracking time is when they make you pull guns [on people], sell drugs, and attack certain enemies [like the Hell’s Angels].” It was the fighting where Falco shined, soon earning the nickname “Quickdraw” for his ability to throw a fast punch. In his book, Falco describes a night where a patron attacks a gang member at a bar called Hustlers: “I punched the man off [the Vagos’ back]. He hit the floor, staggered at the impact, caught his breath, and rebounded. I played fair, not mean, conscious that eyes watched me, judged me, and assessed my allegiance. And after several rounds of punch, wait, punch, wait, an invisible bell chimed and the boxing match ended. The back of my hand swelled red and glossy. Blood trickled through slits in my victim’s eyes as he crawled away in defeat.” 

While his superiors were impressed with his fighting ability, Falco knew it wouldn’t be enough. He had to earn their trust. “They had [just] killed an informant who’d tried to infiltrate them, or who they thought was trying to infiltrate them,” Falco says. “They’re very cautious — they do background checks, they screen people, sometimes they want your birth certificate, your family members’ names…. It can be very intense. They may hire private investigators. Sometimes they even give you a lie detector test.” If he failed, he’d be taken to the desert, beaten, and duct-taped before being shot in the head, execution-style. Despite this harrowing initiation process, Falco managed to play his cards right and after a few long months was officially a full-fledged member of the Vagos MC.

For two years, Falco attended biker meetings and get-togethers while wearing a wire in his underwear, slowly gathering information. Although the Vagos labeled themselves a “brotherhood,” members remained constantly suspicious of one another. Betrayal is rampant in biker gangs, and the “brothers” often subject each other to random wire searches. With no backup, Falco experienced a few close shaves. “I’d be at a meeting with other Vagos,” he says. “We’re sitting in a room at a house in the middle of the desert. No one’s around. We’re having a meeting and they decide to search everyone for a wire, and you know you’re wearing one and that if they find it, you’re dead. That wire wasn’t feeding to the ATF or anyone else. It was just a recorder.” It was only through blind luck that the Vagos never found the wire.

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Close calls of a different kind came when Falco did a stint in jail for an assault committed by fellow club members. Instead of informing the local prosecutor of his status as an ATF informant and risking a leak, he opted to do his time. In prison, Falco joined the other Vagos inmates and was forced to punish their enemies for infractions. Describing this world in his book, Falco writes: “Prison code dictated that wolves devoured rabbits. Survival required adaptation. Child molesters excluded; no one protected them.” Trouble soon arose when he began being called to testify in the drug cases he’d worked prior to infiltrating the Vagos. Realizing that it wouldn’t be long before fellow inmates became suspicious of his constantly being pulled out, Falco asked his ATF contact to have him put in the grueling hell of solitary confinement, where he was stuck in a six-by-nine foot room for 24 hours a day. “It’s a lot worse than you think, because it becomes so claustrophobic,” he says. “It’s complete isolation. You don’t have any windows, [and] there’s always a light on so you don’t know what time of day it is. You have no contact with anybody else, and so time just seems to escape you, and you have no idea when you’re going to get out.” The undercover informant was in the hole for almost an entire week.

Upon release, Falco continued to grow in the Vagos ranks, eventually rising to second-in-command as an “Officer” in the Victorville, CA chapter. In 2007, soon after the promotion, he was pulled out by ATF agents, turned over his evidence, and entered the Witness Protection Program.

The former Vagos Officer became restless while leading a “normal” life in Lynchburg, VA, where he worked as a mechanic. “To be honest, I missed feeling like I was doing something important,” he says. “It felt like it was something that I was good at, that helped me serve the community. And it felt really, really good to do it. And so one day I saw these Mongols riding around in the Virginia Beach area, and I said, ‘Shoot, why don’t I do it again?'” 

Falco reached out to his old law-enforcement contacts and soon went on to infiltrate the Mongols and the Outlaws Motorcycle Clubs, becoming one of only three men in history to successfully accomplish this feat in three biker gangs. His work led to 62 arrests for crimes including assault and murder. When recalling his undercover days in biker hell, Falco still counts those first years alone with the Vagos as the scariest. “When I did the other infiltrations, I had partners. It’s weird because you feel better…. I’ve never been to war, but you feel better if you die with a friend than alone. It’s much scarier, the fear to know you have died by yourself.” 

Falco currently gives speeches around the country to local law enforcement, along with an elite group of deep cover operatives. “They’re my friends,” he says of his fellow motorcycle gang infiltrators in the witness protection program. “It’s a small circle of undercover folks who all know each other. We do speeches in the same area. There’s not too many [great infiltrations]. They’re very rare. I think that’s why the History Channel took this as a story because you don’t see that type of undercover infiltrations anymore.”