Ex-policeman has gangs booked

By Phil Taylor

Cam Stokes must be confident in the power of curiosity to move his book off store shelves because he opens our interview with a warning: "It's a horrible book about horrible people."

That is, of course, as it should be. "I can't write a pretty book about this," says Stokes.

The "this" he speaks of is a factual but fictionalised tale of life inside New Zealand's outlaw motorcycle gangs, drawn from spending half his life policing them.

Stokes, 43, was the detective sergeant in charge of the Auckland Motorcycle Gang unit until 2004 when he left the police, frustrated at what he saw as a failure to take policing gangs seriously. He's since set up Drugscene, a company which delivers training on the dangers of illegal drugs.

Through his book, Stokes sets out where gangs sit in the organised crime structure, their codes of conduct and the extent of the damage that rolls out from them.

Although a novel, events in the book are taken from incidents that have involved one or other of the city's five outlaw motorcycle gangs (Hells Angels, Headhunters, The Tribesmen, Highway 61, the Forty Fives). For the purpose of his story, Stokes invented a sixth, The Devils.

"The novel was the best thing to take people to it, to the ins and outs of gang life," he says. There's a funeral, a national motorcycle run, police raids of the clubhouse, arrests and unpitying violence.

"I wanted to keep it real, not have 100 murders but show it the way it is."

That ran him up against an early problem - language.

"I'll get bagged for the swearing and the violence but you take it away and you lose the realism. You can't have gang members saying 'golly' and 'gosh'."

Publisher Christine Cole Catley baulked at the number of four-letter words. It did sound a bit off, admits Stokes, listening to 85-year-old Cole Catley read from his expletive-laden manuscript in her rounded, polished vowels.

Stokes went home, typed the F-word into the search prompt and clicked his way through, "oh, a couple of thousand", deciding what must stay and what could go. "There's 448 F-words in there now," he says.

Cole Catley, a force in the industry, made an impression on Stokes - and the book - not just because she made time to give constructive feedback or that her company (Cape Catley) ended up publishing it.

He liked her style, as demonstrated in her rejection of the original manuscript. After pointing out how he might restructure it and suggesting an editor (Anna Rogers), Cole Catley ended her note in the parlance of Stokes' characters: "I therefore have to tell you to 'f*** off'."

Stokes heeded the advice, went away and, with Rogers' guidance, reworked the manuscript.

"I know gangs but I've had to learn to write," he says. "I consider myself very lucky to have found people willing to help me."

The book reads well and the dialogue - including the cussing - does ring true.

In the original draft the central character was a senior gang member of 13 years' standing but in the reworked version became a prospect named Rotten, all the better to show the hierarchy of gangs and the commitment of prospects desperate to win their patch, says Stokes.

The book intentionally gives only a little of Rotten's back story. "I wanted him to be in the here and now," says Stokes. "I didn't want to make excuses for him but most gang members have shit backgrounds."

The appeal of the gang to members and associates, he believes, is the same things people in general seek in a variety of ways - respect, power, a sense of belonging. But unity is usually an illusion despite the public image of brotherhood. "Behind closed doors it's just like Shortland Street," says Stokes. Rotten regards some gang members as brothers but hates others.

The book begins with Rotten being busted - for having drugs for supply - in mysterious circumstances.

Though Stokes wanted readers to find enough redeeming features to want to follow the main character's journey, he says the book leaves no illusions. "He is a nasty guy who does nasty things."

Stokes hopes readers put the book down with a better understanding of the nature of gangs and better armed to see through the "scaremongering" of some who comment on gangs but also to appreciate the commitment effective policing requires.

"There's a strong message about methamphetamine in the book, the quick deterioration it can bring about." Rotten meets a nice woman, a non-drugtaker who tries P out of curiosity and rapidly finds her life unravelling.

But Stokes is no zealot. "I'm probably the only person who does drug education who acknowledges that 90 per cent of people who do drugs have no problems."

He also points out the drug that does society most damage is alcohol. "That said, P is a hell of a bad drug. An alcoholic can take years to get to a hardcore stage whereas with P it can be months."

Stokes is convinced the best way of combatting its use is through the demand side of the equation. No matter how many P labs police bust, international syndicates will smuggle in enough to supply the demand.

Stokes believes authorities dropped the ball on methamphetamine by failing to provide police with adequate powers until the drug was entrenched. He made his first arrest for methamphetamine in 1988 but workable powers weren't legislated until 15 years later.

"We [frontline police] saw it coming and were screaming out to the bosses to fix the law but headquarters wasn't interested."

Until 2003, police had no powers to search for methamphetamine (then a class B drug) without a warrant. "It meant that we could search someone we suspected of having a [cannabis] joint but not someone we suspected of having an ounce of meth. That wasn't fixed until 2003."

Another anomaly was the amount of a drug a person could have before they could be charged with the more serious possession for supply.

Until 2005 the amount was 56 grams or two ounces of methamphetamine, worth as much as $28,000, compared to an ounce, or $300 worth, of cannabis. "I was dealing with offenders who knew all this."

A law change three years ago lowered the trigger for methamphetamine to five grams. "So now it's $5000 for 'P' and $300 for dope, so tell me that they got that right."

He acknowledges that striking the right balance is difficult. Lowering the amount that attracts a possession for supply charge discourages dealers from that drug. Conversely, a good lawyer can avoid a supply conviction for a client by asking a detective what was the highest personal consumption he was aware of.

Habits of a 5g a week are not uncommon, says Stokes, enabling the lawyer to argue that the amount found in possession of the accused was for personal use.

"It's unfortunate, but I think it's now all too late and we have to concentrate on showing P for the crap drug it is."

Stokes believes passing laws to make gangs illegal would only make policing them more difficult. It's a view that prompted Wanganui mayor, newspaper columnist and radio talk host Michael Laws to label Stokes "a gang apologist and a coward" - the later apparently a reference to Stokes' observation that police officers would be injured if it came to a confrontation over gang pads and patches.

Laws favours such bans while Stokes says it would force gangs underground and make it harder for police. The Mafia exists though they don't wear patches, says Stokes, who finds Laws mildly annoying.

"I wish he [Laws] would stick to the merits of the argument instead of attacking the person."

Until Mafia boss John Gotti made his captains attend regular meetings (where they were filmed coming and going) police hadn't known who they were, says Stokes.

"The more visible gangs are, the better."

* The Devils Are Here by Cam Stokes, published by Cape Catley $29.99, was launched last week.

- NZ Herald

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