Orchids on an Angel’s Grave

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels

Imagine the primal power of an outlaw motorcycle army thundering through otherwise civilized streets on the road to a cemetery. Think about the force of the mighty Hells Angels intent on a sacred mission of raw revenge. Ponder their tragic loss as they step closer to the edge of their dead brother’s grave. Take a moment to reflect on just what they plan to do about Christian Harvey Tate’s murder.

Now ask yourself if justice will be served.

Nineteen years later, thick grass blankets Christian Tate’s tomb. A gentle breeze feels like baby’s breath as it blows past emerald leaves on the shade tree that marks his final resting place. Morning is quiet here as his black headstone shines even on a gray day.

The rumble of rolling Harleys that carried about 700 of Tate’s grieving brothers to Santa Maria, Calif., for his 2002 funeral has long ago disappeared. What remains on the Central Coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco are whispered prayers for a fallen Angel, threats and blood oaths to avenge his loss matched with promises to live to the fullest his legacy of freedom.

Payback is required no matter how long the mission takes.

The violent death and unsolved murder of this righteous Hells Angel on a barren stretch of road near Ludlow, Calif., remains a mystery. Few can or will say whether his fatal shooting is connected to the shootout that killed three other bikers (two Hells Angels and a rival Mongol) and took place around the same time at a gambling casino in nearby Laughlin, Nev.

What can be said is this: Family, friends and brother bikers swear almost everybody loved the fearless 28-year-old renegade his Hells Angels brothers called Christo.

Now he’s an Angel’s angel, a hallowed symbol of all that’s holy about this unholy brotherhood. But Christian Tate was more than just a brother. Deep personal roots reflect from the gravestone that glistens wet in the damp mist of a cloudy summer day.

The engraving on the front of the stone reads as follows:

Christian Harvey Tate; May 15, 1973; April 27, 2002; Treasured By Family And Loved By All; Lily’s Gentle Father; Samantha’s Forever Love; Two Souls Eternal.

The United States Coast Guard emblem is carved into the left side of the tombstone. A simple cross that resembles the metal cross a loving son once made for his mother is carved on the right side of the marker.

At its base the inscription reads: “When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds encircling flight, I am the soft star that shines at night.”

One night long ago, in September 2002, after paying my respects at Christian’s grave, I sat with his father, Steve, 50, and grandfather, Harvey, 77, who listened in deep silence as I read aloud the poem from a photograph they showed me.

The dining room table of their neat Santa Maria home overflowed with photos of the funeral, pictures of unforgiving Angels burying their motorcycle martyr using sharp shovels to pile moist earth on a fresh burial ground.

Many of these same untamed men also laid tender homegrown orchids on the coffin to soothe Christian’s last journey in floral colors bright as new chopper headlights that shine through the darkest night.

Grandpa Harvey Tate, who had not long before the funeral lost his wife of 53 years and bought his first motorcycle in 1944, grew those orchids in the garden of the same Santa Maria home where Christian laughed and loved as a joyous presence since he was a baby. When the child grew old enough to understand, he, too, learned at the hands of the master how to raise and care for these delicate, exotic flowers.

Hard men who specialize in orchids are hard to find, but Christian’s dad also spoke of the joy of growing orchids and the bigger joy of raising the growing boy of whom he was so very proud. Big, tough, fair and bright, Christian was a Santa Maria High graduate and Coast Guard veteran who distinguished himself as a member of the sea search and rescue squad.

In another photograph Christian is young, handsome and smiling. Standing beside a Coast Guard helicopter he looks like he’s ready for anything. Such acute awareness further complicates his murder.

“My son was smart,” Steve said.

Still, he died fast and hard, shot several times in the back and torso while heading home on his bike to a family party in San Diego where he lived and faithfully wore the colors of the “Dago” chapter.

Who executed Christian Tate on that dark, bone dry desert highway? Rumors and speculation run wild. The Tate men vowed that first night we talked to never give up their search for the killer.

Another picture they passed around in hands cracked from lifetimes of labor and exhibited at the head of the table drives them deeper into their cause.

Lily, Christian’s infant daughter, smiles with big eyes from the center of the cherished framed photo. The men said when she one day bows her head above her daddy’s grave, she deserves to know what happened to her smiling guardian Angel.

By the summer of 2003 Steve’s tone had turned harsh as he spit a man’s name as if deadly poison filled his mouth.

“Bill,” he said.

Leaning thick arms on the dining room table, Steve Tate’s face twisted into a furious look. A growl of emotion erupted in confusion.

“Who’s Bill?”

According to a federal criminal indictment, “Bill” is the member of the Mongols motorcycle club whom Hells Angels blamed for killing Christian when bullets tore into his Angels colors and blew him off his motorcycle on a desolate stretch of Interstate 40 in San Bernardino County.

“On or about September 17, 2002,” a Hells Angel “was provided with the physical description of a Mongol named “Bill” who it was believed was bragging about killing (San Diego Hells Angel) member Christian Tate,” the indictment said.

Federal prosecutors charged members and associates of Christian Tate’s former “Dago” chapter with crimes ranging from drug dealing to racketeering to extortion to “acquiring firearms, scopes and silencers to be used to murder Mongols,” according to the indictment.

Several “Dago” Angels eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges and served time in federal prison. Other mass arrests of Hells Angels in Arizona also gave Tate family and friends hope that police investigating the murder might one day solve the case. Undercover federal agents in that roundup infiltrated the Angels and became trusted confidants.

Since Hells Angels rarely cooperate willingly with police, it’s not surprising that detectives investigating Tate’s assassination long ago said they had not received help from Tate’s former brothers in the club. Yet, indictments and the threat of lengthy prison sentences have a way of uncovering information that might otherwise never surface.

Cops and accused alike sometimes cut deals amid the murky middle ground that exists within the law. Even among a normally stoic brotherhood, Christian Tate’s memory could drive some members to help his still grieving loved ones find consolation.

To be sure, Christian Tate took great pride in living the life of a fully patched Hells Angel. He also felt great pride to be an honorably discharged Coast Guard vet who helped in the grueling search for the bodies of two California Highway Patrol officers who were swept away in 1998 when Highway 166 collapsed after heavy rains.

Angel or no Angel, Christian Tate remains the victim of a ruthless crime. Steve Tate said police never called to tell him about “Bill” or discuss how the indictment for a murder conspiracy might help shake loose more information about his son’s killing. The Tate family first heard that news on television.

Despite being ignored, Steve Tate and his family placed faith in the system because they are cornerstones of the system, hard-working, good citizen taxpayers who have always done their part to help their neighbors.

All Angels aren’t angels, but Steve Tate has no reason to believe his son was anything but a free spirit who rode the open road and valued the camaraderie of rugged men like himself. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, Christian Tate deserves the benefit of the doubt.

On another day, Steve tried to relax while daughter Brandi busied herself cooking for her children and remembering so many good times growing up.

Steve and Harvey had taught Christian to ride motorbikes as a child. Those childhood lessons grew into a passion for building, repairing and riding motorcycles. One day Christian, 12, grabbed a pizza pan from the kitchen and tied it to his bike, instructing 11-year-old Brandi to sit tight and hang on as he pulled her around the yard in a cloud of dust, just two kids laughing and loving the innocence of their lives.

Such revered memories struggle to live amid today’s merciless reality. But remembrances of that soft past help cushion the grim details of death. Yes, even an uncertain future holds hope. But fulfillment will only occur when somebody pays for pulling the trigger.

That “bill” is long overdue.

In May 2004 the exact reason why 300 or so Hells Angels rolled into Santa Maria was anybody’s guess.

The manager of the Preisker Lane campground where the Angels set up headquarters for a Central Coast run said she’d been leaving flyers all over the place announcing that the site is biker friendly.

“This is beautiful country,” said the manager, who asked that her name not be used.

Steve Tate has another theory.

“I’d like to think it was a memorial run for my son,” he said.

But he doesn’t know for sure. Was this gathering of Angels just a coincidence so close to the second anniversary of Christian Tate’s shooting death and subsequent funeral that drew hundreds of Angels to the city cemetery from all over the world? Or, was the get-together a powerful public acknowledgment that members of this notorious tribe will always remember where Tate was born and where he is buried?

On a late Friday afternoon the first wave of Angels crowded the registration desk to check in at the Holiday Inn on North Broadway. Society’s best known barbarians all wore the red and white colors of the club. Fat Boy silver hogs and fire-breathing custom painted road dawgs shined in the sun and lined the parking lot outside the hotel. More glistening Harleys ringed the building. Swaggering Angels bouncing on beat-up boots hung loose and cool everywhere. This gang doesn’t party in Santa Maria often. But they showed this time ostensibly for a Mother’s Day run that included guests, wives and children.

Across the street from the Holiday Inn and just down Preisker Lane, the Angels set up a security post at the gate to the Pines Campground where they reserved space for the weekend and paid in advance. Beneath the cover of a huge rented tent, Angels prepared to cook and serve three meals a day, including a Saturday night barbecue at $30 a ticket.

A group of prospective club members called prospects guarded the entrance and milled around a sign that warned the property was closed to the general public, although the campground manager had given long-term residents red passes that allowed them to come and go.

I stopped by the gate and asked if prospects would tell Ventura chapter president and club national spokesman George Christie I’d like to talk with him. Christie, who has since left the club, denied my request.

Steve Tate and his father stopped by early Saturday night. They invited me inside as their guest, but I respectfully declined. Most Angels who had come from all over California and elsewhere hadn’t known Christian, Steve said, but a few remembered him well.

“I brought photographs of Chris on his bike and handed them all out,” he said.

Only one member of his son’s San Diego chapter was around when the Tates showed up.

“He used to lift weights with Chris,” Steve Tate said.

Steve and his dad walked around the campground and visited for a while before deciding to head home rather than stay for the barbecue. Seeing Angels having fun with family and friends felt good. Enjoying Christian’s brothers’ company felt good.

But the void hammered hurt into their hearts.

For the loving family of a murder victim, pain always looms nearby. For a Tate, no matter how many Angels get together for a run, the most important one will always be missing.

Without renewed interest from police, Tate knows his son’s death will continue to be forgotten.

“I think my son deserves more than that,” Tate said. “I have not had one call from any law enforcement officer saying, ‘Steve we haven’t given up on you.’  I think about it every day. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about my son. But there’s no closure.”

Steve Tate meant no disrespect when he said he believed police might have worked a whole lot harder to solve the case had it been a cop’s kid who died on that motorcycle rather than his boy. But he will always hold cops responsible for a thorough, ongoing investigation.

“It’s the responsibility of the police, by God, that was my son, he was a good boy. It’s no closer than it was three years ago.”

“I want justice,” he said.

After almost two decades we should all still want justice.

When I checked last month with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, homicide detectives called the Tate murder “an open cold case” and said they could provide no other information. Police wouldn’t even tell me what reports I could see or if they returned Tate’s prized motorcycle to his family.

Police in California and elsewhere need to work harder. If Christian Tate had been a cop’s son like I am, I have no doubt investigators would have taken his death more seriously and treated the family with ongoing respect.

Steve Tate still has not heard from police at any level.

Although President Joe Biden’s Justice Department still works overtime to hunt down outlaw motorcycle club criminals, how much time do agents put into tracking down killers who gun down unarmed outlaw motorcycle club members?  What do federal law enforcement officials at the FBI, the ATF and the DEA know about Christian Tate’s murder? Even decorated retired special agents should want to use all their muscle to right a vicious wrong. 

Did the feds ever locate and interview “Bill?” How hard did America’s supposedly best and brightest gangbusters look for the mystery Mongol that the government’s own indictment says Hells Angels believed had been bragging about killing Christian Harvey Tate?

If cops past and present put half the time into tracking murder suspects that Grandpa Tate put into nurturing and transplanting orchids, America would be far better off because liberty and justice for all then might truly be served.

Not long before he died in 2004, Harvey Tate spent an afternoon with me and my wife, walking us slowly, gently and ever so carefully through the meticulous process of transplanting some of his exquisite plants. With the delicate touch of a surgeon this weathered and seasoned motorcycle master arranged flowers, spliced stalks and patted down dirt in all the right places.

Then he smiled his Wild West cowboy smile and presented us with the newly repotted flowers to take home as earthborn bounty given in love from one living soul to others willing to care for nature’s gifts.

The last time I saw Harvey Tate was in the intensive care unit before he died at 79, after a strong male nurse asked if Grandpa could hear him and to squeeze his hand if he could. When he took Grandpa Tate’s hand he quickly flinched, squinting in pain as this seemingly unconscious yet still powerful old man on his death bed squeezed, held on and refused to let go.

We should all refuse to let go of Christian Harvey Tate’s unsolved murder. We should all hold on and squeeze as hard as we can.

Justice only defines our savage land as long as we do something about injustice.

Only then do we step away from the edge.

Only then do we continue to live free and ride.