It's been almost a decade since Dave Atwell ever truly unpacked his suitcase.
Not since the former Hells Angels sergeant-at-arms flipped on his club has he ever really felt at home. In a sad twist, the only people Atwell can ever truly talk to anymore are the ones he would have previously avoided like the plague—journalists and police officers.
"Man, just being able to talk like this means the world to me," Atwell told me after calling my phone from a blocked number.
That's the thing few people realize about the witness protection program: the fact that it goes arm in arm with an enduring loneliness.
Atwell is in the program after becoming an informant on the Hells Angels for the police in the late 2000s—he is the highest ranking member of the motorcycle club to do so. Atwell and veteran journalist Jerry Langton just released The Hard Way Out, a novel that outlines his experiences with the club. In the book, he talks about selling coke, patching (when a smaller gang is absorbed into a larger gang) from the Para-Dice Riders to the Hells Angels, becoming a full patch member, and how and why he flipped.
For seven years, Atwell was the sergeant-at-arms of the Toronto chapter, meaning that he doled out discipline and made sure that everything was on the straight and narrow. He was also integral in the HA's movement of coke around Toronto. When the respected Angel was hit with some drug charges, he decided he wanted out but quickly learned that it wouldn't be easy. When the charges were dismissed, he was expected to happily go back and work. After that, Atwell started to see the club and his brothers differently: The bikers and the Hells Angels weren't a family, they were "all in it for themselves."
"I was trapped, not by bars, but by the limitations the club had put on me and my life," reads a passage in his book.
So Atwell took a deal that would allow him to escape the grip the club had on his life. He secretly recorded the happenings in his chapter and became instrumental in bringing down a massive drug operation. The operation came to an end after 18 months when the HA smelled a rat. This being the Hells Angels and all, they confronted Atwell and his handlers knew it was too dangerous to carry on.
"I was trapped, not by bars, but by the limitations the club had put on me and my life."
The information Atwell acquired for the police led to 31 people with ties to the Hells Angels facing 169 charges (though not all of them stuck) and the seizure of $3 million in drugs, along with $500,000 in cash and another half a million in property. In trial after trial, for years, Atwell would make court appearances in which he would have to look his former brothers in the eyes during the day and get used to his new life in witness protection at night.
The moment he flipped, the man Dave Atwell had lived as for almost 50 years was dead. Furthermore, the transition into the witness protection program wasn't going to be easy—his entire life was built around the patches he wore on his vest, and now they were gone.
Atwell obviously can't talk about the entirety of his current situation or even the process it took to start his "new life." What he did say is that it came along with a surprising amount of paperwork and it's time-consuming as all hell. The policies in the program are there to obviously protect the witness in question, but they're also making sure the program isn't liable if the witness in protection fucks up or reoffends. Atwell said it's "weird talking about witness protection because there is so much to it that's interesting but that would be detrimental to my safety." One thing he did say was that when you first enter the program you lose any sort of control you had over your life.
"The guys in witness protection, they're not asking you, they're telling you," Atwell explained. "You got no say in it. [They say] 'If you want us to protect you, you shut up and listen. Your best thinking got you here, so stop thinking—let us do it for you.'"
"It's a lonely life about moving around and not having any stability," he says.
"Your best thinking got you here, so stop thinking—let us do it for you."
In our conversation, Atwell couldn't speak to his daily routine or anything of that sort. However, the one thing he could talk about is the intense loneliness that comes with his situation. In his personal life, Atwell either has to lie to everyone he meets or just completely obscure his past from their knowledge.
"What can I do? I can only imagine getting close to someone," Atwell told me. "If someone cares about someone, whether it's a friend, a platonic relationship, or an intimate one with the opposite sex, you can only go so far before that person who cares for you [asks] 'Well what happened before that? Where did you come from?' I can't share any of that with anyone."
"If I cared about someone I'd like to know that. Not because I'm nosey, but because it's a general, caring-type thing—getting to know someone,"he said.
Beyond keeping his personal history from others, there is what Atwell calls the "am I going to bring someone into this life?" question. After all, the program is designed to not only protect the witnesses, but the lives of people close to them. In a cruel bit of irony, the fact these people care about others means they have to force themselves to never have someone they care about in their life.
So, because of this, Atwell lives a self-imposed life absent from any sort of intimacy.
Atwell, obviously, has a pretty rough track record himself—in one of the many court cases at which Atwell testified at, he admitted to meeting with another Angel to discuss killing a police officer several weeks before he became a police agent himself. Bad past or not, Atwell was paid handsomely for working with the cops. In total, he made about $450,000 for his help.
However, even that amount of cash can only carry a person so long, especially when you have to frequently move. You have to work but it can't be consistent, you have to change your routine—you have to stay on your toes. And you have to do all that with no background, no skills, no degree, and no references.
"No matter what, you always stick out in a crowd or feel like you do, whether you do or you don't."
For people wanting a functional work and personal life, it's a fucking nightmare.
"Let's go beyond the trial and beyond the arrest, say ten years after the trial, or even 20 years," Atwell said. "What do you have? You don't have a past, you don't have a resume, you don't have any identity, any social setting, any group, you can't talk about your relatives or your friends. No matter what, you always stick out in a crowd or feel like you do, whether you do or you don't."
There is also contending with the obvious fear and the paranoia that comes with the reason for your being in witness protection. You know there is a price on your head but you don't know if it is still on the mind of the person, or group, that issued it. Luckily for Atwell, he has a background in security so he's more observant than the average person. He told me that his "actions on a daily basis revolve" around two types of threats—the threat of someone actively looking for him and the immediate threat of someone recognizing him.
As more and more time goes on, the chance of Atwell running into someone who will recognize him is slim, and getting slimmer, but it's still there. Atwell knows that the people he personally betrayed may still have an eye out for him but that the club, as a whole, has likely moved on from him and is focused, again, on money.
"The club themselves have bigger things to work with—that's not getting caught," said Atwell. "They will have taken the situation of me becoming an agent, learn from it, and try to make sure it never happens again."
Still though, the fear persists.
Despite all that, Atwell still said he's happier now than during his time as an Angel—he no longer has to live a life revolving around his gang patch. Furthermore, while he does have some regrets that weigh on him, he feels that the decisions he made were the right ones for the right reasons. But life doesn't always reward you when you decide to make the right decision.
"The irony of life is that's all I've been looking for is a level of comfort and acceptance—whether it was with hockey, or with the club, or whether it was with a lady—a level of comfort," he says. "The irony is that's all I wanted and I'll never have it."
Some details in the quotes used have been changed or removed as not to give away Atwell's location.
Lead image by Ralph Damman.
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