This article appeared on Page 3 of the national edition of
The Chicago Tribune on October 25, 1985.
By Joseph Hanneman
Special to the Tribune
MADISON, Wis. — The national president of the Ghost Riders motorcycle club and two other club members have been convicted of first-degree murder, arson and insurance fraud in a fatal tavern fire near here in 1983.
Convicted Wednesday were Alvin Hegge, 45, president of the club, based in Washington state; Scott Howard, 30; and Will Highfill, 41. Howard and Highfill also were convicted of endangering safety.
A Dane County Circuit Court jury deliberated for nine hours before delivering the verdict. The men were sentenced to life imprisonment on the murder charge. They will be sentenced on the other charges later.
Catherine L. Christian, 22, died in the March 1983 fire at Rosa’s Cantina, 5 miles southeast of Madison. Prosecutors contend the men planned to set the fire at the financially troubled tavern to collect insurance money and kill Christian, who the prosecutors say the three men believed to be a police informant.
Defense attorneys contend the fire was accidental, caused by faulty wiring.
Rosa’s Cantina became a hangout for the Ghost Riders when they tried to establish a chapter in Madison during 1982 and 1983, but those plans were abandoned shortly after the fire, according to court records.
Dane County Assistant District Atty. Robert DeChambeau, one of three prosecutors, said the verdict will significantly hurt the club.
“The Ghost Riders are pretty much through,” he said.
Hegge’s lawyer, Ralph Kalal, criticized the prosecutors for using convicted criminals to testify against Hegge. Kalal said the prosecution’s case was built “on a foundation of shifting sand. Yet the prosecution makes Mr. Hegge out to be the kingpin who ran the entire operation. It doesn’t make sense.”
Two other members of the bikers group were convicted last spring on lesser charges in the case.
Washington state officials say they have waited for the trial here to end and will now extradite Hegge and Howard to face federal and state charges in Spokane.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Hegge in connection with the shooting death of a Spokane police officer in 1983, according to the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. Officer Brian Orchard was killed during a police stakeout of Ghost Riders suspected of selling stolen weapons. Two club associates have been convicted of the murder.
Hegge also has been indicted in Spokane on a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver cocaine, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Spokane.
Howard also was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver cocaine, unlawful transport of firearms and use of a firearm in a felony, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Spokane. Both men will stand trial Dec. 9 on the federal charges.
Law enforcement officials who track the Ghost Riders in Washington state say the club has been one of the fastest growing groups in the country, but will be hurt by Hegge’s conviction.
Brent Pfundheller, a detective with the Washington State Patrol in Olympia, said Hegge was a strong group leader. “He was definitely in control of the Ghost Riders,” he said. “If he said to do something, it was done. You didn’t cross Al Hegge.”
The Ghost Riders are considered to be very dangerous and are monitored closely by law officials, said Larry Boyd, chief sheriff’s deputy in Grant County, Wash., where the group was formed in the mid-1960s.
With chapters in Washington state, Billings, Mont., British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, police estimate the group has between 75 and 150 members. •
EPILOGUE: Alvin Hegge was sentenced to life in prison for murder conspiracy and given 30 years for arson and theft by fraud for his role in the Rosa’s Cantina fire. He was also sentenced to life in prison for the second-degree murder of officer Orchard in Spokane, Wash. Highfill was sentenced to life in prison plus 34 years. Howard was given a life sentence for murder and arson in Wisconsin; and a six-year sentence for a drug conviction in Washington state.
Top photo: A view of Rosa’s Cantina on the 1983 day the fire killed Catherine L. Christian, 22. — State Journal photo by Joseph W. Jackson III.
I was among a team of reporters who covered the Ghost Riders trial for the Wisconsin State Journal.