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For longer than most care to remember, a particularly irksome crack dealer lived on grimy Weber Street West, near the Hells Angels' fortified clubhouse. Not any more. Not after the Angels had a word with him.

"We had limousines pulling up at 3 o'clock in the morning. We had prostitutes running down the street to get their crack," recalled neighbour Robert Taylor, sipping an early-afternoon beer on his front porch. "The guy was arrested many times, we had meetings, but the cops couldn't [seem to]do anything."

So there were no complaints a couple of years ago, when the Angels persuaded the dealer to relocate. In fact, many local residents evidently regard the bikers as heroes.

"I call them the local Neighbourhood Watch," said retired postal worker Dan Koeckritz, washing his camper van four doors down from the Angels' seldom-used clubhouse, with its bricked-in front porch, surveillance cameras, plexiglass windows and high, stockade-style spiked fence.

"There's never a problem. I've been here 23 years and I've never had a break-in."

The clubhouse has been a fixture on the street for at least that long. It was headquarters of the local Satan's Choice chapter before the biker gang was swallowed up by the Hells Angels four years ago.

Just as established is its most prominent denizen, entrepreneur Andre Watteel, a genial, heavy-set figure, who lives in nearby Cambridge and enjoys much respect from its citizens.

Few bikers better personify the modern image the Angels are anxious to project - well-behaved, freedom-loving motorcycle enthusiasts who mind their own business and cause no grief.

Mr. Watteel is variously described as president or secretary of the 11-strong Kitchener chapter, but his precise rank is, like all Hells Angels operational details, a closely guarded secret.

The reticence reflects concern over federal anti-gang laws, police say. But by every estimate he is the chapter's most visible and influential player, with impeccable biker credentials.

Before he was reincarnated as a top Hells Angel, Mr. Watteel was national president of Satan's Choice, which gained attention across the country in the mid-1990s when it became embroiled in a firebombing war with its Ontario rivals the Loners.

But Mr. Watteel's own criminal record is more distant. Certainly Cambridge mayor Doug Craig sees little cause for concern. "From what I understand, they're business people," he said of the Hells Angels. "They also donate their time - at Christmas they hold dinners and things like that for disadvantaged people."

For many years, Canadian police have known the Angels to be deeply involved in organized crime, their ranks sprinkled with drug dealers, murderers and thieves.

Mr. Craig sees matters differently. If he and other law-abiding citizens are complacent about having a nest of rough-looking bikers in their midst, it's perhaps because the realignment with the Hells Angels four years ago rang no particular alarm bells, all the murder and mayhem in Quebec notwithstanding.

"This is not an issue I've been aware of, and I hear everything here," Mr. Craig said. "I would suspect almost all [Cambridge]residents would agree."

He seems to believe that the local police share that perspective, but he is mistaken. Waterloo Regional Police Chief Larry Gravill stresses the bikers' arm's-length approach to drug trafficking.

The Hells Angels "tend not to mess up in their own backyard," he says. "Their activities are a little more subtle. But their track record indicates they are a very significant part of the problem... And it's happening in small-town Canada, not just the big urban centres. That's the part people don't fully understand."

On the face of things, Mr. Craig's sunny view of the Hells Angels has a certain logic.

In a recent Canada-wide survey of major cities, Kitchener and its population of 190,000 was found to have the lowest crime rate. Dotted with historical buildings and home to a fast-growing number of families fleeing Toronto house prices, bucolic Cambridge (population 118,000) is more peaceful still.

But the local cocaine trade, in which police believe the Angels to be instrumental, presents a slightly different picture. While overall drug arrests in Waterloo Region last year dropped to 536, compared with 815 in 2003, the number of cocaine-related arrests increased by 8 per cent, reaching 122.

The use of crack - cocaine's fiercely addictive byproduct - has also been fast rising, police and drug counsellors agree.

Where is all that cocaine coming from? As with most organized-crime enterprises, success consists of insulating the generals from the foot soldiers through a tightly knit, multilevel hierarchy that is sworn to silence.

"What we hear on the street is that 80 to 90 per cent of the cocaine is coming through the H.A.," said a police officer attached to the local Biker Enforcement Unit. "When you arrest someone in possession of cocaine and ask them, it's usually the same thing: 'It's Hells Angels coke.'"

No one suggests that any Angels are standing on street corners peddling marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines. Quite the reverse. The message being dispatched by the Hells Angels' public-relations drive is that bikers are solid, law-abiding citizens.

Mr. Watteel, 51, is often seen making the rounds of his string of properties in and around Cambridge on one of his powerful motorcycles. The centrepiece of his operations is the battered Olde Hespeler Bar and Grill, in the old Hespeler section of Cambridge.

Business at the bar is not always brisk. During a recent lunch-time visit, it was almost deserted save for a couple of serious, soda-sipping bikers at the bar, one bearing the Hells Angels emblem on his jacket. But drug sales on the premises? Perish the thought, said a regular, non-biker patron.

"I've never seen any hint of that. Anybody I know says, 'Andre's a good guy.'"

That's the opinion farther along Queen Street, at the Playfair Bowl and Snack Bar. Echoing what almost everybody else in Cambridge seems to think, the café's gregarious 63-year-old owner, Pete Moyer, offers nothing but praise for the Hells Angels heavyweight.

"He's a decent citizen," Mr. Moyer said one recent morning as he served breakfast to two visitors. "He's a good communicator, very straightforward." He should know: He and Mr. Watteel both belong to the local business improvement association.

Mr. Moyer acknowledges that when he first encountered outlaw bikers in the early 1980s, he had some worries. But that was then. Mr. Watteel, he says, "has left his past associations and so on, very much behind him."

Not all of Mr. Watteel's Hells Angels brethren can say the same.

nIn March, long-time Kitchener Hells Angels associate Jeffrey Sniveley, 37, was sentenced to seven years in prison for attempted murder, uttering death threats, possession of dangerous weapons and assault causing bodily harm. Mr. Sniveley, of Jarvis, Ont., holds the status of "hangaround" - two levels below a "full-patch" member, with duties that consist primarily of obeying orders from above.

nIn April, police in Cambridge shut down a marijuana-growing operation allegedly operated by two members of the Red Line motorcycle club, a Hells Angels "puppet" club with scores of members across Southern Ontario.

nIn May, a Kitchener judge handed a 10-year prison sentence to a cocaine addict who admitted to a string of cross-country holdups. He needed the money to repay the Hells Angels for drugs he had obtained, the court heard.

nAnd in 2002, a "prospect" member of the Kitchener chapter - one rung below full-patch - pleaded guilty to drug and weapon charges, including possession of a military assault rifle.

As for the full-patch Kitchener clan - smaller than it was a year ago, after three members moved to other Ontario chapters - eight of the 11 have criminal records, chiefly involving drugs, weapons, violence and fraud.

But most of those criminal records are years old. Mr. Watteel, for his part, has convictions for fraud, assault and possession of a restricted weapon, but the most recent dates to 1984.

However, his connections with other top-rank Hells Angels have remained strong over the years. One particularly close friend is big-league drug dealer Walter Stadnick, originally from Hamilton and later a lieutenant of Quebec Hells Angels kingpin Maurice (Mom) Boucher, jailed for life two years ago for ordering the murder of two Quebec prison guards.

Last month, Mr. Stadnick was convicted in Montreal of drug trafficking, gangsterism and conspiracy to commit murder.

Mr. Watteel, however, likes to project a more wholesome image - a family man who sponsors minor sports teams, organizes Cambridge's summer music festival and feeds turkey to the needy at Christmas.

He and the Angels also keep the local riffraff firmly in line, said a teenager dawdling in the lunch-time sunshine across the street from the Olde Hespeler. "It's just that their presence is known. So you don't do that shit around here, sell crack or whatever."

Mr. Watteel has at least 10 real-estate holdings, two of which were acquired for $1 and $2 before being remortgaged. They include his comfortable ranch-style home in adjoining rural Preston, where he lives with his wife Rita and their young daughter. (The couple's 11-year-old son died 18 months ago in a Christmas Eve accident, when he fell and broke his neck while playing with other children.)

Along with owning two restaurants and several run-down rental properties in Cambridge, Mr. Watteel is also listed as a director of the numbered company that owns the Kitchener clubhouse.

Born in Brazil and raised in Paraguay, he once told a local newspaper reporter that he prospered as a businessman in Canada after shrewdly investing insurance money from a motorcycle accident. In the same interview, he said he reluctantly agreed to have Satan's Choice join forces with the Hells Angels (to become one of 193 chapters in 27 countries) because his Quebec partners advised him that the "corporate takeover" would be of benefit to all.

For the most part, however, Mr. Watteel appears reluctant to talk about himself.

"He's very quiet," the mayor says. Efforts to interview him underscored that perception.

When two visitors recently arrived unexpectedly at his home, they encountered two other bikers in Mr. Watteel's driveway - one bearing the logo of the notoriously violent Sherbrooke Hells Angels chapter in Quebec, the other a member of the Halton Foundation, another Angels puppet club. The immediate reception was not cordial.

Emerging from his house a couple of minutes later, Mr. Watteel proved friendly enough. But he was in a hurry, he explained; one of his friends was just about to drive him to the airport. And in any case, he said in brief follow-up conversations, he really didn't want to be interviewed or photographed. Any remarks he might make are liable to be distorted, he said.

"I don't want to be misquoted or anything, so I'd just like to stay away from the media...I just don't want to get involved in a whole bunch of bad stuff."

Mr. Watteel did suggest, however, that the Hells Angels' Quebec-Ontario connections were being overblown. The violence that defined Quebec's biker wars and killed about 160 people was "an isolated incident," he said, and a reprise in Ontario is unlikely.

"Hopefully the whole world stays calm and I believe it will... I know there's a couple of hot spots, but in general it's been pretty good."