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On the road with the Mongols Motorcycle Club

By Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN

Updated 12:15 PM ET, Wed October 7, 2015
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In an effort to refresh his creativity, photographer Jason Willheim was connected with the Mongols Motorcycle Club. He spent seven years with the group, documenting weddings, parties, funerals and road trips. Seen here is the 2010 Mother Chapter in Los Angeles.

Learn more as Lisa Ling goes inside the Mongols biker nation this Wednesday on CNN at 9 p.m. ET.
Jason Willheim
"Ready to Box"
Commerce, California, 2010

The Mongols club is an "extremely violent" outlaw motorcycle gang that poses a serious criminal threat to the Pacific and Southwest regions of the United States, the Department of Justice says. In fact, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have called the Mongols the most violent and dangerous motorcycle gang in the country. But Willheim disagrees. "They're not out looking for blood, looking to kill, this or that. ... They're Americans looking to ride, and they love the brotherhood. ... I think I'm more scared of the ATF rolling up during an event."
Jason Willheim
"Touch Up"
Reno, Nevada, 2010

One of Willheim's friends was acquainted with a member of the Mongols, and he introduced them to each other in 2008. "For the next year we spoke (and) got a feel for each other," Willheim said. Willheim eventually began photographing the group and was given access to its members.
Jason Willheim
"Heading East"
Texas, 2009

Although Willheim doesn't ride motorcycles, he did go on road trips with the Mongols. The longest trip was a seven-day journey from Los Angeles to Oklahoma and back.
Jason Willheim
"R.I.P. Sinner"
City of Industry, California, 2011

Willheim split his time between shooting commercial work and the Mongols, taking more than 17,000 photos, he said. "It was just a side project. One day I'm hanging with the club, the next day I'm doing a movie poster, you know, advertising."
Jason Willheim
"Tickets"
South Bay, California, 2011

Willheim said he has never felt threatened by the Mongols. "There's always a brother or two that's not thrilled about taking their picture, so I don't take their picture," he said. "Once they trust you, they're the (most loyal) people you'll ever meet."
Jason Willheim
"Lil' John"
Bakersfield, California, 2009

Willheim was invited to attend the funeral of Lil' John, an older man who had been in the club for many years, he said.
Jason Willheim
"Charro"
Upland, California, 2010

The Mongols call themselves the "baddest 1%er motorcycle club known worldwide." CNN's Lisa Ling said 1%er motorcycle clubs are considered the outlaw biker clubs; they play by their own rules.
Jason Willheim
"Brotherhood"
Whittier, California, 2011

The Department of Justice says the Mongols are "known to frequently commit violent crime, including assault, intimidation and murder, in defense of their territory and to uphold the reputation of the club." The club says on its website: "When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets."
Jason Willheim
"Honoring Freddie"
California, 2011

"The club has actually been a positive influence on a lot of guys," Ling said.
Jason Willheim
"Top Hat"
Industry, California, 2011

"From only knowing the club from stories via the Internet, I had no clue what I was getting myself into," Willheim said. "These are some of the greatest guys I've ever met."
Jason Willheim
"On the Road"
Arizona, 2009
"I met members who never had a car because they only ride motorcycles," Willheim said.
Jason Willheim