Darrin Kozlowski immediately knew something was wrong when ‘Lars,’ the menacing leader of a local biker gang showed up at the front door of his North Hollywood apartment demanding answers.
Kozlowski (also known as ‘Koz’) had spent the last seven months of his life slowly infiltrating and earning the trust of LA’s most ruthless motorcycle club— the Vagos. He knew his cover had been blown.
It was his first long-term undercover case as a rookie cop, and as far as the Vagos go, they ‘were as bad as outlaw motorcycle gangs got.’
‘We’re talking about drug running, illegal weapons sales, and any other moneymaking schemes,’ he said.
For almost three decades, Kozlowski, 57, worked as an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). His expertise in covert operations resulted in 157 federal arrests over the course of his decorated career before he retired in 2017.
Now his story is the focus of a new scripted Audible Original podcast titled, KOZ, starring Taylor Kitsch and Kate Mara as the lead voiceover actors, combined with interviews with the real-life Darrin ‘Koz’ Kozlowski.
For the safety of his own and those who are still active in the field, Kozlowski is not at liberty to speak freely about his time spent working undercover for the ATF. But he is candid about his experience with the Los Angeles Vagos — a case that he says nearly ‘got him killed.’
‘KOZ’ and new Audible Original podcast details the true story of how special agent Darrin Kozlowski (right) infiltrated and climbed the ranks of America’s most notorious and ruthless biker gangs, while working undercover for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
The podcast details Kozlowski’s first long-term undercover case as a rookie cop, infiltrating Los Angeles’ most dangerous and criminal biker gang known as ‘the Vagos’ – which he said has ‘a long history of violence and shootings, stabbings and murders, dope dealing, gun running and plenty of other crimes’
The Audible series uses a unique mix of interviews with the real-life Darrin ‘Koz’ Kozlowski (center) and dramatized reenactments featuring a full cast which includes Taylor Kitsch (left), and Kate Mara
The Vagos ‘were a tight knit brotherhood known for their wild parties, drinking, prostitution, counterfeiting, drugs, you name an illegal activity and they’re probably doing it,’ he told LA Magazine in 2018.
It was 1997 and Kozlowski had recently transferred to Los Angeles from ATF’s Milwaukee office with a wife, a child, and another baby on the way. He grew up in Chicago’s tough South Side and attended Western Illinois University where he got his bachelor’s degree in Law Enforcement.
WHO ARE THE VAGOS?
The Vagos are an outlaw motorcycle gang that started in the Los Angeles Inland Empire in 1965.
Like the Hells Angels, the first motorcycle clubs were started by veterans, returning home from World War II.
Vagos is Spanish slang for ‘vagrant’ or ‘vagabond’ — someone who does nothing all day.
They are known for wearing the color green, which according to some sources is an homage to the Mexican heritage of their founding member.
The Vagos insignia is a large green image of Loki, the Norse god of mischief – typically worn as a patch on the back of their biker vests.
They also wear a ‘1%’ patch to symbolize that ‘they don’t live like the other 99% of all motorcycle enthusiasts’ and that don’t follow the normal rules of society.
The gang is often affiliated with the number 22 which is after the 22nd letter of the alphabet, V, for Vagos.
Today the group has over 4,000 members across 200 chapters throughout the US and Mexico.
According to law enforcement, they are violent and dangerous, with known involvements in murder, racketeering, robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, gun running and drug dealing.
By the time he was reassigned to the west coast, Kozlowski had taken an interest in biker gangs and proposed to his bosses that he investigate the groups running the greater Los Angeles region.
Working undercover in that field was still a fledgling program at the ATF, and there wasn’t a lot of official protocol or precedent when it came to infiltrating motorcycle clubs.
He had no cover team, and his only support would be a few contacts at the LA Sheriff’s Department.
As part of the job, Kozlowski looked and acted the part: ‘I learned to ride on a friend’s Honda, then managed to get a Harley that ATF had seized, a Fat Boy with straight handlebars, no windshield, no saddlebags,’ he told Los Angeles Magazine in 2018.
‘I rode to biker bars and events. I let my hair grow, dressed the part, tried to understand the scene.’
Vagos is Spanish slang for ‘vagrant’ or ‘vagabond’ — someone who does nothing all day. The group originally started in 1965 out of the Inland Empire and today boasts 200 chapters across the United States and is over 4,000 members strong.
They’re unabashedly sexist, misogynist, homophobic and virulently racist. Though technically Hispanics are allowed in the club, blacks are persona non grata. Women are considered property and aim to please. Those assigned are marked by a patch that says ‘property of’ followed by the biker’s name who owns them.
When Kozlowski started following the Vagos in the late 1990s, he had suspected they were behind a slew of unresolved murders, but he soon discovered that they were involved in racketeering, distributing meth from Mexico, buying and selling illegal weapons, money laundering, and counterfeiting.
And they were growing fast. ‘That’s the outlaw motorcycle gang way,’ says Kozlowski. ‘Recruit, grow, and take over more territory by any means necessary.’
The biker uniform is always a denim or leather vest. The Vagos logo on the back of their riding vests — an unmistakable totem in the insular, hierarchical world of motorcycle clubs— is ‘Loki’ the demonic looking Norse god of mischief.
They also proudly wear a green diamond shape patch that reads ‘1%’ which is to advertise ‘that they don’t live like the other 99% of all motorcycle enthusiasts,’ Kozlowski says in the podcast.
‘They’re telling everyone that they don’t follow the rules of society and that’s why they embrace the term outlaw. They do that for a reason, they want everyone to know that they don’t give a f*** about what you think.’
Only full-fledged Vagos members are entitled to wear the Loki logo, and you don’t get patched in without a lot of vetting.
Kozlowski had his work cut out for him.
He introduced himself to the Hollywood chapter of Vagos using his real nickname, Koz. ‘I figured if anyone asked, I could say that it was short for ‘Kamikaze’ because of how I rode my Harley or some b******t like that,’ he told LA Magazine. ‘I wanted a name that I responded to instinctively.’
The clubhouse was located in the heart of Hollywood on a side street called Kenmore Avenue. The white cinder block building with no windows was built like a fortress with a heavily fortified steel door and chain link fence with razor wire looping around the top.
Inside — where they threw a regular party called ‘Green Hell’ that went from 2am till 6am — was a fully kitted-out bar with tables, chairs, stripper poles and a sound system.
The Vagos logo is ‘Loki’ the demonic looking Norse god of mischief. Only full-fledged Vagos members are entitled to wear the patch on the back of their biker vests
Their club color is green, which is why they are sometimes known as ‘The Green Nation.’ Even though green is considered bad luck amongst most bikers (because it symbolizes the grass on the ground), for the Vagos its an homage to their founders’ Mexican heritage
Vagos is Spanish slang for ‘vagrant’ or ‘vagabond’ — someone who does nothing all day. The group originally started in 1965 out of the Inland Empire and today boasts 200 chapters across the United States and is over 4,000 members strong
The first outlaw biker gangs were started by veterans returning home from World War II. The Vagos (pictured above sometime during the 1970s) formed as an offshoot of another gang known as the Psychos in 1965. They are known for their bloody rivalry with the Hells Angels
While Hispanics are allowed to join the club, the Vagos have a long history of racism where blacks are persona non grata. Women are considered property and are assigned to male members with a patch that says ‘property of’ – followed by the biker’s name who ‘owns’ them
The first step is to be admitted as a ‘hang around’ which means you’re allowed to ‘hang around’ the clubhouse doing chores, working the door at parties and restocking the bar. ‘If they liked you, you could ride with them sometimes,’ said Kozlowski in the podcast.
Once someone earns their keep, they are promoted to ‘prospect’ which essentially means ‘they own you.’ As an official prospect, you get the ‘bottom rocker,’ which is the first of three patches worn on the Vagos vest.
‘If you survive that, they take a vote and if you measured up, you get promoted to full patch,’ he explains in the podcast. ‘That’s when you’re allowed to attend ‘church’ and you’re finally privy to all the inner workings of the club.’
‘Church’ is what outlaw motorcycle gangs call weekly chapter meetings.
Kozlowski’s first setback on the job happened when an informant he had been cultivating by the name of ‘Junior’ died in a brutal hit and run accident on Sunset Boulevard.
‘Junior wasn’t an official hang-around, but I was playing the long game: I wanted him to get his patch, and he’d be able to vouch for me so I could try to get my patch, too.’
Later, it would be Kozlowski’s affiliation to Junior that would eventuate his downfall and cover being blown within Vagos.
After four months as a ‘hang around,’ Kozlowski remembers the first time he was invited to an officer’s meeting in Las Vegas.
‘They ride in tight formation, wheel to wheel and basically shoulder to shoulder—ranking members up front, rank-and-file in the middle, followed by prospects, and finally the hang-arounds in the back, choking on exhaust and dust,’ he recalled.
It was there, in a rented VFW hall that he was invited to apply as an official prospect. ‘Are you willing to kill for the club?’ they asked.
As part of the process, they do background checks, ask for Social Security numbers, a driver’s license and a fee which goes toward a private investigator. ‘Outlaw biker gangs make the path to membership pretty d*** official,’ he said.
After a few ‘head games,’ Kozlowski was finally given the bottom rocker of the patch that says ‘SoCal’ on it. They told him he had 30 minutes to get it sewn on his vest.
It wasn’t some fake souvenir skull that you could buy in a shop—it was fresh. There was still material on it, some bits of maybe hair and flesh.
Later, he said, while embedded with the Warlocks, he was ordered to carry around a sewing kit. ‘I think one-percenters are the only outlaws on the planet who keep a needle and thread handy.’
‘Once you earn prospect status, you’re actually taking a step backwards because now you belong to them,’ he told Audible. ‘They don’t even call you by your name anymore, you are just “prospect.”‘
And thus began Koz’s intense hazing process, where he was expected to be at the beck and call of higher ups. ‘They’re gonna push you to the limit of you what you could and would not do.’
‘They called me a lot,’ he told LA Magazine. ‘It could be anything from, “Hey, prospect, cut my grass,” or “Hey, prospect, take this package over to Big Rick’s place.”
‘Saying “no” wasn’t an option.’
One of Kozlowski’s first rookie mistakes was that he forgot to make up a real job as part of his phony backstory, ‘They figured I had loads of free time when, really, I had a family at home.’
Balancing family life with work proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of going undercover.
‘You actually have three lives: your undercover persona, your family persona, and the persona as a law enforcement officer, doing the paperwork and acting like a respectable civil servant.’
Kozlowski’s work as an undercover agent led to a massive raid on the Vagos gang that uncovered illegal guns and drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines. The operation was designed to behead the leadership of the notorious motorcycle club and resulted in ten arrests of members suspected of drug trafficking and a rash violence that included the murder of a rival Hells Angel member
‘They ride in tight formation’ organized by ranking members in the gang, said Kozlowski to LA Magazine. The top brass leads the front, followed by rank-and-file members in the middle. Unvetted potential members known as ‘prospects’ hang-around the back, ‘choking on exhaust and dust.’ Kozlowski spent seven months earning the trust of the group and rising through its ranks before he was finally given his official patch
Part of the Vagos insignia is a diamond-shaped patch that reads ‘1 %’ It symbolizes that ‘they don’t live like the other 99% of all motorcycle enthusiasts,’ said Kozlowski. ‘They’re telling everyone that they don’t follow the rules of society and that’s why they embrace the term outlaw. They do that for a reason, they want everyone to know that they don’t give a f*** about what you think’
The first motorcycle clubs were started by veterans, returning home from World War II. ‘That explains the military-like structure, the rules and bylaws and the hierarchy of ranks in the clubs,’ said Kozlowski. Local chapters are organized by a chain of command that includes a president, vice president, secretary and sergeant of arms
At the time, Kozlowski was living out of a rented Hollywood apartment six nights out of the week while his family (which included a wife, toddler and baby on the way) lived in the suburbs of Simi Valley.
‘My wife and family knew, but they didn’t always get all the specific details,’ he told DailyMail.com. Neighbors thought he worked long hours at LAX in baggage services.
Meanwhile, he was missing important milestones in his children’s lives while at the whim of the Vagos.
He told DailyMail.com, ‘Adopting a certain look that doesn’t fit into the norm was always a challenge. Some people would question what type of person I was and judge me when they didn’t know me.’
His long shaggy hair, goatee, grubby clothes, steel-toed boots and full sleeve of tattoos did not jibe well with the suburban set.
‘Being around criminals who you know have the capability to commit murder at any given moment is pretty intense when you are constantly thinking your cover could get blown.
‘I can’t tell you how many times I showed up at my kids’ school functions only to see parents and teachers shy away from me. If I wanted to lie low, I’d dress a bit nicer, but I was hardly clean-cut,’ he explained to LA Magazine.
‘Luckily my wife was a sweetheart and people would trust her, then it would slowly flow into me.’
Dealing with management wasn’t a walk in the park either. ‘They wanted results faster than I could deliver, and they didn’t understand—not in any real way—that every time I was with the Vagos I could have wound up dead.’
He came very close one time while working the front door at a Green Hell party when a guy from the rival Armenian Power gang put up a fight after they tried to throw him out.
‘I knew I had to put hands on him to avoid blowing my cover,’ said Koz, who escorted the hoodlum to the street with a couple of Vagos bikers to ‘smash’ his head into a parked car.
A few days later, during church, Koz was outside the gate when a bullets started whizzing past his head from a drive-by shooting.
‘There are too many scary moments to list, but almost getting shot was one of the scariest,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘I felt helpless in the moment, but wasn’t thinking too much other than I was lucky to still be alive after the shooting incident.’
He added: ‘Just constantly being around criminals who you know have the capability to commit murder at any given moment is pretty intense when you are constantly thinking your cover could get blown.’
Kozlowski had an ATF cover team in place ‘maybe 60 per cent’ of the time. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘a cover team can’t really save you in this type of role; it just keeps an eye out from time to time and cleans up if things go bad.’
Most of his time with the Vagos was spent delivering packages (usually illegal guns and drugs), from Point A to Point B. He took mental notes of every movement, conversation, address, licenses plate, and the names of the top brass.
‘The only reason it didn’t drive me insane was because I was too busy trying to juggle it all, to keep it straight and survive,’ he says in LA Mag.
‘The Vagos were as bad as outlaw motorcycle gangs got,’ said Kozlowski. ‘They were a tight knit brotherhood known for their wild parties, drinking, prostitution, counterfeiting, drugs, you name an illegal activity and they’re probably doing it’
‘I rode to biker bars and events. I let my hair grow, dressed the part, tried to understand the scene,’ said Kozlowski of his undercover work, which often became problematic when he went back to his normal life as a father of two, living in the suburbs where his goatee, grubby clothes, steel-toed boots and full sleeve of tattoos stood out. ‘I can’t tell you how many times I showed up at my kids’ school functions only to see parents and teachers shy away from me’
Kozlowski told LA Magazine that one of the most challenging aspects of going undercover for long periods of time is balancing different personalities. ‘You actually have three lives: your undercover persona, your family persona, and the persona as a law enforcement officer, doing the paperwork and acting like a respectable civil servant’
At the time, the head of the entire Vagos organization was a scraggly-haired, bald-domed guy called ‘Whitey’ who was in his fifties and wore a cowboy hat and Fu Manchu.
He once made Kozlowski film and sell videos of him riding around on a motorcycle. They did anything to make money for the gang. ‘We took the tapes to ATF, got some cash, and brought it back to Whitey,’ said Koz.
Kozlowski also recalls the time he got arrested by LAPD for causing trouble at the local watering hole of a rival gang while working undercover with the Vagos.
‘I was the only guy who got arrested, and I had to make it look legit.’ He was cuffed for carrying a gun (his service weapon), that was tucked into his waist belt.
He came clean with his true identity to officers once he was in his jail cell, but only that proved to be the easiest part. Koz knew that ‘Tiny Dan,’ — a high-ranking Vagos member who also worked as a juvenile probation officer— had a contact at the front desk of the police station.
‘A fingerprint check would have turned up my real identity because it’s cross-referenced with an FBI database,’ he explains. ‘If she’d gotten my real identity, she could’ve spilled the beans.’
Luckily, Tiny Dan was none the wiser and bailed him out the next morning.
On the backend, the ATF organized with the judge to go along with the ruse and ‘make things look by the numbers.’ In court, Koz was sentenced to two years probation for carrying a concealed weapon. The whole episode, he said, ‘gave me more street cred.’
The first motorcycle clubs were started by veterans, returning home from World War II. ‘That explains the military-like structure, the rules and bylaws and the hierarchy of ranks in the clubs,’ says Koz in the podcast.
Local chapters are organized by a chain of command that includes a president, vice president, secretary and sergeant of arms.
‘Outlaw biker gangs are the only truly homegrown American made criminal organization.’
‘All the other criminal elements we see here in the United States —the Italian mafia, Japanese Yakuza, the Chinese Triad,—came imported from other countries. Biker gangs are homegrown right here in the US, and they’re being exported all around the world.’
In order to join the Vagos and wear the official patch, members must go through an intense vetting and hazing process. First, one is admitted as a ‘hang around’ which means they’re allowed to ‘hang around’ the clubhouse doing chores. Once someone earns their keep as a ‘hang around’ they are promoted to ‘prospect’ which essentially means ‘they own you,’ said Kozlowski. As a prospect, you get the ‘bottom rocker,’ which is the first of three patches worn on the Vagos vest. Eventually a vote is taken among higher ups that whether a prospect is worthy enough to join the gang full time
‘Church’ is what outlaw motorcycle gangs call weekly chapter meetings. ‘That’s when you’re finally privy to all the inner workings of the club,’ said Koz. Above, some current members from the local Hollywood chapter pose for a photo on Instagram
In 2010, 30 members of the Vagos Motorcycle Club were arrested after it was discovered that they set up booby-traps targeting Southern California gang task force officers. The traps were filled with explosives and intended to blow up law enforcement headquarters
Seven months into the case, Kozlowski finally got fully ‘patched-in’ to the Vagos gang during a ceremony that took place on a large property near San Bernardino.
Hundreds of Vagos from other chapters made run of the place, while Koz worked security at the front gate of a large dirt driveway.
Finally, Kozlowski recalls someone from the gathering who yelled, ‘Prospect, get back here. And bring your bike.’
At the end of the long driveway stood a menacing cabinet of Vagos higher-ups standing in horseshoe formation. Kozlowski barely got the kickstand down when they ambushed him – pushing, shoving and punching. All he could think about were their steel-toed boots.
‘Did I do something wrong? Do they know I’m an undercover cop? I was glad I wasn’t wearing a wire.’ After a minute or two, which he said ‘felt like hours,’ the beating suddenly stopped and Lars, the chapter president, handed him his full patch.
After leaving the weekend festivities, Kozlowski said he saw his cover team watching over him as the Vagos took to the highway in tight formation. They assumed he would be riding closer to the back, like he always did. This time, he was placed among the rank-and-file in the middle.
‘After they finally spotted me, they were high-fiving one another. He got his patch! He’s in!,’ Koz recollected.
Indeed, he remembers feeling a weird sense of pride having earned the trust and acceptance of this rogue group of ruffians.
As Koz climbed the ranks of the Vagos, he got close to a guy named ‘Big Rick,’ a scary looking fellow in his late thirties who sported a long ponytail, with a Fu Manchu mustache and a ‘nobody f***s with me’ air of authority.’ He held the title of international sergeant at arms.
‘We’d go drink beer and play darts,’ said Koz. Rick become somewhat of a ‘sponsor’ to to him ‘not unlike Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco.’
When asked if he ever felt conflicted about tricking these guys, Kozlowski told DailyMail.com: ‘Absolutely. You can’t do long term infiltration undercover work without having some human-personal connection to others in the gang.’
‘Not a robot can turn an emotional switch on and off. You have to develop relationships and become one of them.’
The Vagos clubhouse is a white cinder block building with a heavily fortified steel door in the heart of Hollywood. Inside is a fully kitted-out bar with tables, chairs, stripper poles and a sound system where the gang throws a regular party called ‘Green Hell’ that goes from 2am till 6am
When asked if he ever felt conflicted about tricking these guys, Kozlowski told DailyMail.com: ‘Absolutely. You can’t do long term infiltration undercover work without having some human-personal connection to others in the gang. Not a robot can turn an emotional switch on and off. You have to develop relationships and become one of them’
Kozlowski’s work with the Vagos paved the way for ATF’s expansion of their fledgling enhanced undercover program. He would go on to infiltrate three more motorcycle gangs during his career, which resulted in hundreds of indictments and convictions
‘The six or seven months of work—the stress on me and my family—all of it was paying off,’ he said, after becoming a fully patched member.
Then it all came crashing down.
Two weeks later, Lars (the club president) showed up at his front door demanding answers.
He asked Koz to return in his patch and vest, ‘until further notice.’
Koz immediately called his cover team to extradite him from the apartment. The operation was over.
He spent the next two months back at the ATF office stringing together all the evidence he collected that would eventually lead to over a dozen arrests.
During one of the raids, federal officers found a human skill wrapped in plastic. ‘It was a real human skull. It wasn’t some fake souvenir type skull that you could buy in a shop, it was fresh,’ he said in the podcast. ‘There was still material on it, some bits of maybe hair and flesh.’
‘Looking back, I was lucky,’ he told LA Magazine.
It turns out, Kozlowski’s cover was blown totally by incident when the girlfriend of his former informant, Junior, crossed paths with some Vagos members. She told them that Junior had been working with ATF before he died, and gave them a business card that had Agent Kozlowski’s information on it.
His work with the Vagos garnered him official recognition back at headquarters in D.C..
He told Audible: ‘When this case was done in LA, my first inclination was I wasn’t going to be doing anymore of these type of cases.’
Instead, the ATF created an enhanced undercover program which Kozlowski had a hand at making.
He would go on to infiltrate three more motorcycle gangs while working undercover, which landed hundreds of indictments and convictions.
While the job has its downsides, he told DailyMail.com that his ‘favorite part is knowing you are able to make an impact by getting into a known criminal element that no one else has been able to do as an overt law enforcement official.’