TORONTO - An Ontario judge ruled Thursday that a high-ranking member of the Hells Angels who dealt in cocaine was working for a criminal gang, allowing him to put the biker behind bars for longer, and potentially encouraging more judges to follow suit.

Gerald (Skinny) Ward, 61, a founding member of the Hells Angels Niagara chapter, was handed a nine-year prison sentence Thursday for directing associates to deal cocaine for the benefit of a criminal organization.

He got three years each for drug trafficking and making money off crime to be served concurrently. But because Justice John McMahon ruled that Ward was working for a criminal organization, he was able to sentence him to an additional six years in prison.

Federal anti-gang legislation introduced in 2001 was designed to include tougher sentences for members of criminal organizations.

A prosecutor on Ward's case and a journalist considered an expert on the Hells Angels each say McMahon's ruling could have a "snowball effect" on future biker convictions, since it could sway other judges into invoking the anti-gang legislation.

"The more of these judgments we get, the more acceptable it becomes to make that finding," said Tom Andreopoulos, the senior Crown attorney who worked on Ward's case.

"It's persuasive, it's helpful."

Ward's lawyer Mark Evans noted that McMahon's ruling is not binding on other courts and said individual judges would still have to make their own findings on whether Angels who come before them are indeed working for a criminal gang.

"That judgment applies to this particular case," Evans said in an interview after the sentencing.

But journalist Julian Sher disagreed, saying Thursday's ruling could carry weight in other cases.

"You get a snowball effect," he said. "In terms of momentum, in terms of impact, in terms of influence, it's always significant."

It's not the first time an Ontario judge has branded the Hells Angels a criminal organization.

In July 2005, Justice Michelle Fuerst ruled that two Ontario men acted "in association" with the Hells Angels, which she also deemed to be a gang of criminals.

But the designation hasn't stuck, and Fuerst's decision is under appeal.

More recently, in March 2008, a judge in British Columbia rejected a bid by prosecutors to have a member of the Hells Angels convicted of working for a criminal organization.

Justice Anna MacKenzie ruled the Crown's case against David Gilles was weak, and found him not guilty of a drug offence. She said therefore she couldn't find him guilty of committing an offence as part of a criminal gang.

In Ward's case, the judge said although the biker did not personally deliver the cocaine, he was at the "pinnacle" of the distribution scheme. Police wiretaps captured Ward saying he had not received a complaint about the quality of his cocaine, described in court as "90 per cent pure," or of very high quality, McMahon said.

"It is clear that Ward is the mind of the operation," he said.

McMahon sentenced Ward to 14 years in prison, but credited him with five years already served since his arrest in September 2006.

McMahon chose not to order Ward to serve half the sentence before becoming eligible for parole -- an option available to judges in criminal organization convictions -- because Ward reduced a four-week trial to a single day by agreeing to certain facts about the case.

Ward was the last person to be sentenced in Project Tandem, a major southern Ontario drug sweep in September 2006 that resulted in the prosecutions of 21 people, including 13 full-patch bikers.

Ward's lawyers said they have not decided whether to launch an appeal.