|Sunday, May 29, 2016, 06:01:56 PM|
Thursday, May 27, 2004
Bad motor scooter
Local motorcycle clubs are back in force, but are they really kicking up more than just dust?
By Newt Briggs
[The Hessians] deal in prostitution, white slavery, drugs, stolen guns and supplement their income making hits for the Mafia, police say. Cross them or testify against them and you're taking your life into your own hands.
--Jim Coleman, Las Vegas Sun,
May 11, 1980
For all of their multimillion-dollar budgets and high-technology surveillance equipment, you'd think the ATF and FBI would realize that millionaire drug dealers don't ride 10-year-old Harleys and walk around with fewer teeth than are found in the back row of a Willie Nelson concert.
--Mike Seate, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,
July 15, 2002
utside the Cotton Pickin' Saloon in Pahrump, a half-dozen members of the Hessians Motorcycle Club are drinking bottled beer and listening to Cheetah, a founding member of the Gents, spin yarns about the good old days. Once upon a time, the two clubs were rivals, but it's too nice on this lazy Wednesday afternoon to be worrying about whatever might have gone down in the past. Besides, it's not very often that all the Hessians find time to get together, and pretty much everyone is here--Dog, the Hessians' president; Link, the former president and elder statesman; and One Eye, the club treasurer, to name a few. The rest are inside, sucking down shots of whiskey and yakking with their old ladies.
No one's fighting, no one's peddling dope, no one's flashing a pistol. Yes, they're wearing their colors--a three-tiered patch that signifies full membership in an outlaw motorcycle club--but they still don't look much like the Hessians of legend, the ragtag crew of renegade bikers that turned Las Vegas on its head during the '60s and '70s. Back then, the Hessians were the baddest of the bad seeds, the apples that fell far from the tree and cracked a few skulls on the way down. They worked as strikebreakers and hired muscle and were intermittently linked with the Aryan Brotherhood. But according to a few old-timers, the club also served a valuable function within the community.
"We kept the other gangs out," says Link, a 6-foot-6-inch, barrel-chested Native American who served as the Hessians' president from 1972-80. "We didn't do everything right, but as long as we were in town, nobody else was moving in. We weren't putting up with any of that shit."
In a sense, he's correct. Before Metro Police began targeting local motorcycle clubs in the '70s, the Hessians and Gents were the two main outlaw presences in town. According to Link, the turning point was a Hessians Halloween party in 1975, when 48 Gents, Hessians and friends were arrested during a Metro raid. Soon after, a spate of motorcycle clubs began staking out territory in Las Vegas--the Vagos, the Banditos, the Iron Crossmen, the Nomads, the Thugs, the Pirates, the Mongols and even the Hells Angels. And according to some members of law enforcement, the trend continues to this day.
On the outs
Before the 2002 Laughlin River Run, it seemed as if outlaw motorcycle clubs had all but assimilated into the popular culture. International websites were hawking official club gear, and legendary Hells Angels president Sonny Barger was signing books at chain bookstores across the country. The original bandits--the so-called 1 percenters--had either gone legitimate or gone underground, and either way, they weren't talking.
Then came the fatal melee at Harrah's Laughlin, and, for better or for worse, biker gangs were once again thrust into the spotlight. While public hysteria has not yet reached the level of the 1960s, when every small-town sheriff dreaded the distant rumble of V-twin thunder, the media sunburst has cast a stark glare on the activities of motorcycle clubs in Southern Nevada. The Mongols, for example, are rumored to be setting up a large clubhouse in an industrial area on South Valley View Boulevard. Metro's Office of Public Information will not confirm or deny the report, but the rumor doesn't surprise Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo.
"There's definitely been an increase in membership in biker clubs during the last year," says DeMeo, a former motorcycle cop. "As far as I know, law enforcement agencies across the country have observed this increase. Bikers may think they're joining these clubs for the right reasons, but there's still a lot them that require their members to get involved in weapons and drugs and other serious crimes. Bottom line, the only way that some of these clubs survive is through illegal activities."
Not even Link can deny that biker clubs maintain strong ties to the drug trade. After all, crystal meth takes its most common nickname, crank, from outlaw bikers who were known to transport the drug in the crankcases of their motorcycles.
"Yeah, there are bikers that sell drugs, but there are also doctors that sell drugs," says Link. "Why is it that people forget about all the good things our club has done for underprivileged kids and cancer victims? They don't remember those things. They just remember the bad things."
"We're aware of it," DeMeo counters. "They've been here for quite a while. I don't necessarily believe that a club is serving the interests of the community just because it goes out and gets involved in a Meals on Wheels program or something. What we've found is that most clubs do the charity work just to get positive press. But the vast majority of the contact that we have with these bikers continues to be negative."
Eye for trouble
"Why do they call you One Eye?" asks one of the gawkers in the Hessian's mobile caravan--a group of citizens that follows the club members from bar to bar looking for a good time. One Eye smiles, takes off his sunglasses and taps on a white glass orb sunk into his left eye socket. If he looked scary before, now he looks downright devilish. But One Eye is a charmer--a sheep in wolf's clothing, some say--and he laughs as he tells everyone how the back wheel on his motorcycle almost came off during the drive over to the bar. He's similarly jovial as he describes how he lost his eye.
"I was fooling around with a pistol and just shot it right out," he says pointing to the spot on his chin where the bullet entered and the bump on his head where it made its exit. "I was trying to flip it around like in the old cowboy movies."
"You were a lucky bastard," calls out another of the rubberneckers in the peanut gallery.
"Doctor called me a lot worse than that," One Eye says before kicking his feet up on the sissy bar of his old shovelhead and laying back to take in a few rays. So goes life with the Hessians nowadays--or so they say. Sunshine, a case of beer, an old lady and a tank full of gas is all they ask. Sure, they were chain-swinging, bone-breaking numbskulls back in the day, but like a canteen full of red mountain wine, they've mellowed with age.
"We don't roll into towns looking to beat people up and rape and pillage," says Dog. "Thirty years ago, hell yeah, it was the fun thing to do, but not these days. Now all we want to do is party, ride our motorcycles and have a good time."
"What was it that we used to say?" Cheetah adds. "Eat some reds and bust some heads? Ain't like that no more. No sir. Getting too old for all that silliness."
Ron Stevens was rarely the biggest guy in the Shadow Box--the East Charleston biker bar he once owned with strip club mogul Jack Galardi--but he never backed down from a fight. In fact, the 180-pound bulldog was notorious for his willingness to go Mike Tyson on a rowdy patron, leaping on his back and biting off a chunk of his ear.
"You've got to babysit a biker bar pretty good," says Stevens, who now owns Rebel Adventure Tours and several other businesses with Galardi. "Once or twice a month, I'd have to go out and teach someone a lesson, but I never hurt anybody too bad. I just took a little of their pride and turned them into good, clean customers."
Stevens calls the Shadow Box "a constant turmoil," but an interesting one at that. Unlike some bar owners who would restrict patronage to certain motorcycle clubs, Stevens and Galardi opened the bar to outlaws, citizens and cops alike. As long as they behaved, the bikers could even keep their colors on inside.
"You couldn't come in and smoke dope or do a line on the bar like you could in some other places," says Stevens, noting that many of the bikers bought drinks with drug money. "Sometimes they would take over a bar and just run wild."
Although he was frequently approached about prospecting for a club (the outlaw biker equivalent of pledging to a fraternity), Stevens never entertained the invitation. "I wasn't ever interested in getting a patch," he says. "I was too independent. I can't hardly get along with myself."
He did maintain his connection to the biker community, though, and even at 65, he still rides his scooter to work (a '95 Harley Evo recently acquired from former WWF wrestler the Godfather). Stevens has also kept tabs on the new generation of bikers joining the ranks of the motorcycle clubs.
"The new breed is more business-minded than the older generation," says Stevens. "The older ones had some legitimate business interests, too, but they also had a lot of other shenanigans going on."
Local wrestling impresario and auto mechanic Buffalo Jim Barrier remembers the old guard a little more nostalgically. "The outlaws I knew and hung out with in the '70s were the real McCoy. You could count on them. I know some clowns got their heads busted open by these guys, but they'd really have to ask for it. There was always some dumb fucking cowboy who'd talk a load of shit and then try to run over their bikes. So they'd pull him out of the cab and cave his head in. That kind of stuff really happened. But can you blame them?"
Honor among thieves
Twenty-eight-year-old Nye County Detective Trevor Meade won't specify which motorcycle club put out the first contract on his life, but he will say it was "one of the big ones." At the time, he and his partner hadn't even been working the biker beat. Rather, they'd been on narcotics duty, slogging through Pahrump's outlying desert to ferret out covert methamphetamine labs. Little did they know they were cutting into a major source of biker income.
"I had an informant tip me off to the fact that this club had put a hit out on me," Meade says. "But I really didn't think that we'd done any labs that were even connected to these bikers. Then I found out it wasn't the bikers that were cooking the meth, it was that they had people cooking it for them. So every time we would raid a lab, they were losing money, and they were getting tired of it."
Afraid the club would come blasting through his front door, Meade found help in the least expected person--the club president. "We actually had a sit-down, and he said, `If you think bikers are going to be driving by your house taking pot shots through your widows, you're wrong. You do what you do, we do what we do. If you catch us, then that's life, but we don't go headhunting for citizens. Gimme a day, and I'll put a stop to this for good.'" And according to Meade, he did.
"It's a respect thing," Meade says. "Like the Vagos, they have a patch on their jacket that says, `We give what we get.' And it's true. If you show these guys respect, they'll show you respect."
Nevertheless, there's no love lost between the Hessians and police. Link still speaks bitterly of a fellow Hessian lost to a police sting in the early '80s. "The feds set him up," he says. "He's doing 25 to life now--just for bogus shit, you know. They still do it these days. They'll pick you off one by one if they can."
And Meade is well aware that even though some of the bikers are a little grayer in the temple, that doesn't mean they've all bought fishing boats and settled into comfortable retirements. "I'll tell you what, don't be fooled by some of these old guys. They'll tell you that that's how they used to be and how they've gotten out of the game, but some of them are the most hardcore guys you could ever meet. They're the masters. They've been doing it for 40 years."