Motorcycle Clubs Fuel Fears of Gang Violence
September 18, 2003 — The Washington Post, SM1
Rivalries Could Spark Turf Wars, Officials Say
Michael Amon, Washington Post Staff Writer
The two groups of bikers stood on either side of the North Beach street, wary and tense, like boxers waiting for the opening bell.
At least 40 black-clad members of two allied Southern Maryland motorcycle clubs, the Iron Horsemen and the Phantoms, lined one side. On the other waited about the same number of Hells Angels and their supporters, wearing the club’s red and white colors.
Nearby, almost 100 police officers watched, waiting for the first punch to fly.
It was May 4, and the presidents of the Iron Horsemen and the Hells Angels had arranged to meet at the Blessing of the Bikes, an event that drew more than 3,000 motorcyclists to North Beach, in Calvert County, to have their vehicle blessed by a minister.
Robert Grieninger, the longtime leader of the Maryland Iron Horsemen, and John Beal, the head of an upstart Hells Angels chapter based in North Beach, walked to the middle of Bay Avenue and had an animated conversation, shaking their heads and pointing fingers. No punches were thrown, and the two men shook hands and went their separate ways after 30 minutes.
But the meeting worried local authorities, who believe it was another sign that the founding of a Calvert County Hells Angels club in January has stoked rivalries between what police call “outlaw motorcycle gangs” in Southern Maryland.
“The only thing that kept them from fighting was the police presence,” said Sgt. Ricky Thomas, head of the sheriff’s special operations team. “They came for turf. They came to mark down whose spot this is on the ground.”
Since eight Calvert County men in January chartered the state’s first chapter of the Hells Angels, a biker group with more than 2,000 members nationwide, Southern Maryland authorities have cited potential gang conflict as one of the region’s most urgent threats to public safety.
“They are not ‘clubs,’ ” Thomas said. “They are outlaw, organized criminal gangs who are known to be violent.” Club members who agreed to be interviewed denied the allegation.
Leaders of the Iron Horsemen and the Phantoms said they have no problems with the Hells Angels. Grieninger said authorities made too much of the Blessing of the Bikes meeting.
“We had some issues we wanted to discuss, so we discussed them,” Grieninger said. “There wasn’t any of us getting ready to shoot or fight. It was just a friendly talk.” When asked what was discussed, he said, “That’s personal.”
Police, however, point to an incident May 30, 2002, shortly after word leaked that a Hells Angels club was forming in Calvert.
One member of the Hells Angels was having dinner with an aspiring member at the Happy Harbor Inn in southern Anne Arundel County when they were challenged to a fight by two men who authorities said were members of a rival group called the Pagans. Once outside, the Hells Angels member and his friend were ambushed with pepper spray, then hit several times by gunshots fired from a white van, authorities said.
In addition, a man with no ties to the bikers was grazed on the left cheek by a bullet as he walked out of the restaurant’s bathroom.
“I was very fortunate,” said Robert Hudson, 45, a warehouse manager from Calvert County.
The shooting occurred at the same time as a series of bloody turf clashes between the Hells Angels and the Pagans in New York and Philadelphia.
Anne Arundel police charged Christopher J. Brennan, 39, of North Beach, a former member of the Pagans, with attempted murder in the shooting, but that count was dropped because no witnesses would cooperate, Anne Arundel prosecutor Fred Paone said. Brennan served 90 days in jail after entering a modified plea to the lesser charge of reckless endangerment. Brennan declined to comment for this article.
Members of the Hells Angels and the Pagans also declined to comment for the article. A Hells Angels member who spoke on condition of anonymity last year said: “We didn’t come down here to make enemies. Not that we don’t want problems. But we’re not here to start problems.”
Motorcycle clubs have been roaming Southern Maryland since 1959, when the Pagans, now a national group, were founded in Prince George’s County. A few years later, the Phantoms were founded, and in the early 1980s the Iron Horsemen were born in Charles County. Authorities estimate that 50 to 70 local men belong to one of the four groups.
Like their counterparts across the country, the groups became notorious in the 1980s for dealing PCP and for violent clashes over turf, Maryland State Police Lt. Terry Katz said. Investigations by federal and local authorities put many of their leaders in jail, and a truce was called in the early 1990s, club members say.
Until recently, the biker clubs had few brushes with the law, other than a few bar fights, authorities said. But the Hells Angels’ presence has “changed the landscape,” said Capt. F. Michael Wyant, head of gang intelligence for the Charles County sheriff’s office.
“Their propensity for violence is high, and that is a concern for the public,” he said.
The shooting in May 2002 has had widespread repercussions, including a law enforcement crackdown.
In July, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives targeted the Calvert County Hells Angels as part of a series of raids on biker clubs across six states. The ATF charged Beal and Lewis J. Hall, the county group’s vice president, with distributing drugs and illegally possessing guns, and charged a third member, Cornelius Alexander, with gun violations. The three have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to stand trial Dec. 2 in U.S. District Court.
According to a court affidavit, two undercover ATF agents witnessed Beal selling $ 175 worth of cocaine to two men before the Blessing of the Bikes. The affidavit also said the two agents had entered into a deal with Hall to buy $ 5,000 worth of methamphetamine, though the deal never came off.
Others in Southern Maryland have also responded. The Hells Angels were evicted this month from a house on Route 4 in Owings that Calvert officials said they were using as a clubhouse. County zoning laws prohibit clubhouses on the property, which is zoned industrial, and officials threatened the landlord with $ 500-a-day fines if the group did not leave.
The North Beach Town Council recently voted to cancel the annual Blessing of the Bikes because of the biker clubs. And now, some local bars that the clubs once frequented have begun to shun them. At the Happy Harbor Inn, bikers who wear club symbols on the backs of their leather jackets are no longer allowed inside, said a manager who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans this year assigned one deputy to monitor biker activities. Even the clubs’ parties prompt dozens of police officers to watch over them and stop traffic to check for drinking and driving.
“It could be a serious problem in Calvert County, and we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand,” Evans said.
According to court documents, six of the eight Hells Angels members in Southern Maryland have criminal records, mostly for misdemeanor offenses. Some members of the other groups have more serious criminal histories, according to court documents.
But local authorities have not uncovered any large-scale organized crime by Southern Maryland biker clubs in recent years. And some residents question why police spend so much time and money conducting surveillance on biker clubs.
“When the police can’t be effective, they try to make themselves look effective by cracking down on bikers,” said Doug Barber, a North Beach photographer who says he is friends with many biker club members. The members “are not professional criminals,” he said. “They all have jobs. They are all from the area.”
North Beach Mayor Mark R. Frazer said he does not consider the Hells Angels chapter a threat. “From what I can see, the problems, to the extent that there are problems. . . . it seems to be originating with the clubs that are rivals with the Hells Angels,” Frazer said.
Bikers speak of their clubs as if they were substitutes for religion and family. The Iron Horsemen call their weekly meetings “churches.” Other club members are “brothers.” Each member receives a nickname that is used exclusively in the club.
“If I had a problem at, like, 3 in the morning, and I needed to call someone, a lot of our families would probably hang up on us,” said an Iron Horseman who goes by the nickname Jester. “These guys would be there for you.”
Though most own their own homes, some Iron Horsemen live in a clubhouse in Charles County. It is a one-story, white, wood-frame structure on about an acre of land surrounded by a 10-foot-high brown fence. At least five security cameras transmit images to televisions inside.
Walls inside the house are adorned with photographs of club members carousing with women in bathing suits. The refrigerator is stocked with Coors Light and Budweiser and little else.
It is a place, Grieninger said, where he can find camaraderie. That deep friendship, he said, pulled him out of the doldrums nearly 20 years ago, when he was 22 years old and just out of prison. Work was scarce then, he said, and he did little besides hang out with deadbeat friends in the strip mall parking lots of Waldorf.
Then, one day in 1983, his father introduced him to a man named Hector and, as Grieninger remembers it, everything began to change for the better.
Hector had just founded the Maryland Iron Horsemen chapter in Charles County and soon allowed the young Grieninger to join. Grieninger bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and rode around the country with members of his club, who nicknamed him “Backwards Bob.” He found direction in life, he said, and opened his own mechanic shop, Scooters, in western Charles County.
“I saw this life, and I loved it, and this is what I’ve been doing ever since,” Grieninger said. “Who knows where I was going to end up?”
Grieninger said he doesn’t mind being called an “outlaw,” although he dislikes his club being called a “gang.” He prefers the term “1 Percenter,” embracing the American Motorcycle Association’s claim in the 1950s that 1 percent of motorcyclists give the other 99 percent a bad reputation.
“Most of our people don’t fit society’s norm,” Grieninger said. “We just don’t buy into society’s beliefs.”
In 1997, Grieninger and another member of the Iron Horsemen were charged with murder for allegedly beating a man to death with a flashlight at the Mouse Trap bar in St. Mary’s County. The murder charges were dropped, but Grieninger pleaded guilty to second-degree assault on another man at the bar and recently finished serving four years in prison.
Grieninger denies beating the man to death, but he admits to fighting at the Mouse Trap because someone disrespected an Iron Horseman.
“You may have to go to prison if you are a 1 Percenter,” Grieninger said. “You have to be willing to die for your brother or to go to prison for your brothers.”
But Grieninger and other members of the Iron Horsemen laugh when they hear about police officers calling their club a criminal moneymaking enterprise.
“You want to know how an Iron Horseman becomes a millionaire?” asked a member who goes by the nickname Frisco. “He starts out with a billion.”