Biker gangs revving up within Utah

Published: Tuesday, April 13 2004 9:13 a.m. MDT

Outlaw motorcycle gangs have been active around the United States and other parts of the world for decades, and Utah may no longer be immune.

Last month the local chapter president of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club was arrested for investigation of attempted criminal homicide after the shooting of a former member. One of the nation's biggest and most violent outlaw motorcycle gangs had set up shop in Utah.

In Utah, outlaw biker gangs have not been much of a problem in recent years. But here, as in the rest of the nation, they're growing.

"We're watching the developments very closely. They are a concern," said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Andy Burton, head of the Metro Gang Unit. "There have certainly been incidents that have caught our eye."

The Bandidos are one of the groups known among law enforcers as the "Big Four" of outlaw motorcycle gangs. Those four groups are the Bandidos, Hells Angels, Pagans and Outlaws.

And according to one international motorcycle gang expert, Steve Trethewy, "It won't be long until (Utah) sees Hells Angels."

Trethewy is a field services coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Information Network and on the board of directors for the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association. He has done extensive work with outlaw motorcycle gangs for more than 20 years.

Trethewy delivered a workshop recently at the 14th annual Utah Gang Conference in Sandy. His class was closed to the public, but after his session he told the Deseret Morning News that one of the recent trends of motorcycle gangs was expansion.

Motorcycle gangs have been adding new members and forming alliances with smaller gangs at a rapid pace over the past few years. Many experts believe part of that is due to the ongoing war between the two biggest outlaw motorcycle gangs, the Hells Angels and Bandidos.

In April 2002, two members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club and one member of the rival Mongol motorcycle club were killed in a shootout between the two gangs inside a casino in Laughlin, Nev. Following a two-year investigation, 42 men were named in a federal indictment. The indictment also outlined a violent history between the two groups.

Today, the Mongols have teamed with the Bandidos, Outlaws and Pagans in preparation of the next round of the "biker war."

"I don't think we can call it anything else," said John R. Schlim, a retired law enforcer living in California. "These people have expanded dramatically. I don't think there's any question this is what this recruitment is about. This thing is far from over. It's going to happen again. These two haven't buried the hatchet."

Schlim, who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, 13 of those working undercover and narcotics, now works as a consultant for other law-enforcement agencies.

In Canada and some Scandinavian countries, the war between the two groups has escalated to the point of grenades and rocket launchers being used, Trethewy said.

In recent years, the Bandidos and other major motorcycle clubs have tripled their chapters and members, Schlim said. The first Utah chapter of the Bandidos started in January 2003. Today, the Bandidos are the second-most powerful outlaw motorcycle gang in the nation and have just as many members as the Hells Angels.

Utah ties

Some experts believe the setting was right for new motorcycle gangs to move to the Beehive State after the Sundowners motorcycle club was brought down by federal authorities in 2000. Forty people, including the group's leaders, were convicted on federal drug charges following an extensive undercover operation.

Schlim said authorities in Utah need to keep a close eye on groups like the Bandidos while they're still small and easy to handle. "Turn a deaf ear and blind eye, (the gangs) will take root and take hold," he said.

The Barons are another motorcycle gang native to Utah. Trethewy said he has received information that the Barons have already formed an alliance with the Hells Angels.

The reason for expanding into Utah may be to increase the size of their gang for numbers' sake or it may be an effort to give them a continuous interstate line for drug trafficking, according to investigators.

Survival skills

Being in a motorcycle gang is about drugs, women and money, and not always in that order, Schlim said.

"There's nothing magic about motorcycle gangs. It's simply the dollar sign," he said. "Anything they can get into that can turn a dollar for the club is fair game. Any scam you can think of, these guys have been involved in. I can't think of any criminal activity these guys have not been involved in. They've been pretty successful at this, unfortunately."

In addition to heavy recruiting, the other big trends for outlaw motorcycle gangs in recent years have been lawsuits and public relations. The ability of motorcycle gangs to survive is due to public relations, said Schlim.

"The Robin Hood image is a popular trend," Trethewy said.

The public sees Hells Angels doing Toys for Tots runs and think they're a good bunch of guys, he said. What they don't see is what happens the other 364 days of the year. Those are the incidents that need attention as much as the charity runs, Trethewy said.

Good gangs

But there are also motorcycle clubs that are legitimate and law-abiding: groups like Bikers Against Child Abuse and the Blue Knights, which is a motorcycle club consisting of law enforcers.

In Utah, hundreds of motorcycle enthusiasts can be seen on the freeways every weekend, many times riding in large groups. Usually they are involved in some form of charity event.

Those groups don't want residents to get them confused with outlaw motorcycle gangs. Just because they wear leather, have tattoos and ride Harleys doesn't mean they're criminals, said Les Powers, local chapter president of the Blue Knights, who noted that there are motorcycle groups ranging from Christians to criminals.

"You cannot tell what kind of person you've got (looking at someone riding a Harley)," Powers said. "They could be drug traffickers, lawyers, doctors or Indian chiefs."

Powers believes that riders involved in drug or criminal activity make up less than 1 percent of the motorcycle riders on the road.

Many weekend warriors simply enjoy getting away from their middle- to upper-class life on weekends by riding in packs or enjoying nature, Powers said. Sometimes they just like the mystique of putting on black leather.

"It's one of those things that if we need to explain it, you don't understand it," he said.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS