South Dakota - For 65 years, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been considered neutral ground by outlaw biker clubs such as the Bandidos, the Sons of Silence and Hells Angels.
But Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush is worried that might change this year.
Federal officials arrested 22 members of the Bandidos Outlaw Motorcycle Club last month, including a Rapid Citian who is a national officer of the group.
Law enforcement officials are concerned that the power vacuum left by those arrests might cultivate new leadership and agendas within the club. They say another motorcycle group might even be poised to overthrow the now compromised Bandidos. With more than a half-million bikers expected at this year's rally, Aug. 8-14, those rumblings could escalate into serious problems.
"I've found the (biker) groups can be very unpredictable here in Sturgis," Bush said.
Indicted club members, most of whom are from Montana and Washington, face charges ranging from firearms and drug violations to trafficking stolen vehicles and kidnapping. The arrests came after a 21/4-year investigation involving 300 law enforcement officers. The indictment charges that Bandidos members engaged in criminal enterprises and threatening behavior to protect their turf.
Christopher Horlock of Rapid City, the group's national regional secretary, will be arraigned Monday in a Seattle court. He faces a charge of conspiracy to tamper with a witness.
But some Sturgis business owners and residents are more worried that the publicity and media attention surrounding the sweeping federal crackdown could scare off recreational bikers and hurt attendance at this year's rally.
"There will be some people who are reluctant to come because of what they've heard about the Bandidos," said Sturgis Rally Director Lisa Weyer. "For the most part, people know gang activity is not a huge problem."
Authorities said the Bandidos have based an international criminal network in Bellingham, Wash. The indictment charged members of the group with trafficking drugs, guns and stolen motorcycles.
During the federal investigation, officers placed a wiretap on the phone line of Bandidos national president George Wegers. According to the indictment, Wegers instructed Horlock in a telephone call to tell others not to talk with federal agents.
Horlock, 45, turned himself in June 15 in Houston. Kent Schaffer, a Houston lawyer who represents Horlock, said the Rapid City man will plead not guilty.
"The truth of the matter is, Horlock did not do what Wegers told him to do. The government won't be able to show that he prevented anybody from talking with the FBI," Schaffer said.
Schaffer said Horlock has lived in Rapid City the past few years. He is married and has two stepchildren.
In the court documents, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators said Horlock's duties with the Bandidos included negotiating territorial issues with other motorcycle clubs.
Schaffer, who has represented dozens of Bandidos in the past 20 years, called the allegations "thin."
"Every 10 years, there is some attempt to stick a blow toward the Bandidos. (The Washington charges are) being blown up to look like the mother of all cases," Schaffer said. "This is another federal bloodletting of the Bandidos."
The last large-scale Bandidos roundup was in the mid-1980s. In the past few years, federal agencies have made big busts in Colorado, Ohio and Texas.
Staking out South Dakota
The Bandidos have called South Dakota home for almost two decades, establishing three chapters across the state, two in the Black Hills and one formed about four years ago in the Brookings and Watertown area. A few Bandidos reside in Sioux Falls, and the group has about a dozen full members on each side of the state.
A former international president was promoted from the Rapid City chapter.
Mike Walsh, a detective with the Minnehaha County Sheriff's Office, said the Bandidos chapter represent ownership claim to the state. So far, no no other groups have contested the Bandidos' South Dakota territory, he said.
Non-Bandidos motorcycle groups in South Dakota must wear patches showing they are "friends of Bandidos," or they face intimidation, Walsh said.
Groups such as the Hells Angels don't often face problems when traveling through the state to Sturgis, Walsh said.
"Usually, other groups won't be wearing wearing their colors (en route)," Walsh said. "If they do, they're in a large pack."
"Hells Angels get all the press, but the Bandidos have grown exponentially in the last few years," he said. Current membership is estimated at 2,400.
Bush and Walsh said while there have been reports of assaults and intimidation, there has not been significant illegal Bandidos activity in South Dakota in recent years.
Generally, Bush said, members of the rival biker groups drink and socialize each year at the Sturgis rally. Arrests for violent crimes and other felonies are not common. The most common criminal charges filed during the rally involve drug offenses. Even though the biker gangs, including the Bandidos, have a reputation for drug trafficking, Bush said most of the 113 drug arrests at last year's rally, including 16 felonies, were for personal drug use by rallygoers.
Still, Bush said the recent crackdown has rekindled memories for law enforcement. Most prominent is a shooting that occurred at Sturgis' 50th anniversary rally in 1990. Bush said biker gang members were involved in the incident at Gunner's Lounge, a Main Street Sturgis watering hole.
But, Fritz Clapp, a Sacramento lawyer who represents legendary Hells Angel Sonny Barger, said rallygoers should not shy away from this year's event because of the arrests. He said groups such as the Bandidos - known as 1 percenters, a reference to the American Motorcycle Association's assertion that 99 percent of motorcycle riders are law-abiding citizens - have only small numbers attending the rally.
Even if the crackdown compromised the Bandidos, other groups would not see a recruitment opportunity, Clapp said.
"It would be comical and uncharacteristic for a 1 percenter club to recruit at a big public rally," said Clapp. "For 1 percenter clubs, the number that go (to the rally) are so small compared to the overall attendance. Any effect would be more law enforcement present."
Walsh, the Minnehaha County Sheriff's detective, said the Bandidos might promote someone to fill Horlock's position from within South Dakota.
"Whoever takes over as the new regional secretary will be of great interest to law enforcement," he said. "I don't know if it will be resolved by the time Sturgis comes."
Bandido Carlton Baker, 34, who lives in Houston and maintains the group's North American Web site, said attendees should not be afraid of the Bandidos because of the indictments.
"We want everybody to attend (the rally) and have a good time, like we have for years and years," Baker said. "The Bandidos don't condone, encourage or require illegal activities."
Effect on attendance
This summer is considered a benchmark year for the Sturgis rally, which turns 65. Weyer said based on historic trends, that means organizers can expect higher attendance.
"Typically, there'll be a lot of people who make a point of getting to the rally every five years - if they don't go every year," she said.
She hopes the added boost in attendance will more than compensate for any reluctant riders. Last year's attendance was estimated at 515,000.
Veteran biker Rick Kiley of Sioux Falls said he doesn't think many bikers will avoid the rally. Kiley attended his first Sturgis rally in the early 1980s. When he rides his Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic to the rally next month with a friend from Virginia, he said gangs won't concern them.
"For the average motorcyclist, I don't think the gang activity in the news will deter many from attending,"
Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are solely those of the writer, and may not reflect the beliefs of anyone at the Biker News Network/Outlaw Biker World.
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