March 17, 2010

Drug case revs debate over biker clubs


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Staff Photo by John Ewing, Wed, Oct 16, 2002: Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood holds up a leather vest displaying the "colors" of the Iron Horsemen motorcycle club that was found in a trash can with two handguns and a ball peen hammer following a shooting incident last night in the Old Port district.

Staff Writer

Biker gang or motorcycle club?

For groups in Maine like the Iron Horsemen, the choice of those two labels can make a big difference when it comes to public perception.

The first term suggests drug-dealing, intimidation and turf wars. The second is associated with the freedom of the open road and the family-like bonds between club members.

Those labels came under the spotlight last month, when 19 members and acquaintances of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club were indicted by a federal grand jury in Portland on charges of trafficking in cocaine and marijuana over a period of several years. The case represents one of the biggest drug busts involving a motorcycle group in Maine.

Law enforcement officials classify the Iron Horsemen, Hells Angels, Saracens and some other groups as ''outlaw motorcycle gangs,'' and they say the federal indictment is a reminder that gang members remain major players in Maine's illegal drug trade.

Since at least the 1970s, members of various motorcycle gangs have trafficked in drugs in the state, and some have been convicted in state and federal courts, said Gerry Baril, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency's supervisor for western Maine.

''The demand for drugs is so great. It's like a conveyor belt -- there is always someone waiting in the wings to take over,'' Baril said.

One longtime member of the Iron Horsemen and the wife of a past local president, though, say people are too quick to judge.

Tom Secord of Portland said that although some bikers have broken laws and served time in jail, it isn't fair to characterize the whole group in that light.

''They call us a gang. We are a club,'' said Secord, who has been an Iron Horsemen member for more than 20 years, and goes by the handle ''Zeke.'' Secord owns Atlantic Auto, a shop on Riverside Street in Portland, and is raising two young daughters.

Secord said the club -- which is even incorporated as a nonprofit corporation -- has gotten a bad rap from biker movies, television shows and fearmongers.

Club members mind their own business, take care of each other and are not a threat to the public, Secord said. They participate in motorcycle rides for charities, such as Toys for Tots.

''It's all on an individual basis. Different people do different things,'' he said. ''It's not that everybody (deals drugs) in a motorcycle club.''

Betty Bateman was deeply immersed in the world of the Iron Horsemen from the early 1980s until 2002, when her husband died. Mark ''Moose'' Bateman was president of the Portland chapter of the club.

''It is a brotherhood. They weren't friends, they were brothers,'' said Bateman, a dialysis nurse in Portland.

''They find companionship and loyalty and righteousness from each other, so much more than they do from the outside world. They know that they can depend on each other, whether they live in Maine or Kentucky. They can pick up the phone and someone will be there.''

Bateman said she realized that some members were probably involved in drugs, but the activity was not systematic.

''They weren't making their money that way. All the people I knew had legitimate businesses and jobs. Most of them had kids,'' Bateman said. Her husband owned a motorcycle shop in Brentwood, N.H.

''I never ever felt unsafe with any of them,'' she said.

Secord believes club members have been singled out by law enforcement over the years, simply for wearing jackets with the Iron Horsemen insignia.

Baril, the drug investigator, said that isn't the case. Instead, names of members have routinely come up in conversations with informants and through other investigative methods, Baril said. He did agree with Secord and Bateman on one point: ''You have to be careful that you don't paint with a broad brush,'' Baril said. ''The importation and distribution are associated with members of those groups. It is not the organization itself.''

Still, the groups as a whole get the ''outlaw motorcycle gang'' label, he said. Part of the reason is that the clubs use a hierarchical power structure, including positions such as road captain and sergeant-at-arms.

They have historically used violence to defend ''territory'' from other clubs, said Bob Martin, a Portland Police sergeant who tracks the activity of motorcycle gangs. The clubs also require new members to pass a probation period and undergo secret initiation rites.

The Iron Horsemen have chapters nationwide, with concentrated pockets in Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

Recently, there was a national meeting and party at the Merry Manor in South Portland, Martin said. There was also a New Year's party at the group's clubhouse in Old Orchard Beach. As part of the federal indictment, prosecutors want that house turned over to the government, because it was allegedly used in the commission of drug crimes.

Members of the club are known as ''1 percenters.'' The term goes back to the 1950s, referring to the 1 percent of motorcycle clubs that give the other 99 percent a bad reputation. It's a label that has been embraced proudly by groups such as the Iron Horsemen, and members wear 1 Percenter patches.

Robert Grieninger, a longtime member who goes by the handle Backwards Bob, lives in Maryland and moderates the group's national Web site. He declined comment for this story, but in 2003 he described the club's philosophies to Washington Post reporter Michael Amon.

''Most of our people don't fit society's norm,'' Grieninger said. He scoffed at the suggestion that the club is a criminal enterprise, but said members do not abandon brothers who run afoul of the law.

''You may have to go to prison if you are a 1 Percenter,'' Grieninger told Amon. ''You have to be willing to die for your brother or go to prison for your brother.''

It remains to be seen whether the defendants in the Maine indictment will plead guilty or go to trial. Five of the 19 defendants remain in federal custody, 13 have been released on a bond or personal recognizance, and one is still wanted by the U.S. Marshals' Service. The earliest possible trial date is in June.

Staff writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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