For most of the last 52 years the Bandidos Motorcycle Club has defended its right to remain silent with outsiders. All clubs have a rule that prohibits members from talking to reporters but the Bandidos have probably been more stubborn about it than most other clubs. “Because it’s nobody’s business,” Bandidos National President Bill “Big Deal” Sartelle explained.
All of that may be about to change. In an America inundated with post-truths and fake news, the notion that outlaw motorcycle clubs should remain silent to the outside world may now be as obsolete as newspapers that are actually printed on paper. In the modern world, remaining silent means allowing your enemies to define you.
Sartelle is a wiry 62-year-old with a long enough stride that he is usually a little ahead of you. From behind, his long, braided hair hangs almost to his Bandidos belt. The braid sways slightly as he strides to a table, in the corner of a deck, in a burger joint in Galveston called The Spot. The sky is cloudless but the Galveston Island Pleasure Pier a half mile up the beach blues and blurs in the humid air. The Gulf seems flat but the waves crash into the beach in sets of eight every four minutes or so, so there has to be a storm out there somewhere hiding behind the horizon.
Sartelle has his back to the beach but he can feel the unseen tempest – not just this one afternoon but night and day. It has probably become harder to hold a big club like the Bandidos together than to run a big business. Sartelle chops his words into bites while we eat. He doesn’t trust reporters. He doesn’t trust the FBI. No one can blame him. He and his club are beset by would-be friends and would-be foes alike. He doesn’t trust me. I don’t blame him. Some of his sound bites disappear into the growl of motorcycles cruising up and down Seawall Boulevard. I keep my notebook closed. “Times have changed,” Sartelle allows. “Maybe it’s time we did.”
I open up the little, white, four by eight inch pad of paper and start to scribble. Sartelle dodges a wet, white bomb from a gull. We work on just what he wants the world to know. He doesn’t want to be misquoted. He doesn’t want to be second guessed. He and the club he leads are under pressure. He is not sure where trouble will come from next. Finally he decides, “We spent 50 years with our head in the sand. We stayed in the dark, looking like we did something wrong and we didn’t. It didn’t get us anywhere. I push transparency. Put everything on the table.”
“Can I quote you on that?”
“The Bandidos are strong and proud. We are not going anywhere.”
“Okay.” Then I close the notebook again.
The Bandidos storm began a year and a half ago at another burger joint in Waco. The murderous brawl between members of the Cossacks Motorcycle Club and what seemed like every other motorcycle club in Central Texas was followed by a million lies, then a long silence and then millions more words of speculation – mostly by people who have never sat on let alone ridden a motorcycle. What happened at the Waco Twin Peaks was sensational. Reporters on deadline – working for papers from the Los Angeles Times to Paris Match – had quotes to gather. While the Bandits kept their mouths shut the Cossacks chattered like excited children. The result of that may never go away. The Bandidos were stained. The end of Waco was to stain the Bandidos. Just this week a newspaper called the Journal-Courier in Jacksonville, Illinois quoted a local citizen at a toy run as saying. “After the Waco, Texas, shooting between two bike clubs, we thought it was important to spread the message that not all bike clubs are bad.”
The day after the Twin Peaks brawl a Cossack named Scott “Scoot” Keon was widely quoted as saying that the Bandidos, using the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents as a front, were trying to extort money from the Cossacks. “We won’t be pressured into paying them dues,” Keon claimed, “and that’s where their anger is coming from. Just because other clubs have given in, doesn’t mean we are going to.” The Bandidos know that most of the world thinks the Texas Confederation is the way their club tries to extort money from innocents like the Cossacks. So the Bandidos have quietly dropped out of the bikers rights group. “Fine” a Bandido says. “We don’t need it.”
He is right. The Confederation needed the Bandits. When I tell a particularly well informed, Los Angeles lawyer that the big club in Texas has dropped out he immediately says, “Then the government may have already won. The confederation of clubs is one of the most effective tools motorcycle clubs can use to fight against the government.” If the Waco brawl was contrived, as everybody who knows anything about the motorcycle club world thinks it was, by agents provocateur whispering in the ears of the Cossacks leaders, the whole point may simply have been to discredit the Texas Confederation.
Two weeks after Waco Steve Cook, the Executive Director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association, an organization that tells cops what to think about motorcycle clubs, told a reporter “We do a considerable amount of talking about these confederations and coalitions and try to make them (the police who pay public funds to hear his opinions) understand a little bit the motives behind these are other than what they advertise.”
Slowly, it has dawned on the Bandidos that information can be weaponized into propaganda – which is the use of specific information and misinformation to achieve a specific purpose. Somebody in the Department of Justice, the branch of government that specializes in arranging slivers of fact into houses of cards, wants the Bandidos for Christmas. If not this Christmas, maybe next year.
Within a week of the brawl, The Washington Post ran a sloppy, sensationalized and factually inaccurate account that portrayed the Cossacks as victims of the Bandidos and claimed the bloodshed was initiated by the Bandidos because the Cossacks had refused to pay the bigger club “$100 a month per chapter” for the right to wear a Texas bottom rocker on their vests.
The Houston Chronicle, relying on a Cossack account, claimed the Cossacks “had come (to the Twin Peaks) for a special sit-down with the Bandidos to hash out an ongoing dispute. Before their meal arrived, (a Cossack named) Diesel was shot, execution-style, with two bullets to the back of his head.”
The Bandidos replied with street wisdom and hillbilly omerta. And, into that silent void dozens of ill informed authorities leapt into the international spotlight with their own versions of “the truth.” One of them was Las Vegas attorney Stephen Stubbs who seems to have appointed himself “the Bandidos lawyer.” The club, according to Sartelle, now employs “37 lawyers.” The official club council is an attorney in Jasper, Texas. None of those lawyers is named Stephen Stubbs.
Despite his apparent lack of standing, Stubbs sent out a press release on behalf of the Bandidos five weeks after the brawl. The release still appears on the club’s official website. The document began:
“For Immediate Release
“From: Bandidos Motorcycle Club, Texas, USA”
“The Bandidos Motorcycle Club (hereafter ‘Bandidos’) is saddened by the incident that took place at the Twin Peaks Restaurant in Waco, Texas on May 17, 2015,” Stubbs announced. “The violence was senseless, completely unnecessary and wrong.”
There wasn’t any actual news or information in the release. Since he isn’t actually working for the Bandidos, casting himself as club spokesman may have done more to enhance Stubbs’ reputation than the Bandits’. Subsequently Stubbs was identified as “the Bandidos’ lawyer” in publications as disparate as the Waco Tribune-Herald and the New York Daily News. Wichita television station KSN described Stubbs as an “attorney and former Bandido.” Stubbs was later nationally recognized as the Mongols Motorcycle Club’s lawyer after a prison guard and member of the Iron Order Motorcycle Club named Derrick “Kong” Duran killed a Mongol named Victor “Nubs” Mendoza and seriously wounded another Mongol named Jared “Hercules” Chadwick.
A year ago, a federal grand jury in San Antonio indicted three members of the Bandidos National Chapter: Club President Jeffrey Pike, Vice-president John Portillo and Sergeant At Arms Justin Forster.
The surplusage filled indictment began:
“The Bandidos Outlaw Motorcycle Organization (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Bandidos OMO’) was an ‘outlaw’ motorcycle organization comprised of individual chapters located in various cities in Texas and elsewhere. The Bandidos OMO identifies itself as an outlaw motorcycle organization through the public display of the ‘1%’ symbol. The 1% symbol signifies that the membership of this organization has chosen to be part of the very small fraction of motorcycle riders who defy legal conventionality and consider themselves ‘outlaws’ or lawbreakers. The Bandidos OMO membership refers to themselves as a 1% club. The Bandidos OMO is an international organization. The Bandidos OMO has approximately 175 or more chapters in fifteen countries on four continents, with approximately 107 chapters in the United States, including approximately 42 chapters in Texas. The Bandidos OMO membership is estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 members.”
Factually, the Bandidos in the United States are now “totally divorced from Europe.” Bandidos in, say, France, are part of a separate and distinct club from Bandidos in the States, as America is separate and distinct from England.
“The Bandidos OMO in the United States” the indictment continues, “is a highly organized criminal organization which adheres to a hierarchical chain of command both nationally and locally. National officers are the most powerful and influential members of the enterprise. National officers comprise the National Chapter and include the President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, Sergeant at Arms and other regional members.”
The indictment and its accompanying press release were propaganda for prosecutors who had long sought to destroy the Bandidos – not for what the club was or had done but for what outsiders assumed the Bandidos was or must have done. The world’s press took the bait.
War, Murder, Extortion
The Guardian titled its report “Bandidos biker gang leaders accused of waging ‘war’ on rival Cossacks.” The Guardian said this despite seemingly irrefutable videographic, photographic and written proof that members of the Cossacks ambushed a small group of Dallas area Bandidos before most of them had time to stop their engines.
The British paper reported, “The indictment, announced on Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Antonio, accuses national Bandidos leaders of running an organization that used ‘murder, attempted murder, assault, intimidation, extortion and drug trafficking” to protect the organization’s power.’”
Numerous papers reported that the club officers were indicted as a result of their “deadly turf war with rival Cossacks.”
Last October, after ten months in jail, Forster pled guilty to four counts of “conspiracy:” Conspiracy to violate the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute; conspiracy to commit violent crimes in aid of racketeering (VICAR); conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of methamphetamine and cocaine; and, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by extortion.” His plea deal is sealed no one knows to which crimes, if any, he actually confessed. A member of the Bandidos National Chapter said, “We haven’t seen the deal so we don’t know what Justin confessed to.”
But another Bandido is blunt about the current state of his club. “No drugs. We will kick you out if you sell drugs. All this shit starts with some guy selling drugs.”
A month ago in Denver, three club members were sentenced to state prison for conspiring to sell methamphetamine. The Colorado and federal cases are connected and sometimes overlap. In the federal indictment, Forster was charged with selling about 185 grams of methamphetamine spread out over a half dozen transactions. The federal indictment also alleges: “During 2014, Colorado Bandidos OMO members delivered shipments of crystal methamphetamine to San Antonio-area Bandidos OMO members. On or about November 2, 2014, in the District of Colorado, the Bandidos OMO Colorado Westside Denver Chapter President possessed approximately two pounds of crystal methamphetamine with the intent to deliver the methamphetamine to San Antonio-area Bandidos OMO members.” The chapter president alluded to in the federal indictment was Lorenzo Sojo, one of the three Bandidos sentenced in Denver in November. Sojo was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Michael “Tick” Menson was also convicted of participating in the scheme and was sentenced to 24 years. A third Bandido named Philip “Fee” Duran, who also served as a national officer, cut off his electronic monitoring bracelet and is now in the wind, to the great distress of Sartelle and other Bandidos. Influential club members thinks Duran’s flight makes the club “look bad.”
The federal indictment seemed to cement the Bandidos reputation as this year’s “Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang.” The Houston Chronicle, which should have known better, described the Bandidos as, “a Mafia-like gang whose members roam the state on Harley-Davidsons and shed the blood of those who cross them.”
Reality is less melodramatic. In 1967, Hunter Thompson told the New York Times that what everyone said about motorcycle outlaws was “to a large extent untrue,” that the lies were believed because America had a “need for mythic villains,” and that the lives of most outlaws were “pathetically mundane.” Those aren’t among Thompson’s best remembered words but they sprang to mind one night in Texas’ second largest city.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t eat with you last night,” a member of the dreaded Bandidos National Chapter apologized to me in the dreaded Bandidos new Houston clubhouse. “My son had a cub scout meeting.”
Sartelle is convinced that both Portillo and Pike will be eventually cleared. Pike is free on bond while he awaits trtial. Portillo is still locked up because he had a prior felony conviction: A 2009 search of his home found drug residue amounting to less than one gram in a plastic bag. Sartelle thinks Portillo may have been targeted because, “The cops think he doesn’t like them. That’s why.”
“They’re both innocent,” Sartelle says. “If you met them you would know they’re innocent.”
The propaganda campaign against the Bandidos is almost identical to the propaganda used to demonize all motorcycle clubs in the last decade. Motorcycle clubs have always had areas of operation, or as prosecutors like to say, “territories.” The Bandidos indictment runneth over with references to territory,
“The Bandidos OMO claim (sic) Texas as their (sic) territory. In the state of Texas, the Bandidos OMO has ordered that no other motorcycle rider display on his clothing a ‘Texas’ bottom rocker without permission. Any person who wears the ‘Texas’ bottom rocker without permission is subject to assault or murder by the Bandidos OMO membership.” The statement is factually wrong but it gives prosecutors a hook on which to hang their accusations.
“The objectives and purposes of the Bandidos OMO enterprise included… preserving, protecting and enhancing the power, territory, reputation and profits of the enterprise through the use of intimidation, violence, threats of violence, assault, murder, attempted murder and robbery.”
“Members of the enterprise and their associates committed, conspired to commit, and threatened to commit acts of violence, including murder, attempted murder, assault, intimidation and extortion to protect the enterprise’s power, territory and property.”
Portillo is accused of “directing, sanctioning, approving and permitting other members to engage in criminal activities including murder and assault related to the protection of the power and territory of the enterprise.” For example, specifically, the indictment alleges that on July 22, 2015, two months after Waco, Portillo learned that a Cossack “had moved into Bandidos OMO territory in Buda, Texas.” One of the accusations against Portillo is that he then remarked, “Look, I don’t want that guy up here in Buda no more than anybody else does. I just don’t think we can pull it off without getting caught.”
Four months later, the indictment alleges, “John Portillo traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada to conduct a sit-down meeting with the National President of the Vagos Outlaw Motorcycle Organization. On or about November 3-7, 2015, Bandidos OMO members from Texas and New Mexico traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada with John Portillo to serve as protection for John Portillo. Some of the Bandidos OMO members traveled with firearms.” Perhaps next, the indictment suggests, the strange and terrible biker gangs will open their own casinos.
The issue of whether a big club like the Bandits can legally assert its preeminence over other motorcycle clubs in a specific, geographic territory is at the heart of the current, unofficial war against not just the Bandidos but all motorcycle clubs.
After the fight at the Twin Peaks in Waco the Cossacks portrayed themselves and were widely portrayed as victims of the Bandidos territoriality. They were peace loving and law abiding motorcycle enthusiasts who became targets of the big bad Bandidos simply because they wanted to exercise their Constitutional rights – to hang a Texas rocker and some lightening bolts on their vests and ride free. That song and dance was easy for professional story tellers and their audiences to grasp.
The Cossacks, or policemen or shut ins pretending to be Cossacks are still around and their identity seems to be schizophrenic. On the one hand they embrace their victimization by the Bandidos. On the other hand they seem to want to be a new and nastier version of the Bandits. On their website the Cossacks vow to “remember the Waco seven” and “never forgive, never forget.”
The Cossacks webmaster, or perhaps it is someone mentoring the Cossacks, has also discovered that information can be weaponized. The Cossacks now proclaim themselves be one percenters.
In a tweaky, rambling tirade on their front page the Cossacks boast: “Like many groups prideful of their accomplishments, the Cossacks before May 17, 2015, boasted about Strength, Brotherhood and Willingness to stand firm on their beliefs. It isn’t until you are tested that you demonstrate how committed to the fundamentals you/we truly are. When you are faced with adversity and an uncertain future, the true Brothers continue to carry on, adamantly unwavering on what defines us as men and as members of Cossacks Motorcycle Club, Those that remain behind are mere shells of men, forgotten by time and looked at with disgust as they dilute the MC culture. To separate real MC members from those who only continue to stand on false promises, sometimes drastic measures need to be made to correct the MC sins of the past. The members that truly embrace our culture and the history of our beginnings emerge from the plagiarism of the morally inept to form a new beginning that have no tolerance for disrespect of the MC lifestyle.”
They also have their own YouTube channel.
And I know what you’re thinking. “Wow! Where can I sign up to become a Cossack!?”
The Cossacks were not the first pop up motorcycle club to portray itself as a band of plucky, little victims. That would be the Iron Order.
The Iron Order started as a few cops who wanted to transform themselves into 1960s style outlaws – only without the risk. The Iron Order’s longtime President was a career marketing executive named Ray “Izod” Lubesky. Lubesky Lubesky had previously worked on behalf of Cinnabon, Ponderosa Steakhouses and Papa John’s Pizza. He borrowed his outlaw road name from an upscale brand of casual clothing. And he worked tirelessly to portray his club as both the “real deal” and as self righteous vigilantes.
About a decade ago, in a dissertation about the “organizational identity” of outlaw motorcycle clubs, the anthropologist William Dulaney wrote: “All three-piece patch clubs encountered during my research were outlaw motorcycle clubs. If a motorcycle club were to adopt the three-piece configuration and not adhere to the outlaw ethic, that club would very quickly cease to exist; motorcycle club etiquette dictates that another dominant club (or clubs) in the area would see to the disbanding of the offending motorcycle club.”
The Iron Order set out to prove Dulaney wrong. The Iron Order has consistently sought to contest the idea that some clubs – like the Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, Outlaws and Pagans, for example – are more dominant than others. The Iron Order has actually provoked fights with other motorcycle clubs so Iron Order members can kill members of other clubs. That’s what Iron Order member Derrick “Kong” Duran did when he shot two Mongols.
Not only do real outlaws not talk to reporters, they never talk to police. The Iron Order, and after them the Cossacks,, talk to both the press and the police so the only side the public and the police hear is the Iron Order’s account. The Iron Order is heavily populated with peace officers, one of its founders was a secret service agent, the Iron Order has said publically that some of its members are ATF agents and it seems to exist mostly to try to entice other motorcycle clubs into attacking it – as Dulaney suggests dominant motorcycle clubs, in the closed counterculture of the motorcycle club world, are morally obliged to do.
In the year leading up to the Twin Peaks brawl, the Cossacks seemed to act just like the Iron Order. They invited rather than avoided confrontations with the Bandidos. They cooperated with police in the prosecution of Bandidos. They enthusiastically portrayed themselves in the press as victims of the Bandidos. Coincidentally, or not, they made the Cossacks publicly made the same arguments against the Bandidos that the Department of Justice has made.
“We just don’t know who’s going to come after us next,” a Bandido tells me. It is easy to empathize with his disquiet.
This year’s anti-Bandido pop up club is called the Kinfolk. The Kinfolk Motorcycle Club was started by a former Bandidos national officer named Dan “Chopper Dan” Schild.
Sartelle, a long time member of the National chapter became club president after Pike’s arrest at Pike’s request. Schild thought Pike should have chosen him so he left the Bandidos and started the Kinfolk. The new club already sounds a lot like the Cossacks in the weeks after Waco.
“Good morning El Paso Biker community,” the club announced recently in a kind of press release that is remarkable for its enthusiastic reliance on exclamation marks. “We are Kinfolk MC. Would like to start off this morning by telling you guys we are here and not going anywhere! We are Americans and we have rights just like you guys and freedom of speech! This club is not here to start “Trouble or be Bullies!” We are here to stand up for out rights! The reason for this is that we’re tired of taking orders being bullied by the Bandidos.”
A set of minutes from the Kinfolk’s national meeting in Colorado on October 15 indicates that it is not a traditional motorcycle club. It is particularly not the Bandidos Motorcycle Club.
“We are not like Bandidos. We are out own club and will not be run like a Dictatorship.”
“We do not discriminate against former police officers.”
“While we prefer American V-Twins the type of motorcycle is not important.”
“If a member has his membership revoked, he will not be placed on no contact. There will be no out in bad standing. Either you are a member or not.”
“Our prospective members will be called rookies, not prospects. Ingrain this in your brain.”
“The order of receiving their patches will be as follows for rookies. Bottom rocker two months. Center patch four months. Top rocker and 1%er diamond after six months.”
“You do not have to fly your patch if you feel you are in an uncomfortable area or it interferes with your job or position.”
“We will be selling a support patch that simply says ‘Kin.’”
“We had a meeting with the Mongols and Sons of Silence. We were well received and received their blessing even though they wanted no more 1% clubs in Colorado. They said that knowing who was involved in the leadership and the way we went about our business that they were impressed.”
The Bandidos see the Kinfolk as a tethered goat that exists to try to provoke members of the club into a confrontation somewhere sometime.
The two clubs tell disparate stories about how the Kinfolk came to be. According to the Bandidos, Schild was questioned by the FBI for four hours on the day Pike, Portillo and Forster were arrested. He was unaccompanied by an attorney or another Bandido and other Bandidos did not learn of his interview for a week.
Dennis “Buddha” Price, is another ex-Bandido who was eager to talk about Schild’s new club. Price was never a member of the National Chapter but he claims to know what happened. “The feds called him (Schild)” Price said. “They talk to national bosses all the time. It’s not unusual.”
Price claims the Bandidos have expelled “300 plus guys, maybe 350” since Sartelle became President. Sartelle says eight members have been kicked out of the club in the last year. Price says, “Sartelle is a mean, old man.”
Price says the Kinfolk now have about 170 members in 23 chapters in Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico and that the club is comprised of “predominantly ex-Bandidos” and “members of other clubs who been kicked out. Everybody who comes gets a real, fair, genuine, second chance.”
Meanwhile, according to Price, the Bandidos are “evolving into a completely different group.”
“The Bandidos have become a paper tiger,” Price said. “Look at the Waco thing. Years ago there would have been a bunch of quiet little murders in the middle of the night.”
Nevertheless, despite their ongoing evolution, Price thinks, the federal indictment will be the end for the biggest club in Texas. “The feds are going to go crazy with this. With all the stuff the Bandidos are doing. We’re expecting the feds to come in and arrest a shitload of them. It wouldn’t surprise me to read the paper and see that 200 Bandidos were arrested.” Price doesn’t say for what.
So to summarize, a pop-up, self-described one percenter motorcycle club with a claimed 170 members in three states comprised mostly of out bad members from other clubs and Sons of Anarchy fans is propagandizing that it is tired of “being bullied by the Bandidos.” And , also sometimes they don’t wear their patch. Sometimes they ride Jap bikes. Some of them are ex-cops. Also, they think there should be more “quiet murders.” What can go wrong?
Sartelle and the Bandidos who have lived through Waco and its aftermath and the RICO indictment don’t know where the next storm will come from. All the bad publicity may have helped them recruit new Bandidos. Three club members take the time to tell me that the club patched in an unusually large number of prospects this year.
What the members in Houston seem to most want me to know so you will know is that the club is fine, the members are fine, the club’s many lawyers are fine and the club is more law abiding than ever. “The first thing we ask you is do you have a job,” Sartelle says. “You can’t join this club unless you have a legal source of income.”
Another National Chapter member picks up the theme. “We’re just regular guys,” and then he lists the jobs of most of the people in the room. One guy repossesses cars. Another guy is a draftsman. Another guy is also a member of the Rotary. Sartelle worked in a chemical plant for more than 25 years. “We just want to be left alone. I look around, and there is only one felon in this room. Leave us alone.”
“I mean, why us,” another guys asks.
I give him the best answer I can off the top of my head, although it isn’t much of an answer. “Because the feds think you’re easy.”
Days later I think of something that might be closer to the truth. Obviously, the Department of Justice and its various police forces have been after the Bandidos for a long time without much success. The Bandits are simply either too innocent or too cagey to get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The government has charged a couple of guys here and a couple of guys there. Sartelle is right. The government probably doesn’t have much, if anything on Pike and Portillo.
But in court filings and press releases the government admits it has been trying to catch the Bandidos at something for the last three years. Until the last superseding indictment is unsealed it will be impossible to estimate how much this investigation of the Bandidos has cost. It has cost at least millions. It has probably cost tens of millions. Eventually, as with the Mongols investigation that started in 2006, the bill might run to nine figures.
And the longer the investigation of the Bandidos remains fruitless, the higher the pressure will become on whoever dreamed up this escapade. Somewhere in Washington, D.C., or San Antonio or maybe even Glendale, California some public employee must deal with the inescapable pressure of running a project that seems to have failed. Everyday he has to lie to his bosses. “We’re close, boss. We’re this close. We almost have these guys. Have you heard anything back about that Predator I want to requisition?”
Every day this nameless, faceless policeman goes home and drinks. Every day the pressure he feels grows. And everyday he goes to work he tries to make sure the Bandidos feel at least as much pressure as he does.