The Rock Hell Six dwindled to the Rock Hell Five yesterday as the trial in Columbia, South Carolina got underway. Defendant Kerry “Gowilla” Chitwood, a member of the Southern Gentlemen Motorcycle Club, pled guilty to narcotics conspiracy before the trial began.
The remaining defendants are Mark William Baker, David Channing Oiler, Bruce James Long, Donald Boersma and Thomas McManus Plyler. All five are members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. The case started with sealed indictments against 20 people, including three women, last May 17.
Reality Justice Theater
Yesterday’s proceeding had more theatrical contrivance than an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Assistant U.S. Attorney Julius N. “Jay” Richardson had the courthouse surrounded by armed Homeland Security guards. Richardson has alleged that Hells Angels have threatened the prosecution team and he has worked hard to give the impression that jurors in the case are in danger from members of the club. In general Richardson, who has an outstanding resume, acts as if Jay Dobyns is his life coach. The point of all this posturing and play acting seem to be to implant in the jurors’ minds the notion that they will be heroes if they convict the defendants who are, shout it over and over again, HELLS ANGELS.
According to Noelle Phillips of the Columbia State most of yesterday’s proceeding was occupied by Richardson’s opening oration. Richardson told the 14 jurors “They (the defendants) did this for greed. They did it for the money. They also did this because this group is a gang. It’s a criminal enterprise – the Hells Angels. They’re outlaws. They’re part of the one percent of society who do not follow the law.” Richardson also finally threw out the name of Joseph Dilulio who Phillips describes as “a former New York Mafia member.”
One battle in this trial, which is expected to continue for another six weeks, will be Dilulio’s credibility. Dilulio instigated the crimes with which the defendants are accused and he paid them to commit those crimes. Dilulio will be paid an unknown sum of at least $100,000 for his testimony. In opening statements today, Mark Baker’s attorney John Delgado began to attack Dilulio’s credibility. Delgado called the agent provocateur who manufactured the case a “scheming, scamming stealer.”
Phillips also wrote, “On Monday, (Judge Cameron McGowan) Currie had strong warnings for the defendants, their attorneys, family members and friends after Richardson said a blogger was posting information on the Internet about future witnesses, indicating someone had leaked a confidential document. Currie threatened the attorneys and their clients with contempt of court. She forbade the defense attorneys from emailing documents to their clients. Instead, the attorneys must make printed copies and sit with their clients as they are reviewed, she said.”
Currie was reacting to a story that appeared on The Aging Rebel Saturday. That article questioned the assumption that Lisa Bifield, one of the original defendants in the case and the wife of former lead defendant Daniel Bifield, will testify for the prosecution. Multiple sources, speaking anonymously, also described Richardson and FBI Agent Devon P. Mahoney as “pissed” that the same story contained the statement: “Ronald Dean Byrum Jr., who pled guilty to something as part of a sealed plea deal on January 17, probably will testify at the trial after it starts Monday. Byrum illustrates a basic axiom of motorcycle club cases, which is that the real investigation doesn’t start until after everybody is indicted.”
The Aging Rebel stands by the statements in that story. Byrum, a former member of the Southern Gentlemen Motorcycle Club was interviewed by Mahoney as recently as last Wednesday.
Richardson also announced yesterday that a “full patch member” will testify at the trial but the identity of that witness and the club into which he was patched is still secret.
This page has identified four cooperating witnesses who may be called to testify in this trial. In addition to Lisa Bifield and Byrum it is likely that James Frederick “Big Fred” Keach, a member of the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, and Trent Allen Brown who began talking to Richardson and Mahoney last June 14 will testify against their former friends.
The first prosecution witness will be Mahoney who will articulate a narrative of the case.
Class War In The New South
The debate in this trial will be over the good or evil nature of motorcycle clubs in general and of the Hells Angels in particular. Richardson was able to begin his demonization of the Angels by communicating to jurors that they were endangered in this case, by announcing that a member of the prosecution had been threatened, by keeping the jurors’ names secret and by arranging special, secure transportation for the jurors who were then led into a courthouse surrounded by armed guards.
Most motorcycle clubs describe themselves as “working men’s clubs.” Yesterday Richardson, who has been the beneficiary of both his own effort and an advantaged and lucky life, described these working men as a kind of Mafia, like the one to which Joe Dilulio supposedly belonged before the FBI started handing him checks.
“They did this for greed,” Richardson told the jury. “They did it for the money…. They also did this because this group is a gang. It’s a criminal enterprise – the Hells Angels. They’re outlaws. They’re part of the one percent of society who do not follow the law.”
Today Bruce Long’s attorney, Josh Kendrick, began the long process of separating the truth about the motorcycle outlaw frontier from the government propaganda. “They live by a different set of rules,” Kendrick said about the defendants. “There’s a little bit of outlaw in all of us. It doesn’t mean criminal.”
A Brief Philosophical Addendum
Motorcycle clubs are a uniquely American invention and they are mostly the product of the dominant American feature throughout all of our history: The wide, open spaces.
Today, the outlaw world is the last of the American frontier. It is the frontier reduced to an idea, divorced from geography, and so it has been exported to all of Latin America, all of Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Like all frontiers, it is crowded with misfits. It is violent, sexist, racist, chivalrous and sometimes brutal. Its tribes honor totems like Vikings, harpies, gunfighters, demons and Genghis Khan. In a certain light, it is the most romantic place on Earth.
Outsiders never see this frontier as it is. They see good versus evil. They never see Dick Cheney defied by Lord Byron. Mostly, police forbid outsiders to even look. News from this frontier is routinely censored by authorities or, at best, garbled beyond comprehension by ignorant and frightened reporters.
Motorcycle outlaws are undeniably the last, dramatic stand of a vanishing working class and they became what they are because of Vietnam. The Bandidos, Warlocks, Vagos, Sons of Silence and Mongols were all invented during Vietnam. This frontier was defined by highly disciplined, profoundly alienated, Vietnam Veterans who had been infected with violence, calloused against mere materialism and scorned by the nation for which they bled.
Men join motorcycle clubs out of longing and love. Motorcycle clubs are brotherhoods of men who have left themselves no choice but to stand apart from the world at large. The joy of joining a motorcycle club is the joy of crossing a wasteland to find one’s own tribe. Nine years after Daimler invented motorcycling, Stephen Crane wrote a black headline that describes this joy:I stood upon a high place, And saw, below, many devils Running, leaping, and carousing in sin. One looked up, grinning, And said, “Comrade! Brother!”
Men are saved by motorcycle clubs as they are saved by religion. Anyone who has ever ridden with a club immediately grasps the comparison. For some men a club patch is the first thing they have ever won in their lives and the experience of putting that symbol on their back is transformative. Those who were weak become strong. Those who were lost belong. The meek become bold, the reckless responsible. The older the prospective recruit the greater the accomplishment.
Outsiders, people who adore Sons of Anarchy for example, are attracted to motorcycle outlaws because they are the them that they bind in chains. They are the chaotic freedom to which disciplined and regimented civilization must never be allowed to descend. They are the show. They are the you that you wish you were when you are humiliated or overwhelmed or bullied or condescended to or made to admit that you are small and powerless.
Neither Jay Richardson nor Devon Mahoney can ever be expected to agree with these sentiments about the motorcycle club world. But over the next month and a half some of the jurors might find some common ground with the men they have been called to judge. And, therein will lie the story of this case.