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No Country For Bikers

Lawmakers are trying to drive biker gangs out of Utah



Pigpen, Harpo, Savage and Caesar are behind the bar, their ashes sealed inside the cylinders of the panhead and shovelhead motorcycles that they loved and rode while they were alive.

These urns stand guard inside the red, gold and black brick house on Edison Street near 900 South that is home to the Barons Motorcycle Club, where a glowing soda-pop machine dispenses cans of beer, and on a Thursday night at 5 p.m., Barons are trickling in, the growling of Harleys marking their arrival.

Founded in 1966, the Barons were for decades one of two well-known local motorcycle clubs. The other is the Sundowners.

Now, though, motorcycle clubs are proliferating in Utah. According to law enforcement, the number of motorcycle club members in Zion has shot up by 300 percent in the past five years.

Barons President Ron “Dirtbag” Simmons - AUSTEN DIAMOND
  • Austen Diamond
  • Barons President Ron “Dirtbag” Simmons

There is little hard data to support this figure, though from his perch, Ron "Dirtbag" Simmons, president of the Barons, says this number looks more like 1,000 percent.

"There used to be three patch clubs: us, the Sundowners and the Vietnam Vets started, then came the Bandidos, and now there's 10 [to] 15," says Dirtbag, who, along with Barons Vice President Lebowski and former Barons president Parker, was interviewed on a Sunday morning over breakfast at a bar on State Street. "Every day I see another patch."

But besides having more bearded, leather-jacketed, patch-wearing, motorcycle-riding men on the streets of Utah, the presence of these clubs has resulted in little trouble.

No one is more aware of this than the Barons, which, its ranking officers say, is a lot like a club that a pack of children would build in the backyard: a group of people who think alike, live alike and share a passion for motorcycles.

Dirtbag says the rough and carefree days of the 1960s, fun as they were, are simply a thing of the past.

"Times have changed," he says. "And there are probably some groups that still try to abide by that '60s mentality, and it just doesn't work."

But, struck by the increasing number of motorcycle clubs in Utah, some in the law-enforcement community have resolved to take a stand.

In July, during a meeting of the state legislature's Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Interim Committee, lawmakers fielded a nearly hour-long presentation from Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Lane Critser, who told them that outlaw motorcycle gangs are on the rise in Utah. He also related a string of titillating stories about violent outlaw motorcycle gangs, known as OMGs.

But none of the shootouts, sweeping drug-trafficking arrests and gun-running stories happened in the Beehive State.

Critser acknowledged as much early on during the hearing, saying that the only large case he's ever heard of in the state of Utah involving motorcycle gangs came in 1999 when several Sundowners were indicted on various federal charges.

But Critser went on to detail multiple harrowing episodes across California and Nevada that he has been involved with. Many of these large arrests involved national motorcycle clubs like the Bandidos, Mongols, Vagos and Hell's Angels—all of which have chapters in Utah, with the exception of the Hell's Angels.

It is this migration into Utah in recent years by national clubs that has law enforcement on its toes. Critser said at the July meeting that these clubs are making a play for dominance in Utah.

"It's like a gold rush," Critser says. "Everybody's trying to get here and establish domination over the state so they can run a variety of criminal activities and make the money in the state."

Comments like this from Critser, however, aren't anchored by statistics.

According to a lieutenant with the state's Department of Public Safety, despite the rising numbers of motorcycle clubs and members, no uptick in outlaw motorcycle gang crime has occurred in Utah.

"Right now there isn't any solid data to show that more crime has been committed by outlaw motorcycle gangs," says Lt. Jared Garcia, who noted that motorcycle gangs, like all gangs, see increasing numbers right along with an increase in the population as a whole. And in Utah, the population is booming.

Critser didn't return calls seeking comment.

“We’re going to make it known that you’re not coming to Utah and causing problems. We’re not going to stand for it here.” -Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield
  • “We’re going to make it known that you’re not coming to Utah and causing problems. We’re not going to stand for it here.” -Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield

But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who put the "gang issues" matter on the agenda, promises to introduce gang legislation in the upcoming session that he says will include language on motorcycle gangs.

Since that July meeting, Ray has met with representatives from several motorcycle clubs, including the Barons. Dirtbag says that Ray told him that, when his proposed law is penned, Dirtbag will get to take a look before lawmakers do. For this, the motorcycle clubs are glad.

The Barons have a long history of sticking up for themselves, whether that is in a barroom, or on the floor of the state capitol. That guy ripping down the freeway on his motorcycle, hair blowing helmet-free in the wind, can put the majority of his thanks into the laps of the Barons.

And they don't want any law to lump them in with criminal street gangs—an occurrence that would only increase the harassment motorcycle riders who wear jackets emblazoned with patches say they already face.

"That's why we're active," Dirtbag says. "Because every time I go out on a Sunday drive on my bike, to get pulled over, field-carded and get detained for an hour while they run warrant checks and all that ... it's cumbersome. It's a pain in the ass."


The Barons Clubhouse on Edison Street - AUSTEN DIAMOND
  • Austen Diamond
  • The Barons Clubhouse on Edison Street

The Barons have had their clubhouse on Edison Street since 1976. As Dirtbag walked around the clubhouse one October evening, he pointed out a spot where the club's mascot, a Doberman named Max, is buried. Dirtbag says Max used to play fetch with a 15-pound bowling ball.

"Max would run after that and grab it with his teeth, slide on his paws, and then he'd bring it back, and if you weren't paying attention, drop it on your toe," Dirtbag says.

Dirtbag spots a neighbor dog and apologizes: he has to go say hi. He addresses the dog in a sweet, high-pitched voice, trying to lure it to the fence so he can pet it.

A few minutes later, one of Dirtbag's brothers (a fellow Baron) shows up and reveals a new set of motorcycle handlebars in his trunk. "Alright!' Dirtbag barks. He explains that his brother is building him an outrageously fast bike. When it's done, Dirtbag will have six motorcycles in riding condition.

Dirtbag knows that more and more national clubs are setting up shop in Utah. Some might even contain men who break the law. But Salt Lake City is Dirtbag's home; he and the rest of the Barons live here and, just like everyone else, want to keep living here. In order to do this, Dirtbag and his fellow Barons simply get along and contribute to their community. The neighborhood, a half a block off of State Street, is one of the safest in the city, Dirtbag says. The Barons do an annual toy drive for Primary Children's Hospital and a blood drive for the American Red Cross.

This ability to get along has been noticed by Critser, who at the July meeting at the state capitol told lawmakers that for some reason, the Barons "are more of an associate of all outlaw motorcycle gangs."

"They tend to kind of host everybody," Critser says. "We're not really sure if they think they're Switzerland or what the deal is."

And Ray says that just because law-enforcement agencies haven't seen a rise in crime relating to motorcycle gangs doesn't mean it's not happening. "What you find in the OMG community is a lot of the crimes are committed against each other, so it's not reported to police," Ray says. "They police themselves; the public is caught in the crossfire."

All of this talk of violence, gun-running and drug trafficking doesn't resonate with Lebowski, vice president of the Barons.

"This isn't Sons of Anarchy," says Lebowski, who has long graying hair and arms covered in tattoos, adding that he suspects the hit FX TV show is responsible for informing Ray's beliefs. "People watch that and they think that's what happens. You realize how long we'd last if we did the stuff that they do on TV? We wouldn't last."

Ray denies that Sons of Anarchy has anything to do with his desire for a new law. And he insists that the presence of Mongols, who are presently under a federal indictment, is evidence enough that any rise in motorcycle gangs must be pre-empted by strict laws.

"You can't say, 'Look, I'm a Mongol, but Utah Mongols are pretty nice guys,'" Ray says. "If you're in an outlaw motorcycle gang, you're into criminal things."

Statements like these are exactly what have the motorcycle community worried that they'll be targeted by law enforcement just for looking a certain way.

"It's just smoke and mirrors is all that is," Lebowski says. And the Barons, he says, are not "guys that run around and do irreparable damage to the community. We're talking about guys sitting on $20,000, $30,000 motorcycles that like to ride. These are guys that are stand-ups in the community. They're not some lowlifes that crawled under a rock and decided to be bad boys."

The committee took up the question of motorcycle gangs again in October. At this meeting, Eric Stine, education coordinator for the Utah chapter of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE), told the committee that lumping motorcyclists—even ones that wear three-piece motorcycle gang patches and look tough—into the category of a criminal gang would be a lot like condemning all Catholic priests because some are pedophiles. And he reminded the committee that they, too, are in a gang.

"The other day, I was looking up the definition of 'gang,' and it's really hard when you start putting people in groups," he said. "Because, quite frankly, you are a gang of legislators based on the technical Webster definition."


Savage, an early member of the Barons leading a helmet protest ride
  • Savage, an early member of the Barons leading a helmet protest ride

One person who agrees with that sentiment is Mike Dmitrich, a former Democratic state representative and senator.

In the 1970s, the Barons found support in Dmitrich and other Democratic lawmakers in their crusade to block helmet laws.

"It was very enjoyable working with them," Dmitrich says. "All that negative stuff about motorcycle gangs really just didn't apply to them."

The abolition of helmet laws in Utah, Dmitrich says, was largely due to the Barons being able to convince lawmakers that the protective gear muffled sounds, cut back on peripheral vision and are heavy and uncomfortable to wear.

Ralph “Teach” Elrod
  • Ralph “Teach” Elrod

There was a helmet law in Utah in the early '70s, but according to Ralph "Teach" Elrod—a founder, former president and current member of the Barons' Nomad chapter, which places heavy emphasis on traveling and has members that don't reside in Salt Lake City—it was a patchwork of regulations that required riders to wear helmets while riding on some roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or above, but not on others. And in the mid 1970s, the federal government threatened to withhold highway funding from states that refused to enact stricter laws.

So the Barons—a fledgling motorcycle club then stocked with young men intent on partying and riding—morphed into a political machine intent on taking down helmet laws altogether.

"We were on the phone and going to meetings and doing everything we could to figure out how to fight it," says Teach, who in 2013 published a memoir, Kick Start: Memories of an Outlaw Biker. "And when it came down to the bottom line, every state in the union had folded except California, Illinois and Utah."

Most states had some type of helmet laws on the books. And in an effort to get states like Utah to institute a blanket helmet law—requiring all riders to wear helmets in all conditions—the federal government threatened to withhold 10 percent of its highway funding.

The Barons were a large reason Utah didn't give in. As Utah lawmakers considered their choices, they did so with galleries packed full of motorcyclists dangling their helmets over the railing, and the rumbling of thousands of motorcycles outside.

Teach recalls that one protest ride was so large that when he parked his bike at the capitol, he surveyed the valley below and could still see bikers turning onto State Street from roughly 1300 South, near Liberty Park, where the rally began.

W.C. Wheelz
  • W.C. Wheelz

"We wanted to make sure they didn't get a thing done until they took care of our business," says W.C. Wheelz, who as a young Baron became the club's No. 1 man in the political rabble-rousing department.

Wheelz raised money by selling "Helmet Laws Suck" bumper stickers, and found allies in lawmakers like Dmitrich and Sens. Ed Beck and Rex Black. The Barons, with help from the Sundowners, also formed the local chapter of motorcycle political-action group ABATE, which back then stood for A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.

But Wheelz says he soon realized that any victory in Utah would be short-lived if the federal government didn't stop withholding funds. Over the next several months, the Barons, with the help of the motorcycle magazine Easyriders, organized a protest ride in Washington, D.C.

In the autumn of 1975, the protest came together and several Barons hit the open road, bound east. Once there, the Barons rallied, partied and roared around the nation's capital on their Harleys with East Coast clubs like the Wheels of Soul and the Ching a Ling.

According to Teach's book, the headline in The Washington Post on Sept. 2, 1975, read: "Hundreds of bearded, bedraggled, beer-swigging motorcyclists from around the nation circled the White House and the U.S. Capital yesterday."

"The only way was to fight it head on and that's what we did," Teach says. "I think it was a pretty special time in American history."

W.C. Wheelz looks on as Gov. Scott M. Matheson repeals Utah’s helmet law in 1977.
  • W.C. Wheelz looks on as Gov. Scott M. Matheson repeals Utah’s helmet law in 1977.

The feds eventually caved, making it impossible to withhold the highway funding in lieu of stricter helmet laws. But the Barons' work wasn't done. They returned to Utah eyeballing outright repeal of the state's helmet law.

Wheelz says the lawmakers he worked with took a liking to the bikers. "They went to the wall for us to make it happen," he says. "I think I made them believers."

More than three decades have passed since the helmet law was repealed, and Dmitrich still remembers the former schoolteacher "Teach," and the "shaker" Wheelz. Once Dmitrich got behind the Barons' cause, he says, they got behind him.

After one night of making laws at the capitol, Dmitrich, who represented Carbon County, hit the Salt Lake City bars. At one establishment, Dmitrich says, he got into a "little argument." Word of the incident made it to Wheelz, who the following day told Dmitrich to let him know if anything like that happened again.

"They took care of their friends, in other words," Dmitrich says. "They were just going to make sure no one screwed with me. I have a lot of respect for them."

With the helmet law issue behind him, Wheelz, a native of Montana, grew bored in Salt Lake City. He re-enrolled in college, finishing near the top of his class, then attended law school. He now lives in Washington State.

For Wheelz, the seeds of discontent surrounding helmet laws came the first time he crossed the Montana border helmet-less into Idaho and got the runaround by cops. But he says his dislike of getting harassed by the police was secondary to a larger idea: freedom.

"I used to get on my motorcycle and I'd ride over the mountain and down across the prairie and feel the wind blowing through my hair," he says. "It was that simple. It was about feeling freedom, god, whatever you want to call it."

The thousands of bikers who swarmed the state capitol in the 1970s haven't yet paid that level of attention to Ray's promise for a new and improved gang law that he says will in part be directed at motorcycle gangs, which he considers the Barons to be.

Ray says the Barons' and other motorcyclists' political activism is less about sticking up for themselves by participating in the legislative process and more a show of "our force versus your force."

"These guys are obviously not easily intimated," he says. "They don't mind a good fight."

He believes that the presence of colors (patches on jackets)—and bikers' willingness to show up on capitol hill wearing those patches—proves that outlaw motorcycle gangs are indeed gangs, and are also brazen.

"What we're saying," Ray says, is "if you wear your colors and identify yourself with a gang, you'll be identified as a gang member."

To the Barons and Stine, Ray's words sound a lot like a "dress code" law that could unfairly lump law-abiding motorcyclists into a gang.

Stine says he's been impressed with Ray's willingness to include motorcyclists in the discussion. But he does hope Ray takes a few of ABATE's suggestions. Foremost among them, Stine says, is to build into the bill some anti-profiling language. Stine would also like to make the so-called gang list a public record, and see a path built into the law that would allow motorcyclists to rid their names from this list.

"We do need to get involved with it this year," Stine says. "We need to try to ensure that motorcyclists aren't singled out and profiled and treated as gang members because we wear the same clothing."

Ray isn't sure where his bill will end up on these matters. But he wants gang members, whether they are bikers, Bloods or Crips, to know that gangs won't be tolerated in Utah.

"We're going to make it known that you're not coming to Utah and causing problems," he says. "We're not going to stand for it here. We're not going to harass people just to harass them, but we're going to watch them very carefully and we're going to let them know we're watching them."

At the July meeting, Ray told his fellow lawmakers a personal anecdote that could be considered as one way to deal with bikers.

On a Sunday afternoon prior to the meeting, Ray was driving down the freeway, bound for a Redbox movie-rental kiosk, when he spotted a dozen Hombres motorcycle club members from Washington State. They were riding two abreast, Ray said, and were "weaving" in and out of the carpool lane. Ray said he jotted down their license plate numbers and called them in to Critser.

"That's the kind of thing, when they feel that harassment the minute they hit the state line," Ray said of his tactic.

As Critser outlined all of the ills that motorcycle gangs around the West have caused, he told a story about the Gypsy Joker, an outlaw motorcycle club, and a brush with the law nearly a decade ago in Oregon. Oregon newspapers say a Gresham, Ore., officer held 28 Gypsy Joker members at gunpoint for an hour. The bikers filed civil-rights complaints, including for unlawful search and seizure. The small town settled with the Gypsy Joker club out of court for $300,000.

Critser says efforts need to be undertaken to train law enforcement to deal with how "savvy these individuals are," and to "make sure all of [law enforcement's] ducks are in a row."

Critser did point to a few recent instances in Utah where outlaw motorcycle gangs drew some media attention. One came this past summer when the Barons held their annual run in Wasatch County. At the same time, the Rainbow Family gathering—a massive communal campout—was happening nearby. The Barons invited the Gypsy Jokers on their run, and a fight broke out between some of the Jokers and the campers. Critser says he doesn't know who picked the fight, but some of the Jokers were arrested on DUI, drug offenses and possession of deadly weapons.

In 2013, the Mongols and Vagos had a brief clash in Roy at a funeral home. According to news reports, a member of the Mongols had died in a motorcycle crash. Police had the area staked out and, at some point, Vagos showed up. Words were exchanged, but no fights occurred and no arrests were made.

In 2008, Critser says, the Bandidos had a run in Moab, and in the past five years, the Mongols took a trip to Wayne County.

But if the problem for Critser and Ray is that motorcycle clubs, gangs or outlaws are coming to Utah on bikes, Teach has some advice: Stop running advertisements on TV telling people to visit Utah.


A memorial ride
  • A memorial ride

Teach says Ray's law reminds him a lot of the 1970s, when people were simply afraid of the Barons because they were different.

Now, just as then, Teach is proud to see the Barons greeting this law head on.

"It does worry me," Teach says of Ray's plans. "I'm glad to see the club is taking a stand; standing up to stop this before it all gets started."

No, the Barons aren't Switzerland, as Critser suggested at the July meeting. They're an "outlaw" motorcycle club, with a lot of fuzziness around the exact definition of outlaw. But outlaw or not, there's a reason why decades ago, the Barons elected to not sew one patch onto their jackets that law enforcement places a special emphasis on: the 1 percent diamond patch that is widely considered to be the defining symbol of an outlaw biker.

When the vote was cast all those years ago, Dirtbag says, he voted to wear the diamond patch. But he lost, and he says now that the prevailing wisdom of the club was correct in not wanting to put a target on the back every Baron.

Barons Vice President Lebowski says the clichés of outlaw bikers highlighted on television, and in the speeches given by Critser, aren't accurate. And he wonders if the problem lies with a public that doesn't want to let go of the image of the outlaw biker.

"Things have evolved and we've changed, but society doesn't want us to change," Lebowski says. "What we've learned along the course of time is you used to be able to outrun the cops. Well, you can't outrun a radio anymore. Everybody's got a camera. I mean, come on. We know we get watched and we get photographed. We're not stupid. We know what's going on, but we've got nothing to hide."