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No Country For Bikers

Lawmakers are trying to drive biker gangs out of Utah



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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."