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Ex-Outlaw chief gets 17 years in prison

A federal judge sentenced James Lee Wheeler, former head of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, to nearly 17 years in prison on Friday.

Wheeler, 61, said nothing as he heard his fate. A jury had found him guilty last September of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and obstruction of justice.

Wheeler became the 31st Outlaw convicted in Central Florida since federal prosecutors began targeting the club in 1995. Among those convicted have been three regional presidents and the club's last two national leaders, Wheeler and Harry "Taco" Bowman.

"As long as members with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club break the law, we will continue the overall investigation," said Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

Wheeler took over as head of the Outlaws in the late 1990s, overseeing one of the largest motorcycle clubs in the United States. Prosecutors portrayed him as a notorious criminal who ran an organization "rotten to the core."

Thirteen former Outlaws testified at his trial. They told stories of violence, extortion, drug abuse and gang rivalries. Many of the former Outlaws came to court from prison cells in hope of receiving a reduced sentence for testifying against Wheeler.

Wheeler's lawyers described their client as the leader of a legitimate club who should not be held responsible for the actions of a violent faction.

After the sentencing Friday, Wheeler's lead attorney Timothy Fitzgerald wondered aloud why the government prosecutors were so intent on targeting Wheeler that they cut deals with known killers. The jury, Fitzgerald emphasized, convicted Wheeler on drug-related charges, not murder.

Fitzgerald pointed to the cases of former Outlaws David Wolf, Ronald Talmadge and Carl Warneke, who all testified against Wheeler.

"They all admitted to being involved in killings," Fitzgerald said. "And now they can get beneficial treatment from the government when it comes to how much time they serve."

The treatment afforded former Outlaws Wayne "Joe Black" Hicks and Houston Murphy further dismayed Fitzgerald.

Hicks, who testified in the Wheeler case, and Murphy have admitted to arranging the execution of Warlocks Motorcycle Club officer Raymond Chaffin near Daytona Beach in 1991.

Prosecutors asked the court to lessen their sentences for providing information and testifying against other Outlaws. Fitzgerald thought Hicks could get out of prison in the near future, especially if the government goes to bat for him.

Cole, the U.S. attorney's spokesman, said the former Outlaws who testified had chosen to admit their guilt and plead guilty. Wheeler, on the other hand, chose to go to trial.

"If you plead guilty, that can be taken into account in your favor when it comes to sentencing," Cole said. "That's the way the system works."

_ Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or