TAMPA — In the 1980s and '90s, the Outlaws Motorcycle Club was the alpha biker gang in Florida, responsible for drug dealing and gun running, decapitations and torture. Then its leadership was decimated by a series of prosecutions, and the gang seemed to slip quietly out of sight.
But after the May 17 massacre in Waco, Texas, when a battle involving as many as six biker gangs resulted in nine deaths and 170 arrests, a disquieting truth emerged: Biker gangs remain dangerous and widespread, including here in the Sunshine State.
They have staked out turf across Florida. The Outlaws are still the dominant club, strongest in South Florida but with chapters in Tampa and St. Petersburg. The Warlocks have a base in Orlando, and claim the eastern part of the state. The Pagans, a rival gang, have a chapter in Pasco County. The Mongols, a Los Angeles gang, have also been known to operate in the Tampa Bay area.
The big difference today, experts say, is that the gangs are more secretive about their illicit activities. And smarter.
"After all the public attention they got in the '80s and '90s, they went underground," said Jim Dillman, a regional intelligence investigator with the Collier County Sheriff's Office, who specializes in biker gangs.
"But it's just a matter of time," Dillman said, "until something blows up."
• • •
They call themselves "1-percenters." It's a moniker rooted more than a half-century in the past, when the American Motorcycle Association declared that 99 percent of bikers were law-abiding citizens. The remainder have since embraced their outlaw status.
In Florida, there are an estimated 800 to 1,000 active 1-percenters, Dillman said.
"Some members come and go because these guys go back and forth a lot," said Scott Etheridge, an intelligence supervisor in Tampa for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The gangs are no longer as open and boastful about their violent criminal acts, Etheridge said. And many of their members have day jobs, running tattoo shops, strip clubs or tow yards. A few are said to be lawyers or even doctors.
But some things haven't changed. They still hold their club patches as sacred. They still make money selling drugs and moving guns.
"I think the biggest lesson they have learned is to be very discreet in how they do their business now," Etheridge said. "These guys are fairly savvy, believe it or not."
The last major local biker gang spectacle was the 2001 federal racketeering trial in Tampa of Harry "Taco" Bowman, the Outlaws' former international president. He is serving two life sentences.
But gangs have still made local headlines, from time to time. In 2005, federal agents raided a house on W Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa that was said to be an Outlaws clubhouse and seized boxes full of evidence. After that, the house went dark.
And rumors persist of a new Outlaws clubhouse in the area of Linebaugh Avenue and Gunn Highway in Tampa. On their Florida website, the gang claims to maintain an active chapter in Tampa.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says some biker gang members live in the county, but deputies haven't had problems with them, Maj. J.R. Burton said. They are unaware of any active clubhouses.
There are signs elsewhere in the state that outlaw biker clubs remain active. In 2012, two Warlocks gang members were killed in a shootout with another chapter of the same gang in Winter Springs. The next year, federal prosecutors in Jacksonville took on a drug-trafficking case against a member of the Outcast motorcycle club, which they portrayed as the all-black offshoot of the all-white Outlaws.
In St. Petersburg, a nondescript two-story gray stucco house on 18th Avenue S is known as an Outlaws hangout. St. Petersburg police said they are aware of the gang's presence there, but have not had any problems with them.
A shoulder-high wall lines the back yard, where a banner reading "Outlaws" can be seen hanging from an awning. Another sign reading "AOA" (an abbreviation for American Outlaws Association) faces the street.
On Tuesday evening, a half-dozen motorcycles were parked on grass adjacent to a wall that shields the home's front door. A sign on the other side warns, "No drinks beyond this point."
When a reporter rang the doorbell, two men appeared over the backyard wall. One wore an eye patch. Two others appeared behind a black screen door in a foyer where cases of beer were stacked.
"Other motorcycle clubs might talk," one man said. "But the Outlaws — we don't want a story about us."
• • •
Talk to a 1-percenter these days, and you're likely to hear glowing portraits about what the club does. They might tell you about members gathering to build houses or collect toys for kids. They do it to enhance their public image. But the truth, experts say, is much darker.
Blake Boteler saw it. An ATF agent, he went undercover in the late 1990s, befriending several members of the Sons of Silence in Colorado. Over two years, he infiltrated the club, attaining the status of a full member.
"You talk to these guys and you're going to get a bolstered story that they're just a club," Boteler said. "They have earned it through blood to wear that rocker (patch)."
By the end of his run, Boteler had assembled enough evidence for U.S. attorneys to bring indictments against 56 Sons of Silence.
The ATF has cut back on its efforts to infiltrate outlaw gangs. It's too labor intensive, and the gangs are much better at rooting out undercover agents. These days, gangs run background checks on prospective members.
Gene Marra had wanted to be a member of the Pagans since he was a kid. By his early 30s, he looked the part — brawny, with tattoos adorning his chest and arms. He rode Harleys for fun and wore vests to look cool.
"Pagans were very extreme people," he said. "If you think you're crazy, there was always someone there to show you up."
But it wasn't until the New Jersey native moved to Pasco County as an adult that he got the opportunity to join his club of choice. He lingered in places where the local Pagans convened. Like him, a lot of them had regular jobs and families. Like him, a lot of them needed something to do.
They took him in as a "prospect" in 2005. After seven months, he was voted in as a full member. Eventually the club named him its "sergeant at arms." It came with a heavy price. To climb the ranks, he had to do whatever the club leaders wanted him to do. That could mean fighting other club members or people in rival gangs. It could mean engaging in a range of criminal activities.
Marra doesn't talk specifically about crimes he witnessed. But he does talk about the moment he knew it was time to get out.
An argument led to a fight in a bar. His teeth were knocked out. His eye socket was fractured. Around that time, he said, a new club president took over. Lies were told. Members became bullies.
"I go to work. I pay my bills," he said. "Why should I go to jail over someone else committing a criminal act?"
He turned in his club patches. But backing out wasn't easy. In the two years that followed, he endured what he described as a heavy campaign of intimidation. Pagans showed up at his house unannounced. They demanded his motorcycle, which he refused to give up. His wife started packing a gun.
Things quieted down, but even now, his past sometimes catches up with him.
Last week, between his daily runs as a FedEx driver in Tampa, he took in news of the carnage in Waco. He still speaks highly of motorcycle clubs. He corrects people who refer to them as "gangs."
But when violence happens, he can only call it stupid.
"The clubs are evolving and they're evolving to a place I didn't really care for," he said. "When they've got no one else to bully, they bully each other."
Times news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.