The Hells Angels didn't exactly get a warm welcome to Maryland.
Last May in Calvert County, members of the state's inaugural chapter celebrated their first year of membership by attending the "Blessing of the Bikes" in North Beach. A few thousand other motorcyclists also went, for reasons of their own. But so did nearly a hundred policemen, who shadowed the Angels with sniper rifles and surveillance cameras.
Two months later, federal agents raided the chapter's clubhouse, arresting president John Beal and another member on gun and drug charges. This January in Baltimore County, two Hells Angels "prospects" were charged with attempted murder after a barroom shooting that wounded two members of a rival club, the Pagans. The Pagans, formed in Maryland decades ago, have long considered the state its own turf, and may yet strike back to protect it.
But all the news hasn't been bad for the Angels. A second Maryland chapter is well on its way to full membership in Baltimore, and will hold a fundraiser party tonight in Perry Hall. And for all the troubles down in Calvert, Beal has proven to have friends in high places. No less than a minister, a mayor and the majority whip of the Maryland House of Delegates, Del. George W. Owings III, wrote letters on his behalf to the federal courthouse.
The wide range of Maryland hospitality sums up the Hells Angels' status nationwide. Older and savvier than in the Easy Rider days of the 1960s, they now pay close attention to public relations, raising money for charities and trumpeting their patriotism, while claiming to seek only the brotherhood of the open road. With more than 2,000 members nationwide and 156 chapters abroad, they dominate the biker world. Yet, judging from five federal raids spanning 15 states since last April, the Angels and other so-called outlaw gangs are still involved in enough violence and drug dealing to attract police scrutiny wherever they ride.
"You figure that the gangs have been around since the late '40s, so in 55 years they've gone from being brawlers to guys who are sort of sophisticated criminals," says Maryland State Police Lt. Terry Katz, who has tracked the groups off and on since the mid-'70s, when he briefly infiltrated the Pagans. "So the concern for law enforcement is that the motorcycle gangs have really worked on their image. But the gangs are never going to stop their violence on their own. They live a violent lifestyle, and the lifestyle is predicated on `Everything for the club.'"
Members of targeted biker clubs would almost certainly dispute some of that characterization, but they rarely speak to reporters. Three Hells Angels declined to comment for this story. So did whoever runs the Web site of the North Beach chapter in Calvert County, referring inquiries to biker and photographer Doug Barber, also of North Beach.
Barber, a former member of the Dirt That Moves motorcycle club, runs a sympathetic Web site, www.vtwinbiker.com under his club name of "Q-Ball." Eloquent in defense of the lifestyle, he writes unabashedly of its misfit reputation, saying, "We have never felt part of mainstream society. We were singled out, then grouped with other misfits. Being outrageous, on the most part, is the only way we know how to deal with life."
When asked by e-mail about the most prevalent allegation by police - who say the outlaw gangs are major players in the methamphetamine market - Barber answers, "As with any tight fraternal group, there will be those who use the group's structure for personal gain. I do not believe that bikers are any more or less guilty of this than, let's say, the Skull and Bones Society [a Yale University club with present and former presidents among its members]. But the authorities can earmark bikers and bust them, which makes headline news."
Nonetheless, the Maryland State Police responded to the arrival of the Hells Angels by creating a regional biker task force last May. It includes representatives from Baltimore and five Maryland counties, plus local and state police in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The biggest current concern of the task force is the potential for violence among rival gangs, a possibility heightened by the formation of the new Hells Angels' chapter in Baltimore, which has drawn most of its approximately 15 members from an older club known as the Fates Assembly.
News of this development spread quickly along some of the more raffish boulevards of the city and suburbs. Sgt. Troy Ray, of the Baltimore County police, said that just before last Christmas several bars along North Point Boulevard sported signs welcoming "the Red and White," a nod to the Angels' well-known colors.