The Gang’s All Here

When a beloved brother died last summer, more than four hundred bikers thundered into San Antonio for his funeral. As they swapped stories about the old days and guzzled beer, one message could be heard over the roar of their Harleys: Bandidos forever.

April 2007By Comments

THEY BEGAN ARRIVING AT THE MISSION PARK They began arriving at the Mission Park Funeral Home in San Antonio early on a Friday afternoon. They came in packs, riding two, sometimes three abreast, their motorcycles roaring loudly enough to rattle all the funeral home’s windows.

People who worked in the nearby stores and businesses rushed outside to get a better look. One man, standing in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant, called a friend on his cell phone and shouted, “There must be a hundred of them!” A woman driving a Ford Taurus swerved to the shoulder of the road and slammed on her brakes as a group of them raced past her, missing her car by inches.

They kept coming and coming, their wind-burned faces grim and purposeful. They were dressed in steel-toed boots, jeans, and their “colors”: denim or black leather vests covered with a variety of red-and-gold patches that carried such slogans as “Loyalty is our honor,” “Our colors don’t run,” and “Expect no mercy.” On the back of every vest was a large patch of a bellicose Mexican bandit brandishing a pistol and a machete.

“It’s the Bandidos!” yelled the man in the parking lot. “The Bandidos are here!”

On this September afternoon, the members of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club were indeed in San Antonio. They had come to pay their respects to one of their early members, Luis Bonilla, a.k.a. Bandido Chuco, who had died at the age of 65 from liver cancer. They thundered into the funeral home’s parking lot, gunning their engines again and again, sending thick clouds of exhaust into the air. One Bandido popped a wheelie on his Harley-Davidson and rode on his back tire for at least thirty yards. Another raced down the parking lot, hit his brakes, leaned his entire body to the left, whipped his motorcycle around, and then raced the other way. On the back of some of the motorcycles were the Bandidos’ wives or girlfriends, known as PBOLs: Proud Bandido Old Ladies.

Standing in the doorway to the chapel, the thin, dark-suited director of the funeral home smiled nervously, his lips as pale as milk. “They promised us there would be no trouble,” he said hesitantly as the Bandidos parked their bikes and began hugging and kissing one another on the mouth—the traditional Bandido greeting.

“I love you, brother!” barked one beefy, middle-aged Bandido, wrapping his tattooed arms around a Bandido whose long gray hair was held back with a bandanna.

“Man, that Chuco was a bad motherf—er,” said another, wearing a T-shirt underneath his vest that read “Snitches are a dying breed!” “Remember how he used to say that if we ever had a problem, we should handle it very, very violently?”

The men roared with laughter. There were more bear hugs and kisses as more Bandidos arrived. A flask or two was passed around. Several of them headed into the chapel to see Chuco in his casket. He was dressed in his favorite black T-shirt, black jeans, and his Bandidos vest. He was surrounded by bouquets of flowers, along with photos of him in his younger days standing beside his motorcycle or next to topless biker chicks.

Suddenly, the Bandidos heard a sound in the distance, a distinct whomp-whomp-whomp. They walked back outside, looked up, and saw a helicopter coming right at them. It banked to the right and began to circle the funeral home. In the helicopter’s open door were a couple of men in police uniforms holding binoculars.

“The pigs are here,” someone said.

For a few moments, the Bandidos stood there, unmoving. And then, as if given a silent cue, several of them lifted their hands in unison and flashed their middle fingers toward the sky.

IF YOU WEREN’T LIVING HERE THIRTY or forty years ago, you might not have any idea who the Bandidos are. You probably have no inkling that they were once the terrors of Texas, so fearsome that when a rumor spread through a town that they were coming, people literally headed inside their homes and locked their doors.

And even if you do know who they are, you could very well have trouble believing they still exist. The Bandidos? The renegade motorcycle gang? Aren’t they long gone, artifacts of the Easy Rider era? Hasn’t the motorcycle world been taken over by lawyers, doctors, and advertising executives, all those self-proclaimed “chromosexuals” who pull back their hair in neat ponytails and don designer sunglasses and expensive black leather jackets so that they can take leisurely rides through the countryside on sunny weekend afternoons?

In fact, the Bandidos are not just hanging on, they are thriving. With an estimated 800 to 1,000 members in sixteen states (about 400 in Texas alone) and another 1,400 members in Canada, Europe, and Australia, they are now as large as the fabled Hells Angels, from California, and according to law enforcement officials who investigate the club, the new Bandidos—or at least some of them—are just as ribald and rebellious as the originals, whom the cops used to chase day and night.

In the past couple of years alone, police around the country have arrested Bandidos for everything from drug dealing and kidnapping to possession of illegal weapons and trafficking in stolen vehicles. Bandidos have been accused of threatening people who were preparing to testify against them in court and of beating and even shooting any member of rival motorcycle clubs who has either not shown them the proper respect or attempted to invade one of their territories.

Last March, for instance, police in Austin announced that the Bandidos were the prime suspects in one of the city’s most shocking murders: the slaying of a 44-year-old local motorcyclist named Anthony Benesh. Benesh, who had been trying to start an Austin chapter of the Hells Angels, had been shot in the head, apparently by an unseen sniper, as he was leaving a North Austin restaurant with his girlfriend and two children. According to homicide detective Frank Rodriguez, in the days before his murder, Benesh had been receiving telephone calls from Bandidos telling him to stop wearing a vest that displayed Hells Angels patches. Obviously, said Rodriguez, Benesh didn’t follow their advice.

But it’s not only the Bandidos’ rivals who are getting killed. Less than a month after the Benesh shooting, eight Bandidos were found stuffed inside abandoned vehicles in a field in Canada. Investigators speculated that the victims had been killed by a team of hit men as part of an “internal cleansing” ordered by the Bandidos’ leaders. “Unlike the Hells Angels, who have tried to finesse their public image with toy runs and other charity stunts,” wrote the Canadian journalist Julian Sher, who has spent years covering motorcycle gangs, “the Texas-based Bandidos have never shied away from flaunting their brutal pedigree. ‘Cut one, we all bleed,’ the Bandidos warn—and the blood has never stopped flowing, often from internal strife as much as external battles.”

Today the police seem more determined than ever to bring the Bandidos down. Federal prosecutors have gone so far as to indict Bandidos under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal statute originally intended to destroy Mafia families, claiming that the club is an “organized criminal enterprise” that resorts to “intimidation, extortion, violence and threats of violence against rival motorcycle clubs” to maintain its “power, territory and profits.” This past August, the federal government also admitted in a court filing that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with “other investigative agencies,” was carrying on “active investigations” into the club. And according to the law enforcement gossip mill, at least one of those investigations is now focused on Texas, where all the Bandidos’ national officers live.

Yet as they made abundantly clear at their gathering in San Antonio, the Bandidos are not remotely intimidated. Throughout that Friday afternoon and into the evening, Bandidos continued roaring toward the funeral home, some of them coming from as far northwest as Washington and as far southeast as Alabama. Old Bandidos who had retired from the club years ago showed up, many of them with backs and hips so creaky they were barely able to throw their legs over their choppers, and the new generation of Bandidos also came, sitting astride $30,000 custom-made Harleys with perfect pinstriping. Even a handful of European Bandidos had flown in for the occasion, borrowing motorcycles from members of the San Antonio chapter so they too could ride.

“Let me tell you one thing, my friend,” said a Bandido who had seen me standing quietly by the funeral home’s front door taking notes. He had introduced himself only as F.O., and he was one of the most intimidating-looking men I’ve ever seen. Built like a professional wrestler, he had thick black hair and a black Fu Manchu mustache, and just below his chin was a tuft of beard tied up with string and held in place by a fourteen-karat gold skull with diamonds in the eyes.

F.O. lifted one of his meaty arms and poked me so hard in the chest with his forefinger that I thought my sternum was going to crack.

“We are Bandidos forever, forever Bandidos,” he said. “We are brothers until the day we die. And no one, absolutely f—ing no one, is going to take that brotherhood away.”

I SAW MY FIRST BANDIDOS IN 1969, when I was eleven years old. My father, a straitlaced Presbyterian minister, took our family to Galveston for a vacation. We were walking in our bathing suits on the sidewalk next to the seawall when a group of them roared past us on the adjoining boulevard, their engines as loud as fighter jets.

“Get down!” my father yelled, as if he thought the Bandidos might shoot us. He ran over and put his arms around one of my sisters, thinking they might kidnap her. “Get down!” he shouted again. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

For me and my friends, the Bandidos were like the bogeymen. At recess, we swapped stories—perhaps true, perhaps not—about how Bandidos pulled out their enemies’ teeth with pliers and beat them with heavy metal wrenches. We talked about Bandidos carrying bombs with them on their motorcycles, which they used to blow up gas stations that refused to serve them. We even believed that, just for fun, they had sex with dead women.

And as far as we were concerned, the great outlaw of the state was not Sam Bass, John Wesley Hardin, or any of the other nineteenth-century gunslingers mentioned in our textbooks. It was the Bandidos’ founder, Donald Chambers—only he rode a Harley instead of a horse. To this day, I can remember the first time I saw his photo: a mug shot, printed in a newspaper, that had been taken after he had been arrested. He was as lean as a plank, with light brown hair that fell to the bottom of his neck and sideburns that went down to his jaw line, and he stared at the camera with a cocky, you’ll-never-bring-me-down expression.

“He was a hell-raiser, there was no question about that,” said his daughter, Donna Lee Chambers-Miers, who lives near Crockett and used to go barhopping with her father when she was a teenager. “When he started downing shots of Windsor Canadian whiskey, people learned real quick that he was not someone to mess with. God, Daddy was famous for the way he could throw a punch. And if that didn’t work, he’d pull out his knife and start swinging that around too.”

Chambers started the Bandidos in March 1966, when he was 36 years old and working on the ship docks in Houston. In the past, he had been a member of other Houston-area motorcycle clubs, but they had bored him. He told his friends that he was naming his club the Bandidos, in honor of the Mexican bandits who refused to live by anyone’s rules but their own, and he began recruiting his first members not only out of Houston but also out of the biker bars in Corpus Christi, Galveston, and San Antonio.

“Don wasn’t looking for people who fit into what he called ‘polite society,’” said one of Chambers’s first members, Royce Showalter. Showalter, his white hair long and braided, is now sixty years old, living in San Antonio on disability payments and barely able to walk because of past motorcycle accidents. But when I spoke to him, he still smiled brightly at the memory of those early days when Chambers came into his life. “He wanted the badass bikers who cared about nothing except riding full time on their Harley-Davidsons. He wanted bikers who lived only for the open road. No rules, no bullshit, just the open road.”

In that era there were already a number of hard-core biker clubs scattered throughout the country, including the Outlaws, the Pagans, and, of course, the Hells Angels, which had been formed shortly after World War II. Those clubs called themselves the One Percenters, a phrase stolen from a former president of the American Motorcyclist Association who once declared, after a rumble between two motorcycle clubs in California, that 99 percent of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens and 1 percent nothing more than “outlaws.” The Hells Angels were particularly notorious: The year Chambers started the Bandidos, soon-to-be-famous journalist Hunter S. Thompson published Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a book that detailed the club’s violent, drug-fueled adventures.

“All of us read it to get some ideas on what we should be doing,” said Showalter. “And then we looked at one another and said, ‘Hell, we can do a lot better than these guys.’ ”

By the early seventies, Chambers had more than one hundred members, many of whom were restless young Vietnam veterans who, in the words of one Bandido I spoke to, “had gotten bored sitting at home trying to be nice after the government had taught them how to be so bad.” The original Bandidos had wild, unruly hair, scraggly beards, huge tattoos, and cigarettes sticking out of their mouths, and they went by such nicknames as Revolver, Pecker, Deadweight, Rawhide, Coonass, and Crankcase. One member was nicknamed Log Cabin because he loved drinking whiskey from a Log Cabin syrup bottle. Although the club was made up mostly of white males, Chambers welcomed Hispanics, and for a couple of years, there was one black man who rode with the club. His nickname was Spook.

In some ways, oddly, the Bandidos were not all that different from any other fraternal organization. Just like the Rotary Club, each chapter was required to have a weekly meeting where attendance was taken and dues paid. Just like the Lions Club, its members had vests and were given rules about wearing them. (A Bandido was required to wear his vest whenever he rode his motorcycle. Conversely, if he was in a car, he had to take it off.) Like the Elks, the Bandidos had their own clubhouses, and like the Masons, they had their own initiation rites.

But that’s where the comparisons ended. Consider, for instance, the gold-colored “courtesy card” that Chambers printed up for his members to give to “citizens” (the word they used to describe nonmembers). Embossed in red at the top of each card was the Bandidos’ ominous motto: “We are the people our parents warned us about.” In the lower left corner were the initials “FTW” (for “F— the World”). And in the middle of each card was the phrase “Bandido by profession, Biker by trade, Lover by choice, You have just had the honor of meeting …,” which was followed by that particular member’s signature.

Or consider the Bandidos’ initiation rites. Once a new member received his Bandidos vest, he was ordered to lay it on the ground. The other members of his chapter then urinated, vomited, and defecated on it. The new recruit was then required to put the vest back on and dry it out by riding on his motorcycle.

“We were so crazy back then it’s amazing we are alive,” said Showalter. “We’d go flat out on our motorcycles all day long, eighty to ninety miles an hour, and then at night, we’d hold our parties far out in the woods so the cops wouldn’t find us. There was booze and drugs everywhere. We had girls show up who wanted to screw everyone. There was always someone stumbling into the bonfire and someone else shooting a pistol into the air. We’d party till dawn, go to sleep right there on the ground, and then get up, get on our motorcycles, and hit the road again.”

Then, in 1972, Chambers and two other Bandidos were arrested for shooting to death two drug dealers in El Paso over a botched sale. The police said that before killing the dealers, Chambers had made them dig their own graves. Then Chambers and the other Bandidos had set their bodies on fire before burying them.

Chambers was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison, leading some police officials to speculate that the Bandidos, without their founder, would disband. But his right-hand man, Ronnie Hodge, another former Houston dockworker, who was the size of a grizzly bear, took over and did not make the slightest attempt to tone down the Bandidos’ renegade image. Throughout the seventies, they were arrested for dealing drugs, running prostitution rings, extorting money from the owners of roadhouses and strip joints—even operating illegal pit bull fights.

“Yep, we were the bad boys,” said one of the most infamous Bandidos from those years, 63-year-old Franklin “Stubs” Schmick, who now lives in East Texas with his Old Lady of the past fifteen years, Barbara “Dummy” Schmick, a chatty, sassy woman who, during the seventies, was renowned among the Bandidos for her bombshell looks and her extracurricular activities at an Austin nude-modeling studio. “I’ll be honest, it was a lot more fun back then. The police had no cell phones and no video cameras, which meant we all had a much better chance of getting away.”

IN THE LATE SEVENTIES, the Bandidos became suspects in two of the state’s most publicized shootings: the attempted slaying in 1978 of James Kerr, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio who was reportedly conducting an investigation into the club, and the 1979 assassination of U.S. district judge John Wood Jr., of San Antonio, who was known as Maximum John for his merciless sentences for drug offenders, a few of whom were Bandidos.

Kerr identified three Bandidos in a police lineup as his possible assailants. In the Wood case, more than one hundred Bandidos were subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury. Suddenly, the club found itself in the national spotlight: In Newsweek, they were described as “the single greatest organized crime problem” in Texas, and on ABC’s 20/20, a young Geraldo Rivera noted that seven of the club’s eight national officers had criminal records “involving drugs, guns, or violence.”

Unrepentant, the Bandidos insisted that they had not shot the prosecutor or the judge and that the only reason they were being harassed was because of their anti-establishment posturing. (In the Newsweek article, a defiant Hodge snarled, “We’re the last free Americans.”) And when members of an El Paso crime family, the Chagras, were eventually convicted of hiring hit men to shoot Kerr and Wood—Wood’s killer was Charles Harrelson, the father of actor Woody Harrelson—the Bandidos promptly celebrated by throwing huge parties and racing around on their motorcycles, shooting their middle fingers at just about everyone they came across, including cops.

Furious, law enforcement agencies redoubled their efforts to bring the club down. Some police departments formed motorcycle gang task forces. The FBI went so far as to buy a biker bar in Dallas, bringing in as the “owner” a New York agent who tried to find out what the Bandidos were up to.

In 1985, after a long undercover investigation, hundreds of federal agents and local police officers in eight states arrested nearly one hundred Bandidos and their associates on charges of narcotics trafficking. (To round up the Bandidos in Lubbock, the police used an armored personnel carrier to bust into their fenced compound.) And in 1988 almost all the Bandidos’ national officers, including Ronnie Hodge and Stubs Schmick, who was then a national vice president, were arrested by federal agencies for conspiring to bomb homes and automobiles belonging to members of the Banshees, an upstart Dallas motorcycle club.

“The feds thought that they finally had us with that one, that there would be no one left to run the club,” chuckled Schmick, who, along with Hodge, was given a five-year sentence. “But by the time we headed off to prison, we already had the next group of leaders ready to go. That’s the Bandido way.”

IN 1998 THERE WAS TALK ONCE AGAIN that the Bandidos had suffered a fatal blow: Craig “Jaws” Johnston, who was then the Bandidos’ president, and other leaders pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that they had conspired to manufacture and sell as much as a thousand pounds of methamphetamine. But the Bandidos kept right on growing, opening new chapters throughout the country. The club also continued expanding into Canada, Australia, and Europe, where young motorcyclists were enamored of the Bandidos after reading about their exploits in biker magazines. The European Bandidos proved themselves to be just as aggressive as their American counterparts, setting off a turf war with Europe’s Hells Angels and at one point firing anti-tank grenades at two Hells Angels clubhouses in Denmark.

The Bandidos were so brazen that they even started their own Web site. It contained a list of all the Bandidos’ chapters, photos of famous dead Bandidos such as Chambers (who died of cancer in 1999) and Hodge (who died of heart disease in 1992), and a page where supporters and wannabes could purchase Bandidos T-shirts, clocks, coffee cups, tote bags, calendars, and thong panties. (Written on the front of the panties was the phrase “Support Your Local Bandidos.”)

In 2005 the feds made their next assault on the Bandidos’ empire. They hit Johnston’s successor, George Wegers, who lived in Washington State, and 27 other Bandidos and their associates in that area with a RICO indictment. The specific charges were hardly flashy: Wegers and the others were accused of such varied crimes as stealing motorcycles, kidnapping a rival motorcycle club member (the kidnapping lasted a day), and conspiring to kill a disloyal Bandido associate who was suspected of meeting with federal agents (the killing never took place). Defense attorneys criticized federal prosecutors for stitching together a racketeering case based on minor felonies and misdemeanors. Still, the evidence was strong enough that 18 of the Bandidos, including Wegers, agreed to plea deals in return for short prison sentences.

And as soon as Wegers was gone, the feds quickly began circling his successor, Jeff Pike, who lives just north of Houston. “It’s only a matter of time,” a highly placed Texas law enforcement official told me last spring. “Every man who’s ever been president of the Bandidos has been brought down, and it’s only a matter of time before Mr. Pike gets brought down too.”

On an impulse, I sent an e-mail to the Web site, asking if the 51-year-old Pike would agree to an interview. I figured I wouldn’t hear from him. A couple of undercover police officers who follow the club had told me that Bandidos officers never discuss anything with “citizens.” “They’re not going to be real receptive to a reporter showing up,” one officer said. “You ask one wrong question, and you could be in for an ass-kicking.”

But a couple of weeks later, Pike called. “I hope you don’t believe all that bullshit the feds are feeding you,” he said in a surprisingly cheerful voice. “I’m just a clean-cut American guy who loves riding his motorcycle. You’d be surprised. I’m almost always in bed by ten p.m. Come on down, I’ll talk to you.”

For a second, I didn’t know what to say. “You’re going to let me come to your house—the head of the Bandidos?” I asked.

Pike laughed out loud. “Oh, hell, it’s not like it’s any secret where I live. The cops drive by here just about every day just to see what I’m up to. The Houston FBI agent who investigates us has called me so many times that I’ve got his number on my speed dial. We’ve gotten to know each other so well that I once met him at a Denny’s for a cup of coffee to answer his questions.”

A few days later I drove into a well-kept neighborhood near the Woodlands residential community. I headed down a street containing mostly sprawling ranch-style homes on large lots, at least a couple of acres in size. Toward the end of the road was Pike’s property.

I assumed I would be met by one of his sergeants at arms, eyeing me suspiciously, maybe with a handgun sticking out of the back of his pants. There was a tall front gate with a “Go Away” sign attached to it, but it was wide open. I headed down a dirt road, drove past a stand of trees, and saw an unfinished two-story frame home, about 3,500 square feet. Standing before the home was a handsome, strapping man. He had no visible tattoos and no facial hair except for a neatly groomed goatee, and his crew cut was flecked with gray. He was dressed in blue denim shorts, a white T-shirt, and tennis shoes with white socks. He looked like just another middle-aged man who had spent the morning working in the yard.

“You’re Jeff Pike?” I asked.

“You got him,” he said, shaking my hand and giving me a confident grin.

For a while, we admired his house, which he was building himself; one side of the upstairs had floor-to-ceiling windows and a long balcony. Pike, who’s divorced, told me that although he would be living in it alone, he wanted it to be big enough that his two kids would have a place to stay when they came to visit him from college.

I stared at him. “Kids in college?”

“They’re at a major university right here in Texas,” he said, grinning again. (To protect their privacy, Pike asked me not to name the school.) “You know, we’re not all that different than anyone else. We have families. We take our clothes to the dry cleaners. And we all go to work. We’ve got guys who own their own businesses, guys who work for oil companies, guys who are in the computer industry. Up in Washington, one of our Bandidos is an engineer at Microsoft.”

He showed me his bicycle, which he rides eleven miles a day to stay in shape, and then he led me into the first floor of his house, which was basically a garage containing a couple of vintage automobiles and motorcycles that he was restoring. A few years ago, Pike owned a large street-rod shop in Tomball. Now, he said, he works here alone, restoring and customizing vehicles for select customers—“including a local constable, who knows I do good work,” he said with a smirk.

In one corner of the garage were his Harley-Davidsons. One was a black 1988 Softail Custom. The other he had built himself to look just like a chopper out of the seventies, complete with an elongated Springer front end, high handle bars, and chrome pipes. Next to the Harleys was his Bandidos vest, hanging from a coat rack.

“There’s my stuff,” he said, handing me a bottle of water.

Pike told me that he had been an altar boy at a Catholic church in California, where he was born and raised. But by his teenage years, he had discovered “cigarettes and girls,” and he also became fascinated with motorcycles when he saw a pack of Hells Angels flying down a road. “It was all chrome and noise,” he said. “It was just something you don’t forget, like a cowboy seeing his first train.”

He dropped out of high school, and in 1973 he moved with a buddy to Texas—“partly because the drinking age was eighteen.” A couple of years later, when he was twenty years old, he bought a big Harley Panhead. “Everyone said to me, ‘Lock it up. The Bandidos live here, and they love to steal motorcycles.’ ”

Eventually, Pike met some Bandidos at a Harley shop in Houston and at the strip joints on Gessner Road, and in 1979 he became a “prospect.” He quickly moved his way up in the club, becoming president of one of Houston’s chapters in 1988 at the age of 33 and a national vice president eleven years later. For a Bandido, he was relatively clean, his rap sheet consisting of just two crimes: In 1987 he paid an $800 fine after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge (he admitted stabbing a man who was arguing with him at a party), and in 1992 he received twenty months deferred adjudication after being charged with illegally wiring his house in order to steal electricity from the city of Houston.

But the fact was that few of the new Bandidos were compiling spectacular rap sheets. “These are not your father’s Bandidos,” said Kent Schaffer, a well-known Houston attorney who has been defending the club for 23 years. “Yes, they love riding fast. They love the tough biker persona. They are not Boy Scouts, but they are not outlaws. They are not getting on their bikes and looking to commit crimes. About the only thing they get these days are speeding tickets.”

Although federal investigators in the 2005 RICO indictment claimed that Bandidos were sometimes required to pay the club a “road tax” (a percentage of their proceeds derived from criminal activities), Ed Winterhalder, a former Bandido from Oklahoma who quit the club in 2003, told me that only 10 percent of today’s Bandidos make a living through crime. “And what they do is not organized crime authorized by the club,” he said. “They trade guns and stolen bike parts. They do some minor drug deals. They might do a burglary here and there. But that’s it.”

On the other hand, said the highly placed Texas law enforcement official, Bandidos have a tendency to turn violent, especially during confrontations with other motorcycle clubs: “What you have to remember is that these men don’t become Bandidos because they are simply motorcycle enthusiasts. They become Bandidos because they love being known as the badasses. And when you get a bunch of men like that together in one club, you better watch out, because there’s no telling what can happen.”

And the police certainly had their doubts about Pike. In surveillance photos, they saw the “Expect no mercy” patch on his vest, which is the Bandidos’ equivalent of the Purple Heart, given to any member who has drawn blood or spilled his own blood in defense of the club. Their suspicions about him only deepened after the Benesh and the Canadian affairs. The Austin police, in particular, wanted to know if he had ordered the killing of Benesh as a way to send a message to all motorcycle clubs about what he would do to anyone he found moving into Bandidos territory. Canadian authorities were curious to learn if Pike had ordered the shooting of the eight Bandidos to remind other members just what would happen to them if they too turned against the club.

Pike, however, did not seem the slightest bit defensive when I mentioned the cops’ theories. “I know they’re trying to pin everything on us,” he said. “But we’re not out there shooting people, for God’s sake. None of my guys shot some goofy Hells Angels wannabe who meant nothing to us, and as for that Canada mess, I didn’t have any contact with that chapter up there for weeks before those killings. I have no idea what happened to any of them.”

Pike sighed and tossed his empty bottled water into a trash can. “Why can’t the feds just accept the fact that we’re a bunch of old bikers who love to get together and have some fun? Why don’t they start chasing real criminals, like those kids in street gangs who scare the shit even out of me, instead of following us everywhere we go, tapping our phones, and trying to destroy us with a bunch of made-up charges?”

For the first time, Pike’s smile faded and his eyes narrowed slightly. “You know, if the feds spent as much time investigating a police department as they do investigating us, they’d eventually catch someone breaking a law. But would they call that entire department a criminal enterprise? Would they say, ‘All police officers commit crimes,’ the way they tell reporters like you, ‘All Bandidos commit crimes’? Hell, no.”

BY SATURDAY MORNING, AT LEAST FOUR HUNDRED Bandidos were in San Antonio, gathered in the parking lot of an evangelical church for Chuco’s funeral. The police helicopter also showed up, circling clockwise, and an unmarked van with darkened windows stopped across the street. A Bandido scout went over to check out the van and came back to report that it too was filled with police officers, one of whom was taking photos with a high-powered camera.

Bandidos are not exactly Bible-thumpers. Only a few went inside the church for the service to hear Chuco’s sister deliver a tearful eulogy, concluding with the line “Oh, Chuco, I will miss your laughing and your fighting.” Those who remained in the parking lot stood around their bikes. Some of them downed beers, ignoring the handwritten signs on the church doors that read “Please, no drinking on church property.” One Bandido, pretending he had a rifle in his hands, aimed at the police helicopter and fired off a few imaginary rounds.

I strolled around the parking lot, trying to find someone to interview. Although Pike’s assistants had told a few of the members that he was letting a reporter come to the funeral, many had no idea who I was. “Hi, how are you?” I said to a Bandido wearing a bandanna and dark sunglasses. “What’s it to you, motherf—er?” he replied, his breath smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. I attempted to eavesdrop on a conversation among some of the older Bandidos, thinking I might hear some interesting anecdotes about the club. “Jesus, my f—ing cholesterol,” one of them said. “F—ing off the f—ing charts.”

I turned around and came face to face with F.O., who had stabbed me in the sternum the day before. He hugged me so hard that all the air shot out of my lungs. “Don’t you f—ing wish you were a Bandido?” said F.O., which I later learned stood for “F— Off”; then he introduced me to two women whom he described as “my two Old Ladies”: Meja, a blond beauty who has been with him for 26 years, and Crystal, a brunet college student who has been with him for 4 years. Crystal was wearing not only a necklace with a pendant that read “PBOL” but also a leather belt that carried the stitched-in phrase “Property of Bandido F— Off.”

“I split time equally with them,” F.O. said. “A few nights at Meja’s, then a few nights at Crystal’s, then back to Meja. Not bad, huh?”

A few minutes later, I came across an agreeable, clean-cut young Bandido named Lenny Jonas. He was 36 years old, the son of one of the first members, Steve “Panhead” Jonas, who had been shot to death at a San Antonio bar in 1983. Lenny, who was married with four kids, worked for an electric cooperative in the Hill Country. He told me he didn’t see his father much when he was a boy. “But when I got older, people would talk about him—talk about his love of adventure,” he said. “So I decided to get a bike. I started meeting Bandidos. And now, five years later, here I am.”

As we talked, his wife, Nicole, walked up. She was 33 years old, tall and blond, and she was wearing a vest that had a patch on the back that read “Proud Bandido Old Lady.” “People told me I had lost my mind when I said I was going to marry a Bandido,” said Nicole, who runs a pet grooming salon in the Hill Country. “They said Lenny would be gone all the time, riding with the club to God knows where. And the truth is that I sometimes do get jealous of all the time he spends with the club. He jumps up, says he’ll be back soon, and is gone for four days. But I know he loves it so much that I would never ask him to quit.”

When Lenny was out of earshot, I asked Nicole what she thought about the allegations that the Bandidos were a criminal enterprise. “Well, if they are committing crimes, I don’t see them doing it,” she said. “But here’s the thing. When Lenny takes off on his bike, I don’t ask questions about what he’s doing. Lenny is a grown man. If he wishes to do something illegal, that’s his choice. All I ask is that he not bring it home and tell me about it. That way, if I’m ever asked to testify about anything, I can honestly say I do not know.”

After the service, all the Bandidos headed to their bikes. They knocked back their kickstands with their boots and roared off, lining up behind the hearse, two by two, the line growing longer and longer. The hearse and the motorcycles proceeded down a major boulevard, then turned into the cemetery, the sound of the bikes so deafening that other mourners who were laying out flowers for their loved ones put their hands to their ears.

When the hearse stopped, members of Chuco’s own San Antonio chapter carried his casket to the grave site. “Careful, now, goddammit, be careful,” someone said. The coffin was lowered into the ground, and a mariachi band sang “Te vas, ángel mío” (“You Leave, Angel of Mine”). A minister read a poem about a dead biker (“Can you feel the wind in Heaven, while the men hold back the tears?”), and right after he said “amen,” a friend of the Bandidos pulled up in a pickup with a keg of beer strapped to the bed. A few minutes later, another car appeared, and out popped a couple of female employees of a local nude dance club called XTC Cabaret. Wearing high heels and miniskirts, they passed out flyers and free drink tickets, telling the Bandidos that they ought to visit later that night to watch them perform.

Before long, several of the Bandidos headed to the Double Deuce, one of south San Antonio’s better biker bars. I tagged along in my rental car. When I walked in, F.O., who was there with his Old Ladies, leaned into my ear and said, “Buddy, it would behoove you to buy some beers. The Bandidos would appreciate it.”

Without saying a word, I bought a round for everyone—a total of 96 beers. The music on the jukebox cranked up, and I saw Jeff Pike by a pool table.

“Are you starting to understand?” he said.

“Understand what?” I asked.

“The brotherhood. The love we have for one another as brothers.” He paused and stared at me. “You know, I feel sorry for guys who don’t have a clue what this feels like.”

I bought another round, and then another—asking questions the entire time about Bandido life to anyone who would look my way. But soon, I realized, the Bandidos were ignoring me. They obviously had their own business to discuss. I looked at Pike, who raised his eyebrows.

“Time to leave?” I asked.

“Could be,” he said with a grin.

As I got in my rental car, I heard the familiar whomp-whomp-whomp of the police helicopter. It circled the Double Deuce—once, twice, then three times.

A few Bandidos finally came outside. They looked at the helicopter, and once again, as if given a silent cue, they lifted their hands in unison and flashed their middle fingers toward the sky.

Photographs by Wyatt Mcspadden

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