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By ELAINE SILVESTRINI
The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA - Six years after a federal judge here sentenced the international president of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club to life in prison, and more than three years after the successor was put behind bars, the notorious biker gang is thriving, looking to expand nationwide and recruiting in Florida, law enforcement officials say.
As a lawyer for one of the former Outlaw leaders argues in court Thursday that he should be allowed to seek a new trial, investigators say the biker gang — one of the largest in the country and the predominant motorcycle gang in Florida — continues to violently protect its turf and engage in drug trafficking, extortion and murder.
“They’re organized crime,” said motorcycle gang expert Terry Katz, a program manager with the Maryland State Police, who estimated the Outlaws total membership at between 1,100 and 1,500 nationwide. “They’re the same as the mafia. … They’re not going to go out of business just because you take out the godfather, so to speak.”
An attorney for the Outlaws denied that the club lives up to its name and said the members are peaceful people who just want to ride motorcycles and be left alone.
The Outlaws have 13 chapters in Florida, including one each in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Authorities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties say they keep close tabs on the club, which has kept a low profile locally.
For a while after the convictions of Outlaw leaders Harry “Taco” Bowman and James Lee “Frank” Wheeler, which grew out of earlier prosecutions of Outlaws in the Tampa area, investigators say no one stepped in to take the helm of the international club. The club’s membership even briefly slipped, authorities say.
But now, motorcycle gang investigators say the club is as big as before, or even bigger. Federal agent Carlos Baixauli said a new Milwaukee-based leader — Jack Rozga, also known as “Milwaukee Jack” — has been selected to head the organization that investigators say engaged in a series of violent clashes across the nation last year with its archenemy, the Hells Angels.
“I think they’re probably in the best position that they have been in in several years,” said gang expert Steve Cook, a detective in Missouri. “I think they have a more open mind to expansion and to acquiring new territory and I think they are taking a much more aggressive stance towards specifically the Hells Angels.”
New Club On The Rise
Florida has long been Outlaws turf. In recent months, a new motorcycle club with the potential to become part of the Hells Angels, the Bruise Brothers, started chapters across Florida, including the Crystal River area and the southern part of the state, said Baixauli, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami.
Cook, who teaches law enforcement across the country about motorcycle gangs, said the establishment of the Bruise Brothers in Florida — led by some disgruntled former Outlaws — could have caused “a great deal of conflict” in the state as Outlaws fought to protect their territory.
But Jerry Theophilopoulos, a lawyer who represents the Outlaws locally, said the Bruise Brothers have disbanded.
Baixauli said the Bruise Brothers haven’t completely broken up, but their membership plunged dramatically after an incident in Delray Beach a couple of months ago in which one of their members was severely beaten by “other people on motorcycles.” Baixauli said authorities can’t directly say who carried out the beating. Cook said another area of potential conflict is in the Panhandle near the Alabama border, where another gang, the Texas-based Bandidos, is trying to establish itself. In the meantime, the Outlaws are looking to move into the Dallas area.
“That would be a major breach of etiquette for those two groups,” Cook said. The Bandidos and the Outlaws have gotten along in the past, Cook said. Now, their relationship is “rocky at best.”
While the gang is strong in other areas, such as Illinois and Michigan, “Florida is one of the only places that they have solely occupied and controlled,” Cook said.
Although there are other, smaller motorcycle gangs in the state, Cook said, none of them have been viewed as a threat. “It comes down to dollars and cents,” Cook said. Whether it’s motorcycle theft or drug distribution, it’s a threat “if you have someone squeezing into that, cutting into that piece of the pie. At the end of the day, it’s not about riding motorcycles, it’s about making money.”
Ex-Leader Wants New Trial
Bowman, the Outlaws leader who was sent to prison for life in 2001 after being convicted in Tampa of conspiracy, racketeering and drug charges, is set for a hearing in U.S. District Court here Thursday as part of his bid to have his conviction and sentence overturned.
Bowman claims federal prosecutors withheld information they were required to turn over to the defense. Prosecutors have not directly responded to Bowman’s allegations, but they argue in court papers that the defense motion was filed too late. U.S. District Judge James Moody will consider Thursday whether to allow Bowman’s motion to go forward.
Bowman’s successor, Wheeler, was sentenced to life in prison in Ohio after receiving a 16 1/2-year sentence in federal court in Tampa in 2004.
These days, investigators say all that happens at the Tampa clubhouse are the monthly gatherings, which the Outlaws call “church meetings.” In St. Petersburg, the clubhouse is mainly known for its large-scale, but peaceful, annual Mother’s Day gatherings.
The Outlaws clubhouse on Hillsborough Avenue was searched by the FBI in December 2005, but no one was ever charged. Theophilopoulos said the raid was staged for the media. “This was supposed to be a big drug bust,” Theophilopoulos said. “They get there, and they blow the doors down and used percussion grenades. What did they find? Nothing.”
Hillsborough County sheriff’s Detective Mike Gibson said the Outlaws are a presence in the area, but nothing like they were in the 1960s and ’70s, when they “were just everywhere and harassing people and things like that.”
In 1976, the club’s hangout on 93rd Street was the scene of a shootout when deputies went there to serve a warrant. A gang member and three officers were shot; all survived. One officer was paralyzed from the waist down.
In 1981, the FBI and Tampa police raided the north Tampa house looking for Outlaws who had been indicted for “white slavery.” They eventually were convicted for running an interstate prostitution ring, using proceeds from a brothel in Mississippi to finance their operations in Tampa.
There were other raids, more trials and dozens of convictions in the 1980s and ‘90s. Most police who worked in Tampa in that time period had a run-in at some point with the Outlaws. By 2000, the U.S. attorney’s office in Tampa was prosecuting and winning convictions of the highest-ranking Outlaws.
Since Wheeler’s trial, with the exception of the 2005 search, the Outlaws have mostly kept out of the news in Tampa, while law enforcement experts say the groups criminal activities have thrived around the country.
Theophilopoulos said members of the local Outlaws would not talk to a reporter because they don’t want the negative attention often brought by media coverage. No one in the media, he said, is interested in the positive things done by the club, including fundraisers for burned children and toy stocking runs for the Salvation Army.
“They’re private people,” he said. “If all the press wants to publish is the negative stuff, they have a policy where they have no comment.”
The attorney said gang investigators like to foment problems between the Outlaws and the Hells Angels in order to get funding and “justify their pay, their jobs.”
“They want the Outlaws and the Hells Angels to be at war because if they get along, they lose their intelligence,” Theophilopoulos said. “If they get along, you’re not going to have people committing crimes and getting caught.”
When someone gets get caught committing crimes, the attorney continued, he will “become a snitch because he needs to save his own hide.”
Theophilopoulos denied that the clubs are involved in drug trafficking. He said the clubhouses actually all have signs telling people drugs are not allowed inside.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Outlaws were “renegades,” Theophilopoulos said. “Those times have changed. [Now] it’s just a normal lifestyle. They like to ride motorcycles. The majority of these members have no arrest record, no criminal record whatsoever. What’s happened is the stigma of what occurred in the Sixties and Seventies … has stuck with them. … All they want to do is have their peace, get along and ride motorcycles.”
Information from Tribune archives was used in this report. Reporter Elaine Silvestrini can be reached at (813) 259-7837 or firstname.lastname@example.org.