Editor’s note: This story originally published in 2012. We’re revisiting it this week as part of Karina Bland’s newsletter, “I meant to tell you.” Subscribe to her newsletter here and get more every week.
The 11-year-old girl hears the rumble of their motorcycles, rich and deep, long before she sees them. She chews her bottom lip, nervous.
They are coming for her.
The bikers roar into sight, a pack of them, long-haired and tattooed, with heavy boots and leather vests, and some riding double. They circle the usually quiet Gilbert cul-de-sac, and the noise pulls neighbors from behind slatted wood blinds and glossy front doors.
One biker stops at the mouth of the street, parks in the middle of the road and stands guard next to his motorcycle, arms crossed.
The rest back up to the curb in front of the girl’s house, almost in formation, parking side by side. There are 14 motorcycles in all, mostly black and shiny chrome. The bikers rev their engines again before shutting them down.
The sudden silence is deafening. The girl’s mother takes her hand.
The leader of this motorcycle club is a 55-year-old man who has a salt-and-pepper Fu Manchu and wears his hair down past his shoulders. He eases off his 2000 Harley Road King and approaches the little girl.
He is formidable, and intimidating, and he knows it. So he bends low in front of the little girl and puts out his hand, tanned and weathered from the sun and wind: “Hi, I’m Pipes.”
“Nice to meet you,” she says softly, her small hand disappearing in his.
Pipes — the bikers all go by their road names for security — steps back and another biker comes forward, also bent low and hand out, smiling. She has a long blond ponytail, and her name is Nytro. Next is D’Animal, his arms thick with muscles, a do-rag covering his head.
Rock, who is as solid as one, assures the little girl: “I’m really a nice guy.” She smiles. And then there’s Pumpkin and, whoa, the girl looks way up, squinting against the morning sun. “Hi, I’m Tree,” he says, and he’s as tall as one.
Sassy. Rembrandt. And then Harmony and Shiraz, and the child does a double take. Yes, there are two of them, twin biker chicks. Surely. Uno. Smiles. Tool. Mo Money. Bigg Dogg. Fat Daddy. Ghost Daddy. Father Time. And Trucker, who’s louder than all the others.
The girl chewing on her lip was abused by a relative, according to police reports — someone she should have been able to trust. He’s not in the state any longer, but the criminal case is progressing slowly, so he’s not in jail, either.
He still terrorizes her at night, even though he’s nowhere near. She wakes, heart pounding. The nightmare feels real again. She never feels safe, even with her parents just downstairs.
The unruly-looking mob in her driveway is there to help her feel safe again. They are members of the Arizona chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse International, and they wear their motto on their black leather vests and T-shirts: “No child deserves to live in fear.”
This one is very afraid.
A tough image
Even kids know that nobody messes with bikers. Bikers look big, and strong, and mean, both in real life and in how they are portrayed on television and in films. They are easy riders, sons of anarchy, not afraid of anything. And they take care of their own.
A child who has been abused by someone bigger and stronger knows too well what it feels like to be small and vulnerable. BACA shifts that balance by putting even bigger and stronger people — and more of them — on the child’s side.
And if those even-bigger and stronger people are scary-looking too, perhaps with flaming-skull tattoos, chains on their belts and scars of questionable origin, so much the better.
“The biker image is what makes this work,” says Rembrandt, 54, who is tall and wiry strong. “Golfers against child abuse does not have the same feel. The pink alligator shirt and golf shoes standing in the driveway doesn’t do the same thing.”
(No offense to golfers. Some bikers golf, too.)
What Rembrandt knows is that a biker’s power and intimidating image can even the playing field for a little kid who has been hurt. If the man who hurt this little girl calls or drives by, or even if she is just scared, another nightmare, the bikers will ride over and stand guard all night.
If she is afraid to go to school, they will take her and watch until she’s safely inside.
And if she has to testify against her abuser in court, they will go, too, walking with her to the witness stand and taking over the first row of seats. Pipes will tell her, “Look at us, not him.” And when she’s done, they will circle her again and walk her out.
“When we tell a child they don’t have to be afraid, they believe us,” Pipes says. “When we tell them we will be there for them, they believe us.”
Earlier in the day, when the bikers met in the parking lot of a nearby CVS pharmacy, Pipes reminded them to be mindful of their emotions. That means no hugging unless the child initiates it.
“Nytro,” Pipes says, raising his eyebrows in her direction. Nytro hides her face behind her hands, and everyone laughs. She’s quick to hug.
And then Pipes says, more sternly this time: There will be no crying.
“I don’t want to see any tears coming out of your eyes, and the child doesn’t either,” he says, making sure everyone is looking at him when he says it.
“Remember why we’re here: to empower the child. If you can’t handle it, keep your shades on.”
Part of the family
The little girl in the driveway needs to be able to believe. Her parents, the police and her therapist all tell her that she is safe. But it’s hard when someone you once trusted ended up hurting you.
After all the bikers introduce themselves, Pipes holds up a small vest covered in patches, just like the bikers’ but made of denim instead of leather. On one patch is the girl’s new road name: Rhythm, for a girl who dances and plays music.
“Rhythm,” she repeats, and smiles.
“This means now you’re part of our big, ugly family,” Pipes says as he helps her into the vest, first one arm and then the other.
“Speak for yourself — we’re not all ugly!” a voice calls out, and the bikers laugh.
Pipes bends low again and tells Rhythm, “If you’re afraid, you call us. Whenever you need us, we will be here.”
Rhythm nods, tears in her wide blue eyes.
He gives her a T-shirt just like the one the bikers wear. He unfolds a do-rag for her but then hesitates: “I don’t know if you want to wear it.”
“It’s cool,” Rhythm says, and turns around so Nytro can tie it on her head.
“Is that too tight?” Nytro asks. Rhythm shakes her head no and turns back around, grinning.
The girl turns suddenly, bolting from the group. She is gone, through the open garage door and into the house. Five minutes pass. And then a different Rhythm emerges, one who shed her lavender girly T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops in favor of her black BACA T-shirt, blue jeans and new biker vest.
The bikers cheer and clap.
“It doesn’t mean you go out and get a tattoo,” Trucker teases. Rhythm assures him that she’s afraid of needles, and he gives her a few temporary tattoos with BACA’s logo on them.
There is one more rite to Rhythm’s welcome into the BACA family: She gets to go on a ride with the group, and she gets to choose her bike. Whoever owns the motorcycle she picks has the honor of taking her.
Rhythm walks along the row of bikes, looking them over, one by one. She decides on a black 2005 Yamaha Road Star Midnight Edition.
Tree lets out a whoop. She picked his.
Tree is a 43-year-old father of four, a truck driver training to be a certified motorcycle mechanic. He’s so big that Rhythm can’t get her arms around him, so she reaches up and grabs hold of the arm holes of his vest instead.
Few of the bikers wear helmets, as they are not mandated by law in Arizona, but they make the kids do so. Rhythm’s is fastened in place and then she and Tree are surrounded by another half-dozen bikes. The group roars out of the cul-de-sac together.
Rhythm shouts up at Tree: “This is so cool!”
Fifteen minutes later, they are back, and Rhythm slides off the bike, taking Rembrandt’s offered hand.
“It was fun!” she announces as Smiles pulls off her helmet, and then to Tree she says, “Sorry, I probably was squeezing you really hard.”
“Thanks for going on a ride with me,” Tree tells her. “That was really fun.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Rhythm asks him. Sure, Tree says.
“How tall are you?”
He’s 6 feet 10.
“Wow,” she says. “You’d be a great basketball player.”
In just the short time the bikers have been here, not even an hour yet, there has been a change in Rhythm.
She slowly moved into the half-moon of bikers, and they closed in around her. She’s answering questions about school, the chickens out back and what kind of music she likes.
And she’s laughing.
To her parents, it is like music. Her mother wipes her eyes with her fingertips; her dad takes pictures.
“Look how bright her face is,” says Rhythm’s therapist, who is there on the driveway, too. “It hasn’t been that bright in a long time.”
Two of the bikers will be Rhythm’s “primaries,” her main contacts in the group. Sassy, 34, a mother of six and a former paralegal, and Tool, 46, a co-owner of a payment-processing company, will be hers. They will be available to her 24 hours a day by cellphone.
“Now you realize you’re stuck with all of us,” Pipes says, and Rhythm nods, smiling.
Pipes tests to see whether Rhythm understood what he meant earlier when he told her that these people are her family now. He puts his hand on Uno’s shoulder and asks her, “Who’s this?”
“Uno, my big brother,” she answers.
“Tool, my big brother.”
Pipes points: “Who’s that?”
“Harmony, my big sister.”
“Who are all of these people?” Pipes asks, holding his arms wide.
“My family,” Rhythm says firmly.
And then she hugs Pipes, burying her face in his vest: “Thank you for coming to see me.”
Sassy turns away so no one sees her tears.
And one after another, the bikers put their sunglasses back on.
Why they do it
The bikers are all volunteers, giving five, 10, 20 or more hours a week. There’s no reimbursement for gas or the time they take off work. They have to go through background checks and prove themselves to the group. But each has a reason for doing so.
Nytro is a 54-year-old mother of three, all grown now, and grandma to six. She and Rembrandt have been happily married for almost 30 years, and they run a residential and commercial painting business.
Her life was not always as sunny.
The mistreatment started at about 7, after her father left. She learned to hide in the closet to cry, because if her mom saw tears, she would hit her again. She spent years in a cycle that sent her from her mother to her grandparents and back, to social workers and foster homes and back again.
“There wasn’t anybody there for me,” Nytro says. “I know how it felt to tell people, ‘I don’t want to go back. Please don’t make me go back,’ and no one would listen to me.”
Finally, she ran away. She lived outside for a while, bathing in a lake and doing odd jobs for money to buy food. Pregnant at 17, living in a home for unwed mothers, she was asked to give up her baby for adoption.
“Hell no,” was her answer. “God gave him to me.” She promised her tiny son that she would be the best mother. At 38 now, he tells her that she made good on her promise.
Now Nytro does for children what no one did for her. If she tells a child she will be there, she’s there.
“I get to stand up for a child and say, ‘No one is going to hurt you anymore,'” Nytro says.
“If that means we die, dang it, we stand ready to be that obstacle.”
What therapists can’t do
There’s a knock at the front door, and 6-year-old Fast Track hides around the corner in the dining room.
“Who are you hiding from?” a voice floats in through the doorway, and Fast Track giggles, giving away his location.
Nytro throws her long blond ponytail over her shoulder and crouches down in the entry, arms open. Fast Track hugs her around her neck, where a black industrial filigree tattoo disappears down her shirt.
Nytro and the boy in her arms met in August for the first time with an initiation like Rhythm’s. Nytro and Rock, 47, a sculptor who works in stone — thus his road name — are his primaries.
“You’re our little brother, huh?” Nytro asks Fast Track. He nods vigorously: “I’m in the family!”
Fast Track’s father died when he was a baby. He told his uncle and grandparents that he was abused by his mom’s boyfriend. The little boy lives with his grandparents, who now are his legal guardians.
“He was scared, and he was scared for us because he was told that if he ever told anyone what happened, they would get hurt, too,” his grandmother said.
“We’d do anything to keep him safe, but he doesn’t know that,” his grandfather adds. He nods toward the bikers. “They make him feel safe, and they make him feel like we are safe.”
Fast Track’s grandfather says he learned more from Pipes and Sassy about such things as how to navigate the child-welfare system and how to file for a restraining order and guardianship than he had from the boy’s state child-welfare caseworker.
“Until we got involved with BACA, we just 100% felt lost and alone,” he says. “It’s just such a relief that there’s someone else on his side.”
Fast Track is not paying attention to what his grandparents are saying. He wants to hear Nytro whistle. She puts two fingers in her mouth and blows, sharp and loud.
“That’s really good,” Fast Track tells her. He tries it, but no noise comes out. Nytro repositions his fingers and reassures him that she couldn’t do it right until she was in eighth grade.
“I just kept practicing and practicing until I got really good,” she says, and then asks, “So how’s school going?”
Fast Track takes his fingers out of his mouth. “I took the day off,” he says. His grandmother says he is scared to go out on the playground at recess in case his abuser shows up there.
Nytro will have none of that: “If he needs us, we will go to school and be there at recess, so he can play. We will do whatever it takes.”
DeAnna Wahlheim is a licensed family therapist in Phoenix. Fast Track is the second child she has referred to BACA after hearing founder John Paul Lilly speak at a conference here a few years ago.
“There are things I can’t do as a therapist,” Wahlheim says. She can call Child Protective Services or the police, but there isn’t always enough evidence to put away an abuser. And although she can help young victims recover mentally, she can’t protect them physically.
“Just by connecting them with BACA, I know they have a support system in place that will be there forever,” she says.
“When kids are coming from a situation where they are terrorized, they need to have people say, ‘We have your back, we’re going to keep you safe,'” Wahlheim says.
She allowed Fast Track’s primary bikers and Pipes to be in her office in February while she had Fast Track participate in a therapeutic role-playing activity. The boy took a rubber sword to an inflatable punching bag, a stand-in for his abuser.
“You’re never going to hurt me no more,” Fast Track yelled.
“You’re never going to call me stupid again,” the boy said between strikes, his chest heaving. “You don’t scare me anymore.”
Pipes, a father of two, grandfather of three, admits that he teared up on his motorcycle on the way home from Wahlheim’s office: “Fast Track is finding his own strength now.”
Somebody has his back
Fast Track’s other primary, Rock, roars around the corner toward the little boy’s home.
“What’s going on, little brother?” Rock says, easing off his bike and bending low so he can hug the boy.
Despite Rock’s size — he’s 6 feet 2, bearded and bulky — kids aren’t afraid of him. In fact, his size is why Rock makes Fast Track feel so safe, his grandmother says.
Rock has two daughters, ages 12 and 18. He says he joined BACA three years ago because he wanted the camaraderie of riding in a group but with a positive purpose.
Rock calls Fast Track every week and has a special ringtone on his cellphone that alerts him when the boy calls him.
“I want him to know that we’re around. We’re always going to be around if he needs us. I think just that presence will help him understand that he has someone who has his back,” Rock says.
Fast Track stands on the top of Rock’s foot, holding on around his leg. He wants to show Rock pictures from his last go-kart race.
Rock went to watch Fast Track’s first race in January. When Fast Track spotted the biker, he ran to hug him.
But a chain-link fence separated the track from the parking lot. Rock crouched down and intertwined his thick fingers with Fast Track’s small ones through the metal links.
They pressed their foreheads together, Rock’s do-rag against Fast Track’s new helmet, and then Rock shooed the boy back to his go-kart.
As Fast Track pulled away from the starting line, he took one hand off the steering wheel to give Rock a thumbs-up.
“It was pretty cool,” the big biker of few words says, with a grin. “It was pretty cool.”
Bikers Against Child Abuse is an international non-profit with an annual budget of $200,000 and more than 160 chapters in 36 states and five countries.
But it started with just one frightened 8-year-old boy in a therapist’s office in Utah.
John Paul Lilly is a licensed clinical social worker and play therapist and a professor at Brigham Young University. In 1995, he was working with that 8-year-old boy, who was so afraid that he wouldn’t leave his house, even though it was July and the other neighborhood kids were outside playing.
The boy would do well in therapy, but then his abusers would show up at his house at night, or leave a note on his bike, warning him that they were watching. The boy stayed terrified, and Lilly stayed frustrated.
Lilly knew how the boy felt. He also had been abused when he was young. When he was 8, living in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, he was befriended by some bikers who gave him a road name: Chief.
“They became my family,” Lilly says. “I just never felt more secure than when I was with them.”
So it was instinctual, years later, for Lilly the therapist to turn to bikers he knew in the area for help with his small, scared patient.
“Bikers have a soft spot for kids,” says Lilly, 54, who has been riding since he was a teenager. “I couldn’t quote you a figure, but I know that a lot of bikers had been abused as kids.
“When they see a chance to step in and release some of their own demons, they have no problem standing up for a child. It was just such a natural fit.”
Twenty-seven motorcycles carrying about 40 bikers lined up for that first ride. By that afternoon, the boy was outside riding his bike, wearing a vest with a Harley-Davidson patch on it.
In Utah over the past 16 years, bikers have helped about 1,200 children. BACA’s work has been cited in numerous academic and scholarly journals, including Play Therapy. Lilly does speaking gigs at child-welfare conferences across the country and is speaking at the International Play Therapy Conference in Cleveland this October. He even got an invitation to the White House in 2005 from first lady Laura Bush as part of the “Helping America’s Youth” initiative. (The first lady allowed him to wear his biker vest, T-shirt, Levi’s and boots instead of a suit and tie.)
Here in Arizona, Pipes started the Maricopa County chapter of BACA in 2006 and received an official charter in 2007. The Pima County chapter got its start in 2010. Together, about 30 members juggle about 25 active cases, with about 100 children on their rolls.
The bikers must be tough, not only to protect the kids but to be able to stomach knowing what their young charges may have been through. An 8-year-old beaten by Mom; a 6-year-old molested by his mother’s boyfriend. A girl, 10, raped. They are trained by a licensed mental-health professional affiliated with the chapter. Each biker must be fingerprinted and undergo a thorough criminal-background check, the same one required for state child-welfare workers and law-enforcement officers, before they can join the group.
They are bikers, not Boy Scouts, so if the background check turns up an arrest or a stint behind bars, they can still be in the group. The crime just can’t involve children, domestic violence or something comparable. They visit children only with permission and only in pairs, so no one is ever alone with a child.
Lilly says BACA has been watched closely for a long time, both by law enforcement, who want to make sure they stay on the right side of the law, and by motorcycle clubs, who want to make sure they don’t become extensions of the police in biker circles.
Indeed, BACA members walk in two worlds. They all have jobs — in this group are an architect, a social worker, a college student, a law-enforcement officer, a paralegal, mechanics, business owners, parents and grandparents. They go only by their road names in their BACA lives; if you were to ask one what another’s actual name is, he or she likely wouldn’t have any idea. Road names are part of biker culture, but they serve a different purpose here: By never using a biker’s or child’s given name, it is less likely that an abuser could attack a biker in retribution or follow a biker to find a victim who has moved. (The Republic and azcentral.com have chosen to abide by the BACA rule.)
“We don’t hide our intentions. We’re straight up out there. We’re very clear that if you come against this child, and you get hurt in that process, that’s your problem,” Lilly says.
Because BACA’s members go by their road names and operate across the world, it is impossible to know whether there have been any physical confrontations between them and abusers, or any mishaps on motorcycles, though Lilly says there haven’t been.
“We don’t hunt anybody down. We’re just who we are. We don’t become somebody else.”
But anyone who wants to get to one of their kids has to get through them first.
Called into action
Rembrandt’s phone rang at 3:15p.m. on a Saturday. He was on his way home from his grandson’s karate tournament, about 5miles from his Mesa home.
It was Sassy. A BACA kid was in trouble.
Her road name is Music, and she’s 10. She belonged to a BACA chapter in another state but is now living in Arizona with her grandmother. That makes her Sassy’s and Rembrandt’s kid now.
Her abuser is in jail, but his family members had tracked the girl down in Arizona and were banging on the grandmother’s front door, demanding that she turn the girl over to them, shouting up at the second-floor window where the child was huddled in her bedroom. Her grandmother called BACA and then dialed 911.
The bikers know the drill well. Rembrandt called those who live closest to him — Rock, Uno and Fat Daddy. He stopped to change out of his grandpa clothes — shorts, T-shirt and sandals — and put on his biker garb — jeans, boots, leather vest, holster and handgun.
The bikers carry weapons on stakeouts only when there is a threat against a child and they feel that as citizens they also could be threatened. Otherwise, Rembrandt says, they do not wear weapons around children. He says most of the bikers are licensed to carry concealed weapons.
Rembrandt stuffed water bottles into his saddle bags and jumped on his 2000 purple-and-orange Indian Chief.
By 3:40 p.m., the four men were on their way to Music, the rumble of their bikes announcing their arrival. Music’s grandmother rushed outside when she heard them, hugging Rembrandt and giving him a piece of notebook paper with a description of the people and their license-plate number.
Sheriff’s deputies had been there, she said, and had escorted the people out of the neighborhood. But it is a public street, and law-enforcement officers just don’t have the manpower to stay for long. She feared that once the deputies left, the people would be back.
She was right. But when they did return later that evening, they saw something different: four big bikers, all wearing shades even in the dimming light, their motorcycles backed into the mouth of the driveway.
Rock had something resembling a cannon strapped to his leg; Rembrandt wore his gun on his hip.
To someone trying to mess with a little girl, a group of large, strong bikers sends a certain message, Rembrandt says. “It just has a different feel than a cop,” he says. More unpredictable, maybe.
“Cops are actually handcuffed by specific rules and laws that we are not. A cop has to work within a framework,” Rembrandt says. “You can flip off a cop. You don’t want to flip off Rock.” Just knowing that a biker doesn’t have to follow rules or honor boundaries can intimidate a person trying to make trouble.
That night, Music’s grandmother pitched a small tent in her granddaughter’s bedroom, right under the window, so the little girl could look out the window whenever she wanted to see the bikers at the end of the driveway.
Bikers guarded the house in shifts for the next 2½ days. Some rode two hours from Tucson, kept watch for eight hours and then rode home again.
They talked in low voices, and once Music was asleep, the red embers of their cigarettes glowed in the dark.
Rembrandt got involved with BACA four years ago, dragged into it, really, by his wife, Nytro.
“She’s the kid lover. I’m not a real kumbaya kind of guy. It’s just not in my personality,” Rembrandt says.
But Nytro wanted to get involved, and Rembrandt was her ride. If he was going to be around, he had to undergo a background check anyway — “I still had no intention of joining” — but then he went on a ride to bring a child into the group.
He watched a scared little girl transform before his eyes. She came out from behind her mother, raised her eyes to look at the bikers and, eventually, gave a smile.
“That’s it. I was done,” he says. “You can’t experience that and not get involved.” Yeah, yeah, he knows. It’s a little kumbaya. He’s now vice president of the local chapter and is the primary for two children in addition to Music.
The next day, the family members who were after Music came back again, but in a different car. They looked but didn’t stop.
“Overall, it was fairly uneventful,” Rembrandt says. “The people were all full of muster when it was a grandmother and a child. They changed their minds when they saw us there.”
“I would have loved to have been able to introduce ourselves,” he adds in mock disappointment.
The bikers aren’t looking for trouble. They are there so the kids don’t feel so alone, or so powerless. Pipes recalls going to court with an 8-year-old boy, and how tiny he looked on the witness stand, his feet dangling a foot off the floor.
“It’s scary enough for an adult to go to court,” he says. “We’re not going to let one of our little wounded kids go alone.”
In court that day, the judge asked the boy, “Are you afraid?” No, the boy said.
Pipes says the judge seemed surprised, and asked, “Why not?”
The boy glanced at Pipes and the other bikers sitting in the front row, two more standing on each side of the courtroom door, and told the judge, “Because my friends are scarier than he is.”
Funding their mission
Although the biker image is good for intimidating the kind of people who hurt kids, it can be off-putting for potential donors.
The group is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and relies on donations and grants — including one for $5,000 from The Arizona Republic and 12 News’ Season for Sharing campaign — for its annual budget, which ranges from about $5,000 to $12,000 a year, depending on the kids’ needs.
Since each biker pays for his or her own gas, maintenance and food or drink, and since there is no rented office space or cubicles or receptionist, one might think that money would go a long way. The expenses they do have, however, add up quickly: $2.75 to $5.50 for T-shirts they give the kids, $20 each for BACA blankets, $4 for a do-rag printed with BACA’s logo. To cover a child’s denim vest with patches that cost $6.50 to $12 each can easily total $50.
And there are bigger expenses, too. The bikers also pay for different things that help kids heal, such as therapy, karate lessons, horse-riding camp and punching bags.
Sometimes they end up spending their own money, like the time five of them each kicked in $100 to take a teenage girl who had been sexually abused to get some new clothes and to have her hair and nails done.
So Pipes speaks to anyone who will listen — church groups, social-service agencies, rotary clubs. And BACA bikers go to events like festivals and art walks, handing out brochures and answering questions.
At a recent Saturday morning meeting of the men’s club at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Mesa, a dozen bikers sat in the metal folding chairs scattered among the tables set with paper place mats.
At the microphone, Pipes begins, “I know you were all hoping for a good-looking speaker, but I’m afraid you got me,” and gets a laugh.
He explains what BACA does and how children are referred to them by child-welfare agencies, therapists and police. He explains, “Our mission is very narrowly focused; we empower children not to be afraid of the world in which they live.
“… We don’t apologize for being bikers. We are bikers first,” Pipes says, though they are not affiliated with any motorcycle clubs. “We ride a lot of the same streets they ride, but we have a different path.”
The kids become part of their biker family, and Pipes explains: “When you’re a part of our family, we don’t run, and we don’t hide.”
It’s tough talk. But then Pipes’ words shift to talk about the kids, and even a tough, aging biker can’t hide how he feels.
“To see the life that was beaten out of them return is amazing. To see that transformation, to give them a chance at a normal childhood again …” he pauses, swallows hard, and then says, “It’s why we do this.”
There is silence, and then applause.
“This is wonderful, just wonderful,” says Rita Belle, pulling her checkbook out of her purse. Ed Tynan has his checkbook out, too: “I never in a million years would have guessed you guys existed.”
Another man grasps Pipes’ arm with one hand and hands him a $20 bill with the other and says simply, “God bless you.”
That’s the kind of reaction the bikers garner, for the most part.
Michelle Morley, a judge in the 5th Judicial Circuit in Sumter County, Florida, has been involved in four cases with BACA in four years.
“You see kids who are so withdrawn and depressed and no sense of self-esteem, and then BACA gets involved, and they come back to life,” Morley says.
“You have to think that every time they hear motorcycles, they think of their friends in BACA, even if it isn’t them. They must think, ‘I have these guys and gals looking out for me.'”
She tells of a case in a neighboring county where prosecutors were worried that the 8-year-old victim would be too afraid to testify against her abuser.
But on the stand, the girl, nicknamed “Cheetah” by the bikers, sat on the lap of a BACA member, a woman whose road name is Lamb Chop, pointed at that man charged with molesting her, and said, “That’s him.”
In one case, the defense attorney did protest that the child victim likely would not have testified without the bikers there, Morley says, and that probably was true. Often children are too young or too afraid to testify and without other witnesses, cases can be dismissed.
By the way, Morley adds, the defendant was convicted in that case.
Last month, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery met with Pipes and Sassy and was impressed with their work. He says he plans to look for opportunities to use the group to help young victims.
One of his attorneys, Michelle Arino, successfully prosecuted a child-abuse case in 2009, in which the bikers escorted the 5-year-old victim, Sporty, and his 9-year-old brother, Skater Boy, to court twice.
“(Sporty) was a different kid when the bikers were around,” Arino says. “He was much more happy, he was much more confident.”
Sporty testified holding a stuffed bear wearing a tiny BACA shirt, a handful of bikers sitting where he could see them.
“They were there so he could have his voice heard,” Arino says, “and he did.”
Earning the patch
Every year on the third Saturday of May, bikers in BACA chapters everywhere hold 100-mile awareness rides. In Arizona, each member had to raise at least $100 in pledges or wear a dress on the ride.
Which explains why this year, Dom wore a sundress with spaghetti straps for the ride from Mesa to Payson, his black chest hair curling over the low-cut neckline, the bright yellow fabric bringing out the flames in his tattoo.
(His friends told him their checks were in the mail.)
At the campground, Pipes gathered the bikers in a circle under the pine trees. There are two levels of BACA members — support members and patched members. Being a support member comes first, and you work your way to becoming a patched member by attending monthly meetings, going on child rides, attending court hearings and participating in other BACA events for at least a year. The chapter’s board of directors must unanimously agree that a support member is worthy of moving up.
And when a biker makes the grade — which takes an average of 18 months in Arizona — he or she earns the ultimate patch, the one with a BACA logo large enough to cover the back of their vest from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.
Today, three members are receiving patches. Pipes starts with D’Animal.
“This brother has proven himself. We call him. He’s there. He’s ridden in some real crappy stuff — cold, rain, hail — to get to a child,” he says.
Tree, the biker who Rhythm thought would make a good basketball player, had been a patched member in Utah. He moved here in March and already has proven himself a valuable member, turning up for every ride and stakeout.
“You deserve it, brother,” Rembrandt calls out.
Then Pipes calls for Tool, who clearly is surprised — and touched. He presses his thumb and forefinger to his eyes.
“This man has given us a lot,” Pipes says, clapping him on the shoulder.
“I’m proud to have you guys as brothers,” Pipes says, shaking each of their hands. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Nytro calls out, “I have a needle and thread for each of you!”
Actually, someone has brought a sewing machine, and with an extension cord stretched to an outlet in the restroom, D’Animal spends the next three hours attaching the new patches.
Staying through the dark hours
The first time the bikers went to meet Rhythm, Sassy unfurled a thick black blanket with the group’s logo on it, a clenched fist with the initials “B.A.C.A.” tattooed on the fingers, and a skull and crossbones.
Rhythm thought it was cool. But before they gave it to her, Pipes explained, they had to fill it with love. He rolled the blanket into a ball and squeezed it, and then passed it to Nytro, who hugged it tight, her eyes closed.
As the blanket passed from biker to biker, and Rhythm watched it go, Pipes told her: “When you think this blanket is out of love, you call us, and we will come and fill it back up.”
Two weeks later, a call from the girl’s therapist brings them back, not because the blanket is empty, but because Rhythm still is having nightmares.
Sassy and the girl text every day, back and forth. Rhythm carries a coin with the BACA logo on it with her always, turning it in her palm, running her fingers along its edges. But when she sleeps, her mind is vulnerable to the memories of what happened. She is torn out of her slumber, terrified and calling out for her parents.
“We can tell her she is safe and fine,” her mother says, but then her voice trails off. Because Rhythm knows that’s not always true.
So Rembrandt and Tool pull up to the little girl’s house at 8 p.m., park their motorcycles in the driveway and knock on the door. Sometimes a stakeout is to calm fear and build trust.
“I told her that we were going to stay there for the night, so she would know that there was no way anyone was going to get past us to hurt her,” Rembrandt says.
Rhythm came outside a few times to make sure the men were all right, or maybe to check that they were still there. Before she went to bed, she brought out an ice-cream sandwich for Rembrandt, a popsicle for Tool and a big bowl of popcorn for them to share.
The men talked low in the dark until 2a.m., when the sound of more motorcycles rattled the quiet street. Mo Money and Bigg Dogg pulled up, ready to take the next shift.
When Rhythm woke up, she looked out the window and called to her mother, “Mom, they’re still here!”
“The whole backbone of what BACA does is showing up,” Rembrandt says. “We show up when we say we are going to show up, and we do what we say we are going to do.
“We said we were going to stay, and we stayed.”
Just before 8 a.m., the sun up and already hot, the front door opens and Rhythm carries two glasses of orange juice out to Mo Money and Bigg Dogg, where they sit on the front porch in the shade.
Smiling, she tells them she slept, the entire night, with not one nightmare, nestled under the blanket the bikers filled with love.
A few days later, the nightmares will return.
The bikers will as well.
About Bikers Against Child Abuse
BACA exists with the intent to create a safer environment for abused children. We exist as a body of bikers to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live. We stand ready to lend support to our wounded friends by involving them with an established, united organization.
We work in conjunction with local and state officials who are already in place to protect children. We desire to send a clear message to all involved with the abused child that this child is part of our organization and that we are prepared to lend our physical and emotional support to them by affiliation and our physical presence.
We stand at the ready to shield these children from further abuse. We do not condone the use of violence or physical force in any manner, however, if circumstances arise such that we are the only obstacle preventing a child from further abuse, we stand ready to be that obstacle.
About this story
Reporter Karina Bland spent several months with members of Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) as they rode their motorcycles to work with the children under their care and to raise awareness of their non-profit organization.
Because the children involved are victims of abuse, The Republic is not identifying them or their families.
BACA policy is that its members use only road names in their work with children, making it less likely that an abuser could trace one of them back to a child. (Recognizable photographs do not have the same potential to be traced, and therefore are not considered a concern.) If a biker were to be identified in the media by his or her legal name, he or she would no longer be allowed to serve as a child’s “primary” contact with the group.
While The Republic knows the full names and identities of the bikers, it is honoring the organization’s policy.