PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Violent clashes between feuding biker gangs have been on the rise in Rhode Island as a turf war sparked five years ago continues to rage on.
And investigators who track outlaw motorcycle groups are increasingly concerned innocent bystanders could get caught in the crossfire.
Detective Ryan Mahoney of the R.I. State Police Intelligence Unit said motorcycle gangs are unlike traditional organized crime, such as La Cosa Nostra, because their violence is even more unpredictable.
“The problem with those motorcycle gangs is it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, where you are, if you see a member that’s a rival gang, you’re expected to do something about it,” Mahoney told Target 12 at state police headquarters. “Whether you’re outnumbered or not, you’re expected to do something and whoever else is around is just kind of collateral damage.”
“That’s the scary part,” he added.
Police reports, court affidavits and interviews with law enforcement show a string of violent clashes in recent years.
One 2017 incident included a brawl in the streets of Providence after investigators say a rival club – later identified as the Thug Riders – taunted member of the Hells Angels by driving by their Messer Street clubhouse and revving their engines. That was enough to prompt Hells Angels members to hop on their bikes and give chase, ending in a street fight, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by detectives.
When police arrived the bikers were gone, but they found smashed glass from a person being thrown into a window, and a pair of sunglasses on the ground with the numbers “81” etched on the side.
That was an important clue to what went down, according to Mahoney.
“H is the 8th letter in the alphabet and A is the first — H.A., Hells Angels,” Mahoney explained.
The Big Seven
Law enforcement has identified seven major outlaw motorcycle groups active in the United States: Hells Angels, Outlaws, Mongols, Sons of Silence, Bandidos, and Pagans. Mahoney said at least three of them are active in Rhode Island: Hells Angels, Outlaws and the Pagans.
Mahoney said another group may be trying to plant roots as well. “We’ve had intelligence received through sources and through other law enforcement agencies that several members of the Mongols have been cited in this area,” he said.
The growth in clubs in the region marks a seismic shift from when the Hells Angels had a stranglehold on Rhode Island as the only major club in town. That changed in 2014 when the Outlaws Motorcycle Club landed in Woonsocket. Mahoney said the Outlaws’ arrival immediately sent off warning flares in intelligence and law enforcement circles.
“It was scary,” he said, recalling officers saying, “We’re going to have an issue. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get killed.”
Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates said he reached out to the head of the Outlaws after he became chief in 2016.
“They notify us on specific occasions when they are going to have some large gatherings so that helps us adjust our resources to make sure everyone is protected,” Oates said. “We monitor their activity.”
Oates said his department is aware of the recent violence and receives information from the State Police Fusion Center when there is fresh intelligence on the biker world.
“That is one of main concerns, the fact that there could be another rival group that comes into Woonsocket to try to engage them in some type of fight or some type of disturbance,” he said.
Biker world ‘rejuvenated’
The Outlaws’ emergence in Rhode Island five years ago has resulted in an increase in membership in biker gangs, including smaller affiliate clubs that usually align themselves with one of the major outfits, experts say.
“The overall motorcycle gang world — it’s just kind of been rejuvenated,” Mahoney said, citing the popularity of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy.”
He also said biker gangs are filling the vacuum left by the contraction of traditional criminal organizations like La Cosa Nostra.
The arrival of the Outlaws have also tested the loyalty of smaller affiliate or “puppet” clubs.
“For 20 years they were getting all their orders from the Hells Angels — there was no other competition, no other strong ‘one percent’ club to answer to,” Mahoney said. “Fast forward to 2014 … they realize that, hey, there’s another crew in town that will maybe treat me a little differently, treat me better.”
(“One percent” is a term used to reference outlaw motorcycle groups, as opposed to the 99% of motorcyclists that are law-abiding citizens.)
Police say that loyalty may have led to bloodshed in Fall River last month when a member of the Sidewinders – a motorcycle club affiliated with the Hells Angels – was shot and killed by a member of the Outlaws following a late-night brawl outside a bar. Joseph Noe, 25, was arrested and charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Even a pet animal has become collateral damage. “One of the Outlaws had a dog at their clubhouse which was poisoned,” Mahoney said.
The dog died, and police say a member of a rival club was the likely culprit. Police believe the incident led to a brawl inside a West Warwick coffee shop in July 2016.
“Those individuals knew each other and a couple years ago they would have probably been at a party having beers together,” Mahoney said. “Then fast forward and there were several incidents that happened between the Outlaws and Hells Angels and their support clubs.”
Court records show in 2018 a member of the Pagans motorcycle club was shot while riding in a pack on I-95 North near the Connecticut border. The club was on its way back from a gathering in Delaware. The biker survived, but the shooter was believed to be part of a smaller rival gang that got wind the Pagans were traveling through Connecticut.
A Glocester police report from 2017 detailed another turf battle. Police say surveillance video showed members of the Lost Horseman motorcycle club – which is affiliated with the Hells Angels – arrive at a building used by a group aligned with the Outlaws, wielding baseball bats.
Witnesses told police they heard the men yelling for someone inside to come out. The video shows the men – adorned in leather jackets – wailing on the building with the bats, smashing windows and knocking out a security camera.
The police report said a member of the Outlaw affiliate group informed the investigating officer they would not be using the building in Glocester to hold meetings any longer, and would gather at the main clubhouse in Woonsocket instead.
Mahoney estimates there are about 30 affiliate clubs in the state.
“I think that whole motorcycle world is growing,” Mahoney said. “Membership is up, and I believe that whatever one percent or outlaw motorcycle group that was covering that specific territory is now getting tested.”