If you’ve read or heard about violent gangs in the past few years, the story probably involved MS-13, the Central American band that has expanded to the United States in a big way. President Donald Trump has cited this gang, and others like it, in his push to restrict both legal and illegal immigration from these countries.
There have also been warnings about New Jersey affiliates of the Bloods and their Los Angeles-based rivals, the Crips, taking hold in large sections of the state, as indicated by signs and “colors” found in various places.
Illicit drug trade, assaults and even murders make these organizations continuing threats to safe streets and communities. The state police and local authorities continue to monitor them. But, a different violent blast from the past is said to be reasserting itself. The Pagans motorcycle gang, with a notorious history in South Jersey two and three decades ago, is back with a vengeance, according to testimony at a State Commission of Investigation hearing last week.
The outlaw bikers were once a familiar scourge in Philadelphia and Delaware County, Pa., as well as the southern half of New Jersey. Current leaders of the organization appeared at the SCI hearing, but stayed silent until Hugo Nieves, a national Pagans’ vice president who lives in South Jersey, stated “It is not the policy of this club to engage in any criminal activity. And that’s all I will say about that.”
That’s not what SCI investigators or specialized units in the state police believe. They say that under Nieves and national President Keith “Conan” Richter, who took over in 2018, the Pagans have initiated a big membership drive on the East Coast. Officials say that some New Jersey chapters have seen a 50 percent membership increase, and the Pagans have a bigger presence now in North Jersey than in past incarnations. In addition to the drug trade, they’re selling illegal weapons, initiating clashes with other biker gangs, and mistreating women who associate with the members.
No one in South Jersey needs to be reminded of the violence that outlaw bikers can do. The Franklin Township murder of township Police Sgt. Ippolito “Lee” Gonzalez on May 6, 1995, was attributed to two members of the Warlocks, a similarly constructed rival of the Pagans.
This year, an Upper Township Pagans member, Noah Frost, was indicted in Atlantic County for the attempted murder of another Pagan, Benjamin DiPilla. Prosecutors allege that Frost allegedly ran over DiPilla, who was riding his motorcycle, with a truck. Police think the incident stemmed from a road-rage dispute.
And, last October, Pagan biker Ferdinand Augello was convicted in the bizarre 2012 murder of April Kauffman, a well-known Atlantic City radio talk host, and the wife of a prominent Atlantic County physician, Dr. James Kauffman. James Kauffman killed himself in prison while awaiting trial last year, but investigators believe he engaged the biker gang to kill his wife to prevent her from exposing a drug ring in which he and the Pagans were involved.
None of this is romanticized stuff of the street rumbles of “West Side Story.” While MS-13, the Bloods and Crips, and various hyperlocal gangs have the been the constant the focus of law enforcement in recent years, the resurgence of the Pagans and similar groups may be even scarier. The SCI has sounded the warning, and it’s hoped that those who are charged with upholding the law have elevated these outlaw motorcycle gangs to the level of supervision they now require.