Bad-ass Boys: Are the Pagan's roaring onto the comeback trail?

Posted: September 28, 2011

THE PAGAN stationed on a corner of Atlantic Avenue in Wildwood stood with his burly arms crossed over his belly, guarding the infamous motorcycle club's hotel-turned-fortress like a living, breathing gargoyle. Behind him, yellow caution tape and blue tarps draped the Binns Motor Inn - a signal from the Pagan's Motorcycle Club for "citizens" and nosy cops to keep out during the 2011 Roar to the Shore biker rally this month. It's the same hotel where federal prosecutors say that leaders of the Pagan's Long Island chapter at last year's rally told their minions to prepare for death or prison as they plotted a hand-grenade attack on the rival Hells Angels.

The Pagan sentinel on the corner watched as a woman pushing a girl in a stroller passed the fluttering caution tape, heading straight toward him. Then he stepped in as crossing guard, walking into the street to block traffic for her as she and child headed toward the boardwalk.

Was it a public-relations ploy to impress the cops who were surveilling the denim-clad outlaws? Or is he, as so many locals insist about the Pagan's, just an average guy who likes to drink beer and ride Harleys?

"We're just here to have a good time," said one brawny, bald-headed Pagan, who, like every other member that the Daily News attempted to interview, would not give his name. "We've got to party somewhere."

Hobbled by federal indictments and state charges in recent years, the Pagan's Motorcycle Club is trying to replenish its ranks these days while avoiding the types of violent crimes with nonbikers that make headlines and draw heat from the cops.

They still go by names like "Cripple," "Knuckles" and "Slasher." They still label their women as "property" with patches. They're still selling drugs and shaking down strip clubs, police say.

But today's Pagan's are smarter, lawyered up and perhaps not as hard-core as their predecessors, according to law-enforcement officials and sources close to the club.

And, of course, they have a Facebook page for members, friends and family who support them.

"If there's 10 Pagans in a room, there's only three hard-core Pagans. The rest are there for the power, p---- and drugs," said Anthony "LT" Menginie, the son of a former Pagan's president and author of Prodigal Father, Pagan Son, a book about growing up in the club.

To many outside observers, the Pagan's are law-abiding outlaws. Not one arrest or altercation involving a Pagan was reported at this year's Roar to the Shore, according to the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office.

"They're a fun bunch of guys," said Ben Petrovic, owner of Atlantic County Harley-Davidson.

All weekend in Wildwood, day and night, Pagans guarded street corners near the Binns, eyeballing anyone who stared too long. Cops stood only feet away, their cruisers parked in the middle of Atlantic Avenue as loud cycles ripped up and down the strip.

Law-enforcement officials were conducting surveillance, with plainclothes officers and cameras with telephoto lenses shooting from hotel rooms. An estimated 250 Pagans attended, down slightly from past years, a source said.

But the Pagan's were joined by an increasing number of small support clubs, all with members wearing the feared and revered "P" patch on their vests.

Law-enforcement sources say that these so-called "duck" clubs are growing and may represent a proxy recruitment effort by the Pagan's as they attempt to rebuild.

They go by names like Brookers, True Brothers and Roadrunners, and they were out in force in Wildwood. Cops say that the Pagan's, seeking to avoid police scrutiny, have used the duck clubs for muscle, countersurveillance and high-risk, frontline work.

The Pagan's charge some of these clubs a "tax." Some duck club members are eventually "patched over" and become full-fledged Pagans.

"They're a bunch of knuckleheads," said a law-enforcement source who has worked undercover investigating the Pagans. "These guys end up joining these clubs because they want to emulate 'Sons of Anarchy' and the glamour part. Then the Pagan's come along and say, 'If you support us, we got your back.' "

It's rarely a choice.

Authorities say that the soaring popularity of the "Sons of Anarchy" TV show - the most-watched in FX's history - could be contributing to a disturbing trend: Weekend warriors, no longer content to simply ride together, are forming small motorcycle clubs and dabbling in the outlaw lifestyle.

In these parts, that usually means swearing allegiance to the Pagan's and stitching the "P" to the club's vests. Some cops consider them a Pagan's farm team.

"It looks to me like they're Pagan wannabes," said Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood Sr., referring to the Brookers Motorcycle Club, a new Pagan's duck club that is under police surveillance. "We monitor them closely and know where some of them live."

Now believed to have about 400 members, the Pagan's are striving for 1,000 members, a source said, always worried about their archenemy, the Hells Angels, in North Jersey and New York.

If the Wildwood bike rally was any indication, the Pagan's P.R. strategy is working. Every business owner, tourist and biker whom the Daily News interviewed gave a variation of the same line: Don't mess with the Pagan's and they won't mess with you.

"If you're gonna put your hand in the dog's cage, you're gonna get bit," said Dave "Cowboy" Moen, a U.S. Park Police K-9 officer and president of a New Jersey chapter of the Blue Knights, a law-enforcement motorcycle club that wears powder-blue vests.

"We're all on two wheels," chapter vice president Ron Gaffney said of the Pagan's and cops who belong to motorcycle clubs. "We'll be neighborly, but we're not going to invite them over for dinner."

'Nice people'

At the Binns, Pagans shuffled back and forth all weekend from the hotel to Garden State Liquors two blocks away, one hand holding onto their female "property," the other lugging a 30-pack of beer or a brown-bagged bottle of booze.

Inside, a customer approached a Pagan Friday night and said, "Ultimate respect," referring to the motorcycle club. "Thanks," the Pagan responded.

"Believe it or not, they come in here and they're very pleasant: 'Yes, sir/no, sir,' " said Bill Nelson, a longtime employee of the liquor store, located a block from where the Pagan's were allegedly plotting murders last year.

The feds dropped the hammer on that 21-month investigation just days after the 2010 Roar to the Shore, arresting 17 members from New York, New Jersey and Delaware on charges including conspiracy to commit murder, assault and drug distribution.

And the Pagan's have continued to make headlines: Dennis "Rooster" Katona, the club's national president, was busted in June near Pittsburgh on cocaine and methamphetamine charges, and one of the club's most colorful and violent past leaders, Steven "Gorilla" Mondevergine, was sent to prison last month for shooting and stabbing the chapter president in 2008.

Yet, people like Wally Lerro, who owns the Bolero Resort and started the Wildwood motorcycle rally 18 years ago, say that they don't see that side of the club. Several business owners said that they'd much rather deal with the Pagan's over the New Jersey firefighters who hold their annual convention there and tend to start more fights and stir up other trouble.

"They all work, they all have jobs," Lerro said of the Pagan's. "They're nice people."

That's what everyone would have said last year, too, while undercover ATF agents posing as Pagans partied with the club in Wildwood. One of those agents had become the Long Island chapter's sergeant-at-arms and, according to court documents, he once accompanied his Pagan brothers on a harrowing trip in New York to move what he thought was a dead body.

If it was a test to smoke him out, the agent passed, and the chapter essentially made him their bookkeeper.

Officials said that the bust "decimated" the Long Island chapter, but elsewhere it's easier than ever to become a Pagan, directly or as a supporter, sources say. Former Pagan James "Jimmy D" DiGregorio, who testified against PMC members, said that an undercover agent would have been turned-out quick in the club's heyday.

"In my day, you had to commit a crime," he said. "We made them live the life. We made them cross over."

'Last warning'

Over 16 months, the Daily News made several failed attempts at contacting members through the unlikeliest source: Facebook and MySpace. Though the club claims to value privacy, many members have profiles with their picture, club nickname and "PMC" in plain sight. One Pagan lifer responded with not-so-veiled threats: Stop asking questions about the Pagan's, period.

"Last warning motherf-----," he wrote.

In Wildwood, they were slightly more cordial, but still wouldn't talk. "You're in the wrong place," one member told a reporter outside the Binns. Another uttered a few words of frustration about a policy that bars enforce a ban on "colors" - the patched biker jackets each member wears - but he wouldn't open up. A high-ranking Pagan from South Jersey asked, "Are you Jason Nark?" - saying as he walked away that the Daily News wrote about him last year.

At a food stand, one old-school Warlocks Motorcycle Club member, his colors greasy and tattered from decades on the road, did chat with the Daily News while munching on a sausage sandwich. He said that the days of biker turf wars in Philly and South Jersey are over.

"No one wins that battle but the cops," said the Warlock, who wouldn't give his name.

When Pagans weren't at their hotels in Wildwood, they woke up early for coffee, ate breakfast in the Pink Cadillac Diner, shopped for vulgar or snarky patches and scoped tricked-out choppers.

Just like everyone else.

But with their colors on - with that top "rocker" patch, which has the word "Pagan's" stitched above an image of the Norse god Surtr - they were unlike everyone else there: they were like wolves walking among herds of sheep.

They may be endangered by the law, the Hells Angels and the changing nature of organized crime, but they still have sharp fangs and loyal followers. And they're looking to mount a comeback, not roar into the sunset.

"It ain't gonna be over until the guys that run it call everybody together and say throw it in the pile and have a big bonfire," said David "RC" Winkler, a former ranking Pagan now living in Delaware County. "It'll always go on until that day happens. And that ain't this year."

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