Biker Gang Violence Reappears at Famous U.S. Motorcycle Rally

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Biker gangs have at times made the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally a violence-marred affair.

The rally, which draws about half a million people each August to the Black Hills in western South Dakota, has since gotten older, laid-back and more diverse.

This year, gunshots about 75 miles away reminded attendees about the gangs. Authorities said two men affiliated with the Hells Angels shot and wounded five Outlaws Motorcycle Club members in Custer State Park on Tuesday.

Chad John Wilson, 30, and John James Midmore, 32, face five counts of attempted first-degree murder. A judge set bond Thursday at $5 million each.

The rally attracts bikers of all walks of life, who ride throughout the Black Hills, a patch of forest and valleys 100 miles long and 50 miles wide on South Dakota's western edge. Sturgis, a town of about 7,000, is on the northern edge of the Hills, while Custer State Park is in the south.

Some Hells Angels members own land near Sturgis, so the gang has a presence at every rally, said Jim Bush, Sturgis police chief. Law enforcement officers knew that hundreds of Outlaws members planned to gather at a rented southern Hills campground, Bush said.

"We've known this way prior to the rally, that they were anticipating coming here, that it was going to be a mandated run and there would be upwards of 300 to 500 of them coming," Bush said.

The Outlaws are one of the United States' four largest motorcycle gangs, along with the Hells Angels, Pagans and Bandidos. The Outlaws have chapters in 20 states, Europe, Canada and Australia.

A posting on its Web site said law enforcement agencies were informed of the group's plans to attend Sturgis.

It said: "We are not going there to make any type of statement, or display of power. We are simply going there to enjoy the Sturgis venue, see the historical sights and spend time with our Brothers."

Authorities have their own term for the gangs.

"We classify these organizations as crime syndicates," said Bernard Zapor, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The last major violence involving motorcycle gangs during the Sturgis rally was in 1990, when a Sons of Silence member shot an Outlaws gang member during a bar brawl in which two other Sons of Silence members were stabbed.

"They have not changed," Bush said of the major gangs. "They're as organized and involved in crime as they ever have been."

It was one of only a few major rally-related incidents of violence, Bush said. The only other gang arrests have been three or four members picked up for unrelated crime, he said.

"They usually get along pretty good," Bush said.

In the latest incident, one victim was still in critical condition at Rapid City Regional Hospital on Thursday. Another was in stable condition at a Sioux Falls hospital, said Sara Rabern of the South Dakota Attorney General's office.

On Main Street in Sturgis, a few people wearing Hells Angels vests and T-shirts were spotted at the 66th annual rally, which ends Sunday.

The gang runs a vendor table that sells club pins, T-shirts, bumper stickers and other items. None of three men staffing the table wanted to discuss the shooting. A worker at a tattoo shop down the street that the gang runs also refused comment.

Jim Vlahakis, state Division of Criminal Investigation director, said Thursday that more than 300 Outlaws members representing 119 different chapters have been seen in the area, along with 80 to 100 Hells Angels members.

Vlahakis said authorities plan to meet with the two gangs to "try to head off any potential problems" but had not done so as of Thursday.

Officers were prepared to respond to gang violence, Bush said, adding that eventual retaliation is likely.

"It may not happen here," Bush said. "It could happen a month from now" somewhere else.