Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: South Florida’s Outlaws were undone by their own brazenness

We chronicled their unseemly doings with the regard sportswriters held for star athletes.

Knew them by their nicknames: Big Jim, Blue, Dirty Dick, Gangrene, Crazy Joe, Hobo, Moonpie, Greaser, Yankee, Pinball, Sneaky Pete, Moldy Mike, Little Rog, Bam Bam, Funky, Grizzly, Dynamite, Train Robber, Stitch.

We tracked their criminal pursuits: peddling cocaine and Quaaludes, controlling a chunk of South Florida’s illegal amphetamine trade, pimping, extortion. Other criminal organizations like Miami’s Cuban and Colombian dope smugglers took in a lot more money, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the Outlaws motorcycle gang commanded outsized notoriety in South Florida.

It was that they were so damn indiscreet. So don’t-give-a-damn audacious with their nicknames and tattoos, unwashed, unshaven, unashamed, proudly sporting leathers emblazoned with the Outlaws’ skull and crossed pistols logos. It was the way they roared up to some joint, en masse on their customized Harleys, a sneering, intimidating rabble, like some 20th century version of the Mongol hordes.

It wasn’t just for show. What kept the Outlaws on the front page of newspapers in that era was their propensity for violence, for savage beatings and killings. Nearly 100 Florida murders were attributed to the Outlaws during those two bloody decades when they were at the height of their notoriety. By the time I started work at the Herald in 1976, the Outlaws had already racked up 38 homicides so far that decade, nine of them in 1974 alone. Four Outlaws were residing on Florida’s Death Row.

They murdered discarded girlfriends. They murdered suspected snitches. They murdered strangers in bursts of pique, like that notorious Thanksgiving Day in 1984 when Robert “Big Red” Woolsey was turned away from the Bimini Sea Shack, west of Dania. So he and a fellow Outlaw opened fire, killing the bartender and setting off a shootout with the patrons. A woman was wounded in the head and Big Red himself lay dying from a shotgun blast.

They murdered rivals. The Waco, Texas, shootout among rival biker gangs on May 17 that left nine dead (and led to 170 arrests) was like old times to cops and reporters who once tracked the Outlaws and their homicidal response toward other motorcycle gangs who ventured into Florida.

In the 1988 federal trial in Fort Lauderdale that saw six Outlaws convicted on racketeering charges, jurors heard testimony describing how the South Florida chapter president “Big Jim” Nolan ordered the 1974 murders of three members of the Hells Angels who were encroaching on Outlaw territory. Their bodies were found in a West Broward rock pit, weighed down with cinder blocks.

More than 250 witnesses, many of them former gang members, testified in the 14-month trial. They described how bikers from other gangs were shot and their bodies dismembered and their girlfriends gang-raped, then forced into prostitution. If the women objected, they were beaten savagely.

When Susan Bacon threatened to go to police after she was abducted from the Sandbox Bar in Fort Lauderdale in 1970 and gang-raped, she was shot and dumped in a rock pit. In 1974, the Outlaws suspected Naomi Sinogub of snitching. She was disemboweled and tossed into the ocean. In 1980, another suspected informant, Mary Lou Rodriguez, was shot with a speargun. Nothing new about these tactics. Florida’s Outlaws had been known for their appalling treatment of women since 1967 when “Spider” Owing was arrested for torturing a 17-year-old gang groupie. Christine Deese had shorted Spider $10 when she turned over her day’s earnings so he crucified the girl, nailing her hands to an oak tree near Juno Beach. Gov. Claude Kirk held a news conference under that tree and vowed that he’d chase the Outlaws out of Florida.

My first encounter with the gang was in 1978, working on what I had thought would be a routine story about a fire at one of the massage parlors, shabby fronts for prostitution, that were clustered along Federal Highway south of Fort Lauderdale. Except firefighters discovered the body of a 16-year-old Canadian girl in the charred ruins.

When I phoned the teenager’s parents in St. Catharines, Ontario, they told me that a few months before, she had run off with her supposed boyfriend -- a 300-pound, one-legged Outlaw gang member named Garnet “Mother” McEwan. The teenager thought she had embarked on a romantic adventure in sunny South Florida. But after they arrived in Fort Lauderdale, McEwan put the girl to work in the massage parlor. Like the other gang members, who police said controlled about 30 percent of local nude dancers and massage parlor hookers, he pocketed her earnings.

Girls were virtual slaves, who could be bought or sold or traded or passed around from one gang member to another. (Mother McEwan was later caught up in internecine Outlaw warfare and was nearly beaten to death in 1990 with his own artificial leg. That was enough for McEwan, who left the club and became a born-again Christian preacher and a youth counselor. He died in 2012.)

The killings and beatings and the brutal misogyny combined with a brazen disdain for societal norms to make the Outlaws the most despised crime gang in South Florida. Both the feds and local police agencies, under considerable public pressure, responded. (There was a oft-repeated rumor, probably apocryphal, that the Outlaws dare not ride into Miami-Dade County wearing their colors or else the police would run them down and pummel them.) The South Florida chapter was hit with federal racketeering and firearms charges. State and local police got them for murder and drug dealing and robbery. In 1981, police raided an Outlaw house in West Palm Beach after neighbors reported that gang leader Thor Hansen was training Haitians as part of a crazy plot for an armed takeover of Haiti.

The busts decimated the South Florida chapter, which at one time had about 160 members. Plus, the Outlaws also suffered from a propensity to shoot one another. In 1981, a disgruntled would-be Outlaw stormed into the clubhouse, killing two members and wounding two others. In 1983, another Outlaw was charged with killing four of his fellow bikers and wounding one of their girlfriends in a Fort Lauderdale apartment.

Also, these hard-drinking, pill-popping, fast-driving motorcyclists tended to kill themselves. In 1993, three members of the local gang, speeding down Hollywood Boulevard with their bikes in close proximity, bumped into one another and crashed. All three died.

By the mid-1990s, the chapter had been all but obliterated. Police counted less than ten active members. The Outlaws had faded into not much more than a study in self-destruction, undone by the attention they called to themselves. And by their own violence.

Not that the Outlaws have gone away. I talked to a detective with the Broward County Sheriff’s gang unit Friday afternoon who said that the gang still has major chapters active in Tampa and St. Petersburg and that the Outlaws’ national president lives in Jacksonville. And, he insisted, others still reside in South Florida. “They’re just not so overt. They’ve become more like other crime organizations. They don’t want to bring attention to themselves. So you don’t see them as much, wearing their colors.”

The detective declined to say how many Outlaws police think are still active in South Florida, but he noted that “They’ve got a number of support clubs around here. Minor leaguers.”

What they don’t have any longer is an official clubhouse. I drove by the old Outlaws lair Thursday. The feds had auction the property in 1991 as the seized assets of a criminal enterprise. Went for $60,000. It’s now an unremarkable suburban house on a shady street in the western reaches of Hollywood, just a few blocks east of the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. No motorcycles were parked in the driveway. The only reminder of its previous incarnation was the rusty six-foot-tall chain-link fence around the property.

It was my first visit back to the clubhouse since 1979, when I was allowed in to cover a raucous funeral. A club member who had crashed his speeding bike was laid out in an open casket, dressed in his leathers. It was a hell of a party as his fellow bikers filed past the casket, pausing to lean over and kiss the corpse and pour a little beer on their fallen comrade. Someone held a beer aloft in a final toast, “He lived as an Outlaw, he died an Outlaw and, by God, we’re going to bury him as an Outlaw.”

And so they did. A long, very loud parade of maybe 100 motorcycles followed the hearse to the Davie cemetery. As the coffin was lowered, I nearly hit the ground as the bikers pulled out their pistols. But it only the Outlaws version of a 21 gun salute. More like a hundred guns were fired off in a random and chaotic and drunken and, for me, a frightening barrage, aimed at the sky.

Police cars ringed the cemetery. The officers didn’t react to the gunfire. They just watched, expressionless. They were biding their time.