Last year, the Hells Angels moved out of their famous Third Street clubhouse in the East Village to an old two-story brick building and former American Legion hall in the Bronx. To mark the occasion, on January 2nd, the Pagans, a rival outlaw biker gang, welcomed them to the neighborhood with a round of semi-automatic gunfire, allegedly shooting up the side of the Hells Angels’ new digs. A thoroughly working-class borough, the Bronx has long been known to be the Pagans’ turf. The post-New Year’s gunfire was meant to be an unsubtle reminder of this fact.
Five months later, the Hells Angels responded by assassinating 51-year-old Francisco Rosado. Known for his quick temper and warm heart, Rosado was a building superintendent. He was also the leader of the Bronx chapter of the Pagans. Surveillance footage from a neighborhood gas station captured the assassins — two Hells Angels, and a member of Satan’s Soldiers (a support club, kind of like the Hells Angels minor leagues) — in undistorted images. In it, two bikers dressed in hoodies popped out of a parked Jeep Cherokee with pistols. Their firearms appeared to be equipped with silencers. Their target was hard to miss: He was the one with a face full of tattoos. The hitters leveled their pistols, aimed and fired.
The cycle of perpetual bloodshed between the Hells Angels and Pagans can be traced back to the dawn of such outlaw biker clubs — a direct result of World War II, as a large number of war-affected veterans in Southern California formed riding clubs. For bikes, they had their pick of the large surplus of Harley Davidsons the U.S. Army no longer needed. In 1948, one of these clubs started to call themselves Hells Angels.
A year earlier, there had been a newsworthy brawl between bikers and police in a sleepy California town named Hollister. That news story was eventually turned into a 1953 movie, The Wild One, starring a young Marlon Brando. With Brando’s performance, the early biker scene galvanized around his image. Lots of young men were eager to slouch over a Harley, dressed in a white T-shirt and cuffed jeans, as they snarled at the normies and gained a reputation and recognizable energy.
Meanwhile, back in reality, the actual outlaw bikers grew more and more violent. Rumbles and fistfights metastasized into casino shootouts between rival gangs, street wars against the Italian mafia and daytime assassinations of each other’s leadership. At first, though, the Pagans — little brother to the Hells Angels by about a decade — eschewed such brutality. Founded in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 1957 by a man named Lou Dobkin, the Pagans originally rode British bikes, namely Triumphs, and looked like the denim-clad Ton-Up Boys you’d find in biker clubs in the U.K. But by the end of the 1960s, they looked nearly identical to their West Coast rivals, the Hells Angels.
Today, the feds certainly view the two clubs the same way — i.e., both are categorized as outlaw motorcycle gangs by the ATF and FBI. Yet, there are important distinctions to be made. While the Hells Angels have become an internationally recognized brand — managing an ever-expanding business empire and licensing operation — the Pagans stayed regional and kept doing the work necessary to ensure that the idea of an outlaw biker gang remains scary, working with notorious street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods, as well as the Latin Kings, through whom they were able to partner with the Mexican cartels.
For law enforcement, the scariest thing about the Pagans isn’t their turf war with the Hells Angels. Lawmakers and cops know that outlaw bikers mostly kill each other, refraining from messy drive-bys that can often kill innocent people. Similarly, the partnerships with the cartels are worrisome, but the bikers aren’t a huge player in the drug world. They mostly distribute drugs or hire out as protection to drug operations. Thus, law enforcement often treats the bikers like bouncers at a club owned by much scarier criminals.
What has, however, grabbed the attention of local, state and federal investigators recently is how fast the Pagans have been growing. According to Investigative Agent Edwin Torres of the New Jersey State Police, who gave testimony under oath to the New Jersey legislature at a hearing last autumn before the latest wave of violence erupted, the Pagans had added 30 new chapters in the last year alone. (That said, they’re still roughly half the size of the Hells Angels.) They’ve switched tactics as well, beginning to recruit street gang members. In the past, bikers always considered themselves a cut above gang members.
They’ve also typically been white supremacist groups. For instance, neither the Hells Angels nor Pagans allows Black people to join. In fact, previously, if a member of the Pagans or Hells Angels was arrested and sent to prison, he’d join the Aryan Brotherhood. So while the Pagans still won’t accept any Black members, they’ve loosened the criteria to allow Puerto Ricans and Black Latinos. As Officer Torres explained to Jersey lawmakers, “You can’t be Black and join the Pagans. You can be dark-skinned, or Black Latino, but you can not be, per se, Black.”
To further his point, he played an audio recording of a Pagans informant who claimed that outlaw bikers have made potential members prove they weren’t Black by threatening to inject them with an IV needle, which they claimed was full of “sickle cell.” The bikers believed the potential new members would only fear the disease if they were Black — thus, proving their racial identity. (The New Jersey lawmakers were appropriately dismayed and confused by this “biker science.”)
Anyway, this new surge in membership — the Pagans have also been known to recruit former cops, particularly after the officers are kicked off the force — is intended for combat against the Hells Angels, with whom they’ve been openly warring with since 1999.
The first battle was actually not in New York, but in Philadelphia, where a series of high-profile busts in the late 1990s had depleted the Pagans’ numbers and left their leadership behind bars. As such, the Hells Angels sensed an opportunity. That year, there was an assassination attempt against the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pagans, a former police officer by the name of Steve “Gorilla” Mondevergine.
When Mondevergine somehow survived despite being shot nine times at close range, the Hells Angels tried to undermine the Pagans from within. In 2002, they approached Thomas “Thinker” Wood, Mondevergine’s loyal No. 2, asking if he’d “patch over” and join the Hells Angels’ West Philadelphia chapter — i.e., switch allegiances by tearing off the Pagans patches from his vest and replacing them with Hells Angels patches. Such a betrayal would be in direct violation of the oath Wood swore to live by: “Pagans Forever, Forever Pagans.” Eventually, though, Wood did choose to forsake his oath. He took a few Pagans with him as well. This, too, would require a response.
Later that same year, the Hells Angels planned to hold an event — the Hellraiser’s Ball — in Long Island to show off their growing power on the East Coast. Former national president Sonny Barger would be there as a celebrated guest. The Pagans, however, saw it as a flex against them. As the New York Times recounted, “Just after 4 p.m., the authorities said, the vans arrived, some pulling up to the spot where limousines usually discharge elegantly gowned and tuxedoed couples. Out marched a collection of long-haired men with scraggly beards and faded denim vests, some of them so beefy that, later, the police had to use three sets of handcuffs to link their hands behind their backs. As astonished attendees looked down from a sweeping, carpeted staircase, the Pagans began knocking over tables in the hall’s pastel-painted lobby, the police said. It did not take long for the Angels to respond. Within minutes, the police said, Raymond Dwyer, 38, a Hells Angel and a tattoo artist from Oceanside, N.Y., opened fire at the invaders with a small-caliber handgun, wounding five people.”
In the end, one Pagan was killed and 73 were arrested, 66 of whom pled guilty to “federal racketeering-related charges stemming from the fracas.”
Two years later, the Pagans took aim at revenge against “Thinker” Wood once more. On January 15, 2005, the 36-year-old, by then the acting president of the Philly chapter of the Hells Angels, was shot dead while driving on the I-76 Expressway. (Law enforcement assumes the Pagans were responsible for the hit, but officially, Wood’s murder remains unsolved.)
A few years after that, in January 2008, at a meeting of the Pagans’ regional leadership, one of the chapter presidents, Timothy “Casual” Flood, made some disparaging remarks about Mondevergine. A fistfight ensued, during which Mondevergine pulled out a handgun and shot Flood in the knee. Then he fatally stabbed him. Before Mondevergine walked out of the regional meeting, he shouted at his fellow bikers, “Any o’ you got a problem with that?!”
Sometime in 2015 or 2016, according to law enforcement, this sort of violence became Pagan national policy with the election of Keith “Conan the Barbarian” Richter as the biker gang’s new president. The former national sergeant-of-arms (effectively, the Pagans chief enforcer) had been released from prison in 2012, after serving 14 years of a 16-year sentence for extortion and conspiracy to commit murder. He’s the man who launched the “Blue Wave” initiative to grow the Pagans with relentlessly violent soldiers to best the Hells Angels.
To that end, on April 24, 2018, a biker named Jeffrey Shank had just left his nearby Newark Hells Angel clubhouse to pull into a gas station to refill his tank. A Ford pickup followed him in and parked at a pump near him. A few bikers hopped out. Two of them brandished metal baseball bats, another reportedly clutched an ax handle. The primary alleged attacker, Robert “Hellboy” DeRonde, used a red metal bat to break a number of Shank’s bones.
During their recent investigation into the biker threat, New Jersey state legislators invited the Pagans’ top leadership to appear before their committee. A few of them complied: notably, reputed national Vice President Hugo “Zorro” Nieves and reputed national treasurer James “Money” Helverston Jr. In true biker fashion, though, they refused to talk. Nieves even pleaded the Fifth when he was asked to state his age.
Another reputed national leader, Luis Arocho, was there, too. He was clearly one of the Pagans who took part in the beatdown of Shank. After playing the surveillance video of that attack and freezing it on a frame of Arocho’s face, a Jersey lawmaker asked Arocho if he could identify himself in the footage. He pleaded the Fifth as well.
Now we have a new spate of headlines coming out of New York City. The Pagans, of course, will have to respond to the murder of the leader of their Bronx chapter because it’s impossible for the cycle of perpetual bloodshed against the Hells Angels to stop spinning. Consider the symbol Pagans wear on the center patch of their biker vest — an image of a Norse god named Surtr. He’s depicted as a fire god, sitting on the sun. As any Pagan would tell you, he runs Hell because he killed all the other gods. Would Surtr ever be afraid of some angels just because they say they’re from Hell?
The Pagans’ vengeance could occur anywhere now that the bikers claim the whole East Coast as their domain. Maybe it’ll be from one of their new chapters in Florida. Or Maryland. Or West Virginia. Or their old stomping grounds of New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
All that’s stopping them is a pandemic, and they’re no more scared of it than they are the Hells Angels.