Motorcycle club is about brotherhood, not crime, former president says
Jeff Pike makes his way through the crowd with a cup of Crown Royal whiskey and water in his hand and dark sunglasses framing his gray crew cut.
The leader of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club wears a dark denim vest adorned with patches that say things such as "Expect No Mercy," but he smiles at everyone.
"How ya doing, brother?" Pike asks as he stops for another hug. "Good to see you. Good to see everybody."
At a 50th anniversary gathering of Bandidos, on a recent Saturday afternoon along the banks of the San Jacinto River, one thing was clear: Among these people, Pike is a rock star, a father figure, a man who inspires and awes.
"I love him to death," said someone known as "Baytown Rob." "He gives me the chills. A great, great man."
Others feel far differently about Pike, a Bandido for 37 years and its international president for nearly 11 years.
He and his vice president, John Portillo, as well as the group's sergeant at arms, Justin Forster, are charged in a federal indictment for their alleged roles in a racketeering conspiracy that includes drug dealing, assault, murder and other crimes.
Prosecutors say they each face up to life in prison.
Pike doesn't expect to be convicted.
"I don't know what my brothers did or what they didn't do," he said. "I know I didn't know nothing about it."
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The Department of Justice contends Jeffrey Fay Pike is not just an outlaw biker but has been the leader of a sophisticated criminal organization with members who don't trust outsiders and have no fear of authority.
Joseph Arabit, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston Division, said the January indictment "inflicted a debilitating blow to the leadership, hierarchy and violent perpetrators of the Bandidos Motorcycle Gang."
The investigation took almost two years, in coordination with the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, and aimed to stop the flow of methamphetamine being moved by the Bandidos.
The indictment alleges that the Bandidos were at war with the Cossacks Motorcycle Club and details an array of violence, such as a shooting, a stabbing and multiple beatings.
Last March, for instance, about 20 Bandidos and their associates allegedly used a claw hammer as part of an attack on a Cossack at a gas station in West Texas.
Authorities paint a picture of Pike as working from behind the scenes, with Bandidos seeking to distance him from any criminality.
Portillo allegedly tells Pike at one point to "turn his back from what I'm gonna do," officials contend.
The DPS' yearly gang assessment continually places the Bandidos in the same tier as the Bloods, the Crips and the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang.
Even so, indictments have been rare.
And the Bandidos have generally avoided drawing publicity, at least until last May.
A deadly clash with the Cossacks in May at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco left nine people dead, nearly two dozen injured and 177 under arrest and charged by McLennan County authorities with engaging in organized crime. None of the cases have gone to trial, and defense lawyers have said most of those involved appear to have been acting in self-defense.
Pike was not in Waco that day; neither were Portillo and Forster.
"He has kept a low profile, stayed out of trouble basically," said a law enforcement officer familiar with Pike who asked not to be named. "He is not one who has been arrested over bar fights, petty drug dealing, drive-bys or low-rent street gangster stuff."
The officer conceded there was no way Pike would know what every Bandido is doing but said he might be benefiting from crimes committed by others.
"Is he a hands-on criminal? No, he's too smart for that," the officer said.
Pike challenges any notion that the Bandidos are an organization dedicated to breaking the law.
"Prove it," he said. "Prove it. It just ain't there."
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Pike has lived on 5 acres near Conroe for a dozen years. His wife is an accountant. They take cruise-ship vacations and post photos on Facebook. His two children went to a prep school before graduating from the University of Texas at Austin.
He is 60 years old and said he is semi-retired but has a shop on his property where he tinkers with cars and motorcycles.
"I don't think I'm any different than most people," he said. "I get up and walk the dog. My wife goes to work. I do the dishes and make the bed."
He said it is no secret that he has led the Bandidos, which considers Texas its turf every bit as much as the Hells Angels lay claim to California.
"My neighbors know who I am. I keep quiet and keep my yard clean," Pike continued. "Kids come over on the weekends. Two grandbabies gonna be here any day now."
Prior to the federal indictment, Pike hadn't been arrested since 1992, and then for a misdemeanor marijuana charge that was later dropped.
Has Pike just been so clever that authorities have been unable to catch him?
"Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper," he said. "We are the bogeyman. We get blamed for everything."
The Bandidos have changed mightily since they began in the Houston area in 1966, he said. They no longer look for trouble, and they are by no means a gang, he said. "Do they know more about this club than I do?" Pike said. "There is no way."
He repeatedly portrays the Bandidos of today as a new breed: generally clean-cut guys who steer clear of the law, have good jobs, often wear khakis and golf shirts to work.
The road wear still features a good deal of leather and assorted red and gold patches that speak to their bravado and about being 1 percenters, a reference to the share of motorcycle riders who back in the day embraced not obeying the rules of society. Many Bandidos sport vests, tattoos, earrings, big rings and bigger belt buckles, and they rarely go without sunglasses.
Many members of the Bandidos are Latinos, and blacks are now allowed, Pike said. It's still men only. Nearly 100 in Texas have state-issued permits to carry concealed firearms.
Pike does not appear to be flinching from the federal charges. In fact, he agreed not only to an interview with the Houston Chronicle but also to allow a reporter and photographer to shadow him at the anniversary picnic for the group, which he said has 1,100 members, including 500 in Texas.
But he said the weight of the indictment – such as the conditions of his release on bond that require he not have contact with felons – does make it tough for him to lead the club, which is why, he said, he's stepping down.
He recently removed the "president" patch from his Bandidos vest and intends to settle in as just another member.
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Pike, who is originally from Los Altos in Northern California, said he moved to Cypress after high school when a friend told him about the job market in Texas – and the drinking age.
He was then 18.
"I said, 'Hell, yeah,' and that is exactly why we came here," he said. "True story."
He got a job in home construction and met Bandidos for the first time.
They were hanging out, going to bars, and he was the only one who was not a member. He thought to himself, "I want to be one, too."
On July 19, 1979, he became official.
It is tough to explain the calling, he said.
"It is one of those things that I have obviously done for a long time," he said. "I hate the cliche, but 'if you have to ask, you won't understand.' "
Pike said he owns three Harley-Davidsons, and every Bandido must own at least one. He can choose to ride another bike, even one made in Japan, but he must at least have a Harley in the garage.
Pike said he has rolled through nearly every state in the country but has never been to the Northeast. He has logged hundreds of thousands of miles, though he's hesitant about whether he could have hit 1 million.
"Someone would call bulls–t on that," he said.
The Bandidos are about brotherhood, he said.
"We have a meeting one night a week, we usually just drink a lot of beer and talk about where we are going to meet next week," he said. "What is the use of belonging to a club if you are not going to get together once in awhile?"
He said he has never threatened anyone or had anyone beat up, that there is no gang-like "blood in, blood out" rule, meaning the only way into the Bandidos is to kill and the only way out is to die.
Anyone is free to leave whenever he wants, he said.
"I treat most of them like not only they are my brother, but my son," he said of members. "Most of them just don't want to disappoint me."
The biggest problem they have, he said, is the "Sons of Anarchy," the television series about a fictitious and violent biker club.
"People believe that (crap.)"
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The consensus among some police, lawyers and bikers is that Pike knows nothing can be gained by going head-to-head with law enforcement.
In fact, years back, Pike severed ties with the club's chapters in Europe and Australia over their propensity for bloodshed and mayhem, as well as drawing recruits who didn't own motorcycles.
"The best battles are never fought," he said. "If you have to resort to violence, you have already lost. The cops are the only ones who are going to win."
Back in Texas, Pike drew the ire of some older members with the 2011 redesign of the large patch worn on the back Bandidos' riding vests.
And among the first things he did as president was do away with the large "El Presidente" patch worn on the back by each of the group's past leaders. He replaced it with a small tab on the breast that reads, "president."
"Things have quieted down considerably in the last 35 years," he said. "They want to say I cleaned up the club or tried to. Maybe I did, but it is not me. I didn't have to say it."
A former Bandido, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, sees Pike as a man with street smarts and an edge.
"He is a badass and takes care of business," the former Bandido said. "Takes zero s–t."
But Pike is quiet and careful, the man said.
"Make no mistake at all, he knows his (phone can be wire tapped) and only confides in a few."
Pike drew rare public attention when he was arrested in January.
An FBI SWAT team, in battle dress, cut through his front gate with a power saw and awakened him with a loud speaker.
Pike came out barefoot and unarmed.
During court testimony following the arrest, an FBI agent complimented Pike.
"Every meeting I have had with Mr. Pike has been cordial," said FBI Special Agent Scott Schuster, who described how a few years ago he paid a visit to Pike at his home to let him know the FBI would be photographing a Bandido funeral. "He is a very smart man."
Pike's Houston lawyer, Kent Schaffer, and his client are mystified by his arrest.
"On the one hand, he knew as president that there would always be some cop out there who would love to make a case on him, but any case they have made on him now is not based on any evidence," Schaffer said, "so he is happy about that."
Pike has avoided legal trouble because he is not a criminal, said Schaffer, who has know him for 30 years.
"I'm not saying he's a Boy Scout," Schaffer said. "If you pick a fight with him, you are going to lose, but you shouldn't pick a fight with anybody."
Five of the six past presidents of the Bandidos landed behind bars while in office; the only exception was a Corpus Christi man in a provisional role who led the group for about six months.
The first was founder Don "Mother" Chambers, who was convicted of a double murder near El Paso for settling a score over a drug deal and was sentenced to life.
The last was George Wegers, who pleaded guilty in Washington state to federal racketeering charges and was sentenced to about 20 months.
Pike said he wants to leave a different legacy: "The only El Presidente that never went to prison."