“You know that Janis Joplin song where she says, 'Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose'?” asks Tombstone. He's the 68-year-old founder and chairman of an organization created to improve the image and foster alliances among the Southland's myriad motorcycle groups, the Southern California Confederation of Clubs (a.k.a. the Confederation or SCCOC). For the past two hours, the Vietnam War vet has described what he says is the American government's campaign against the sovereignty of his brothers and rivals alike, as well as the importance of uniting against such tyranny.
He looks across a nearly deserted parking lot in the central OC industrial park where his repair shop stands. In just a few hours, Tombstone—an officer with the Vagos MC, one of the most feared biker troupes in Southern California—will stand in front of hundreds of members of dozens of SoCal's biggest (and smallest) chopper clubs for the monthly SCCOC town hall. Everyone from the Hells Angels and the Apache Devils (an all-Native American club) to Vagos, Mongols and more will politely sit in the biggest conference hall of an OC Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) building and hear Tombstone preach: about breaking news, about safety, about threats to their cause. He'll crack jokes, update attendees on upcoming fundraisers, and even scold anyone who's too busy texting, talking or doing a crossword puzzle to pay attention.
But Tombstone is stuck right now on “Me and Bobby McGee,” Joplin's classic paean to life on the open road. He grits his teeth and stares ahead. “I think that's a bunch of shit,” he finally spits out. “Freedom is all we have as Americans. It's what life's about. If you don't have your freedom, you don't have anything.”
While motorcycles are Tombstone's lifestyle, the SCCOC represents the culmination of his dream. After years of attending funerals for friends and family lost to clashes between clubs, he decided about 30 years ago it was time to stop the violence—by talking to one another. Unsurprisingly, the biker world thought his vision was impossible.
“No one wanted to be the first club to sit down and talk to another club,” he says with a slight snarl, lounging in one of the parking lot's two green lawn chairs before going back to work. “They said, 'I'll talk to you, but I won't talk to them.' You might've gotten along with one or two people from other clubs, but most of the communication between the clubs was just the finger.”
Over time, as the feds began cracking down on clubs across the country, bikers began to see Tombstone's wisdom: The government was the bigger common enemy, not one another. The first SCCOC meeting was held in central OC in 1988, with about 20 local clubs attending. Almost three decades later, the SCCOC represents more than 100 clubs, with more than 60 similar confederations across the country, a National Coalition of Motorcyclists that governs them all, and even a few more internationally. Relations between motorcycle clubs are better than ever before, if you ask members, with everyone relatively united under a common cause of improving their business and image. Think Sons of Anarchy . . . but nicer.
“I just want people to see that this has been my dream for a long time,” Tombstone says, as he begins prepping for the SCCOC meeting. “I think a lot of the motorcycle clubs now are striving for the same goal, and they see the same big picture. They'd rather get along than not.”
* * * * *
Just two weeks before the SCCOC's town hall, six board members gather in the back of a motorcycle-restoration shop to discuss the last meeting, the next meeting and everything that occurs in between. Men representing the Mongols, Hessians and Vagos sit in a small room, sans the cuts that would identify them on the streets and potentially get one another's blood boiling. But here, there's camaraderie—maybe not the chumminess of, say, a Kiwanis Club or even Rotary International, but it's there.
“You think you've been riding for a long time?” Tombstone shoots at a younger member during a break in the agenda. “I've been riding since you were in diapers.”
“But you were riding a dinosaur back then,” the guy responds. Everyone laughs.
Although TV shows might make an onlooker expect discussions of murder, drug trafficking and porn production, the truth is far more mundane. With all the gray hair, silver beards and frayed jeans, the members resemble your dad's poker club. Members sit on an aging couch or a mix of chairs. Topics such as lane-sharing and helmet laws get discussed, as well as some of the fundraisers for local clubs that need to pay for things such as attorneys' fees. But at this particular meeting, one event weighs on everyone's mind: a massive May 17 shootout in Waco, Texas, that happened before a regional Confederation of Clubs meeting and brought back into the national spotlight biker “gangs,” as police and media often label them.
“My heart goes out to the family and friends of those that suffered a loss from Waco,” Tombstone says. “I find it, in my mind, very hard to believe what I saw and heard on the television. I find it very difficult to accept the fact that over 170 people were arrested and that nine lost their lives for the reason that they said.”
Spike, a longtime officer with the Hessians, adds, “I think when all these investigations are finished and they find the results, things are going to look a lot different than they do right now. What they're saying so far just doesn't add up.”
“It's another example of a terrible situation involving our lifestyle and only one side of the story being told to the people,” Tombstone says. “No one spoke for our side of the story on Waco—just the other side of the story was heard.”
Negative press and intrusive government agents are mostly what brought the SCCOC together in the first place. Dating back to Marlon Brando's star-making role as a renegade biker in 1953's The Wild One to Hunter S. Thompson's notorious exposé, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, through too many NatGeo specials, Gangland episodes and ATF raids to count, motorcycle clubs feel as if they've never gotten a fair shake in the public sphere. Even today, plenty of restaurants and bars won't allow vested bikers inside, fearing mayhem. Efforts such as the SCCOC's offer a unified voice representing hundreds of clubs—together, a voice far stronger than each club on its own.
“Even though a lot of the clubs today look like they did in the late '60s and early '70s as far as their dress and actions, we're very different,” Tombstone says. “We're a lot smarter in the sense that it's not about who is the toughest guy; it's about who is the smartest guy. The tough-guy image still may be portrayed by some, but in the mind and in the heart of the majority of us, it's not that way.”
Tombstone's life spans the trajectory of motorcycle clubs, originally founded by World War II veterans who rejected Cold War suburbia. He remembers trips as a kindergartner on a hog through the Illinois countryside with his uncle. Tombstone's family moved to Whittier when he was a teenager. There, he'd regularly run into a pair of Hells Angels while on candy runs to a liquor store.
“I would always check their bikes out, and then one day, one of them said, 'Hey, let me give you a ride,'” Tombstone says. “One thing led to another, and before you know it, I'm in their garage and they're showing me how to work on the motorcycles.”
After working with those Angels to build a bike nearly from scratch, Tombstone's new friends told him the old panhead was his to keep once he learned to ride it. Unfortunately, his dad flipped out when he saw the bike in the driveway and insisted Tombstone's friends come pick it up.
“They knocked on the door, and I told them my dad said I can't have the bike, so they said, 'Well, let us talk to your dad,'” Tombstone remembers. “I went and got my dad and told him my friends were here. He walked outside to talk to them and, to make a long story short, my dad said, 'Okay, you can have the bike.'”
Tombstone went to college for a few months after graduating from high school before deciding he really wanted to be an Army helicopter-door gunner in Vietnam. After returning in 1969, he found himself restless. He started hanging out at OC bars and meeting bikers, many of them fellow vets. By 1974, he joined the Hessians, founded in Costa Mesa in 1968 and infamous for a patch that features both the Iron Cross and a dagger going through a skull.
Being in a club introduced Tombstone to a world of partying the likes of which he'd never seen before. More important, it also gave him the friendship he missed from the military. “During that time, I noticed a lot of brotherhood within the club, but also tension,” Tombstone says. “Only a handful of guys from each club would even talk.”
Back then, you could get stabbed or shot over a spilled drink or a game of pool gone wrong, according to Tombstone. “There were a lot of guys dying,” he says. The list includes fellow Hessians: in 1984, founder Thomas Maniscalco and member Daniel Duffy were arrested for the 1980 triple murder of a former Hessian, his girlfriend and a bodyguard; Maniscalco and Duffy were both convicted and sentenced to 46 years to life and life in prison, respectively.
“It bothered me, not in the sense that I could be one of them, but the fact that [the clubs] couldn't get along,” he continues. “I kept noticing there were so many more similarities than differences between the members of the clubs. We all wore dirty Levis. The majority of us rode Harley-Davidson choppers. We all had cuts with our club name on the back. We even talked alike.”
The only difference Tombstone could find between the clubs' members was the name and color of the patch on their backs, so he began buying beers and playing pool with his supposed rivals. While individual members were willing to mingle with someone from a different group, he struggled to convince full clubs to make peace with one another. “They were all afraid to be the only club wanting to get along,” Tombstone says. “Finally, we had a sit-down with just a handful of clubs, and I said, 'Look around—we have more similarities than differences. Why the hell can't we get along?'”
The monthly meetings grew in attendance, but Tombstone noticed people getting restless after months of relative peace. “Getting along was getting boring, so I could see it was going to regress back to fighting and killing each other again,” he says. “There was still something missing.”
At the time, two motorcyclists'-rights groups existed in California: MMA (Modified Motorcycle Association) and ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments), mainstream organizations focused on lobbying politicians and researching legal defenses against government overreach. While appreciating their efforts, Tombstone saw an opportunity to bring everyone together. “I thought, 'We need this information, but most of these people are afraid of us,'” he recalls. “I knew we had to work together on it, and eventually, they agreed to come to our meeting and talk about bikers'-rights issues.”
The meetings finally had a purpose. The SCCOC was created within the next few years; OC's biker wars leveled off. But the authorities still targeted them. In 1994, more than 200 local, county, state and federal officers staged a predawn raid targeting the Hessians after a yearlong, undercover investigation; Tombstone was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. He left the Hessians shortly after to raise a family.
But the SCCOC continued, undeterred. When Tombstone came out of retirement to join the Vagos, the Confederation welcomed him back to his chair. Even among rival clubs and those who don't see eye-to-eye with Tombstone, everyone knows how well he can lead.
“Tombstone's a great friend of mine and a very good leader for the SCCOC,” says board member Rick Robison.
“He's followed [his vision] through to see it to fruition. Clubs are getting along and supporting one another better than they ever have before,” says Spike, who is SCCOC's vice-chairman and its rep at the National Coalition of Motorcyclists meetings. Though the Oxford graduate moved to Orange County when he was 25, he still has a trace of a British accent. “Law enforcement and the media are still using statistics and information from back in the '60s and '70s. Yeah, a couple of bad things may have happened back then, but the way they see it is if you suck one cock, you're a cocksucker for the rest of your life.”
Spike has been around nearly as long as Tombstone, and he's usually the first person to greet folks at SCCOC events. He's respected as much for his intelligence and wit as his time spent in clubs. While his mates work office jobs or in fields such as construction and auto repair, Spike collaborates on high-tech startup ideas and inventions that he sees changing the world, including a tiny battery that he claims will revolutionize energy storage. “We're just like you and everyone else,” Spike says. “People don't realize we're all the same under the colors and the patches. We just want to have our rights like any other group of people. Black people have the NAACP, gay people have everyone fighting for their rights, Muslims have people defending them, but we have nothing.”
“I was in the Vagos for over 18 years,” chimes in Sarge, SCCOC secretary and an official in several national societies benefitting motorcyclists. “Not once was I asked or told to do anything illegal. Do some people in motorcycle clubs do something bad? Yeah, but you got people who do something bad in the Elks, the [Fraternal Order of] Eagles, the [Loyal Order of] Moose, the Catholic Church, probation officers, police. We're no different.
“Because we wear patches on our backs, they look at us as one-percenters or a criminal element,” he continues. “If you go back and do some research on the [Los Angeles County] sheriff's department, there was a group that actually had matching tattoos on their arms and were beating inmates up and having fights at parties. If we do that, we're a gang. But if they do that, they're law enforcement.”
* * * * *
As the sun sets over the hills north of Los Angeles, about 100 men in leather or denim cuts mull around a VFW parking lot. Bikes are parked four rows deep on the other side of the dirt lot; significant others (some with “PROPERTY” patches across their backs) and families are scattered throughout the horde of guys. Dozens of young bikers introduce themselves to members of other clubs, while their older brethren reconnect with pals they haven't seen in years.
Everyone gets checked for weapons on their way in, just in case someone didn't read the flier that screamed, “NO WEAPONS OR ATTITUDES.” It's party time: a benefit for the Save the Patch fund for one of the local clubs that has had a run-in with the law. Everyone shows their support by paying $20 ($25 if you're with a guest) for a Mexican dinner politely put together by burly men. “Is three taquitos good?” asks a 6-foot-tall biker with a reddish goatee at the buffet line, who's followed by a slightly larger man who offers sour cream and cheese.
“Most everybody here just likes to ride motorcycles and belong to a brotherhood of like-minded people,” says Zap of the Devils Diciples. A DJ spins Cream's “White Room” in the background. “A lot of people have watched too many 1970s B-movies about motorcycles—that's where a lot of the misconceptions come from. If you go around an event like this, most everybody here gets up and goes to work every single day, just like everybody else does. We just really like to ride motorcycles. It's what we live and breathe.”
Zap goes on to explain that Save the Patch fundraisers are necessary to fend off the federales, who'll use everything from trademark law to physically removing patches during raids; they steal the patches and names from MCs on the basis of “just because somebody did something wrong, everyone's guilty by association.” The Devils Diciples themselves are fighting off such a move, while also battling a court case for a variety of offenses that range from racketeering to drug trafficking. (The ATF did not respond for a comment by press time.)
As with any other organization, the SCCOC requires fees to join, with money going to help causes such as legal costs for member clubs and aid for families who lost someone. Clubs can lose their membership because of nonpayment, disrespecting the main goal of unity or poor attendance, among other reasons. All of Southern California's largest clubs are members, and the Confederation represents nearly every imaginable type of grouping, from firemen and ironworkers to LGBT and most minority groups. None is turned away as long as it follows the rules—except law-enforcement-themed MCs, of course.
One of Robison's responsibilities with the Confederation is to lead the prayer that kicks off the beginning of town hall meetings—which makes sense, since the Garden Grove resident is an officer with Soldiers for Jesus MC. “We're a Christian club, so we abide by the same rules and protocol as any other club,” says Robison, who acts as a liaison between the SCCOC and the outside world. “The only thing is we keep the Christian part. We don't drink; we don't cuss. Not that we think we're better than anyone else, but being in a Christian club is just a little bit different because you're adhering more to God's law than man's law.”
Robison, whose neatly trimmed silvery hair and goatee and easily covered tattoos prevent him from looking too much like a stereotypical biker, explains that several of the club's members used to struggle with substance abuse and other problems, so they'll head out of an event if it starts to get too crazy. But don't think Soldiers for Jesus are somehow a lesser club. “We're just like any other of the three-piece clubs,” he says, referring to an MC's traditional cut that features the club's name on top, logo in the middle and territory at the bottom. “And that's how we get the respect. We have that three-piece patch with an MC nugget. We're just like the red-and-white [Hells Angels] or the black-and-white [Mongols]. We abide by the same laws, but we have a line in the sand.”
He knows all about the respectability politics the SCCOC is trying to push. The cut of Soldiers for Jesus has the Messiah's name stitched in black and yellow across the back, and Robison claims cops have let him off with a warning, while someone wearing a different club's cut might have gotten detained.
“Being in a club, it's like you have a big target on your back,” he says. “No matter where you go, the cops are checking you out. Some clubs, they might check you out more than other clubs, but where I live, the cops still watch me. I had a parolee looking to stay at my house, and when the cops came in to check everything out, they said, 'Oh, we know about you already.' I don't cause trouble; I've been clean and sober for 20-plus years. But profiling is a really big deal right now.”
* * * * *
The SCCOC holds about a dozen town halls every year and just as many board meetings, each held at a different, secret location in OC in an effort to avoid unwanted attention. The Confederation hosts only a couple of official fundraisers each year (the next one is in January), but board members encourage everyone to attend the various events that other clubs hold on an almost weekly basis, from toy drives to cookouts to rides.
At tonight's town hall meeting, Nancy “BUZZZ” Nemecek of San Diego's Graveyard Gamblers MC, Julie “Leggs” VanTrieste of Mended Sisters MC (a clean and sober club) and Devil Dolls MC's Golddie represent the SCCOC's all-female clubs.
“The women's clubs all get along really well, and there's the same diversity among us as there is with the men,” Nemecek says. “There are still some men who you could class as chauvinistic, but it's a pretty rare occasion that it'll ever play out. It's played out before and been taken care of by the individual's club without our asking.”
Tombstone and Sarge walk the VFW interior and parking lot to call everyone into the conference to start. The room quickly fills up. The Pledge of Allegiance is recited; Robison leads a prayer. A moment of silence follows for victims of the Nov. 13 Paris terror attack. Finally, roll call. While Spike reads off club names as though a high school teacher taking attendance, another board member, Lizard, calls out those who haven't paid dues yet.
The SCCOC's ABATE representative, Gill Mellen, updates everyone on the lane-sharing and anti-profiling laws currently being discussed in California legislative meetings before Sarge takes over.
“There's a white Toyota and two bikes parked behind it that are blocking a lane right now,” he yells from the lifted stage, where he sits with Spike, Lizard and the Confederation's attorney, Richard Lester. “If any of those are yours, we need you to move it.”
Lester follows with some legal victories bikers have seen across the country. Then, since it's still on everyone's mind, he gives a brief update on Waco before giving way to Sarge so he can catch up on official business.0x000A”For any of you who didn't go to the Save the Patch fundraising event this weekend, or for you newer clubs, you can contribute by volunteering your time for January's big party.”
That reminds Tombstone of how few people attended the taquito-slinging fundraiser the weekend before. “We had a piss-poor turnout at the event on Saturday—embarrassing,” Tombstone scolds as he takes the podium. “If you didn't go, I hope you had a good reason. These fundraising events, they're not just for that club's patch; they're for all our patches and all our freedom.”
Seeing as it's almost Thanksgiving, Tombstone announces that he has some gifts for them. “What's more important than our motorcycles?” he asks.
“Our women?” one biker suggests.
“What's just as important as our freedom?” Tombstone states in the same stern tone.
“Our lives and our health,” Tombstone answers. “So tonight, I'm giving you a gift that may save your life.”
A member of the Vagos who owns a medical-supply company stands in front of the room. For the next 25 minutes, he and an industry friend go over various motorcycle-related medical situations. Knowledge such as “Never remove someone's helmet after a crash,” “You will probably know what happened better than they did” and “Never suck the poison out of a snake bite” are shared.
Following the presentation, new clubs display their patches to guarantee they're not stepping on anyone else's boots—the first step of joining the Confederation. Another club is up for a membership vote, but that gets postponed because its members didn't attend enough events leading up to the meeting, so Sarge urges the group to be more involved.
About two hours later, Tombstone closes the meeting with another gift: no December meeting. “Be safe,” he says.
No fights, no drama, no beef: just Southern California's motorcycle clubs looking to be loved.
“It's all about respect,” Tombstone says as everyone streams out, throttling their hogs as they go. “If you respect each other and you communicate, we can have unity moving forward.”