Led by the national president of the Gypsy Joker Motorcycle Gang known as “The Wiz” and the gang’s Portland chapter president, members kidnapped and tortured an ex-member to death and then threatened witnesses to enforce an unwritten rule that no one talks to police, a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday.
But six men violated the club’s cardinal rule and cooperated with police.
Jurors are expected to hear from them over the next month and a half in the federal trial in Portland of Kenneth Earl Hause, 64, who held the title of the club’s national president for 20 years; Mark Dencklau, 59, the local chapter leader, and Chad Leroy Erickson, 51, another member.
All three are accused of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Dencklau and Erickson face separate charges of kidnapping and murder in aid of racketeering in connection with the violent death of an ex-member.
The six Gypsy Jokers expected to testify against them have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Each of the six will take the witness stand and say the club is an “outlaw” bikers clan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leah Bolstad said during opening statements.
They also will say they beat and killed Robert “Bagger” Huggins, 56, and dumped his body in Clark County in 2015 at the direction of Dencklau, she said.
Huggins, a struggling heroin addict, had tied up Dencklau’s girlfriend and stolen thousands of dollars from Dencklau’s Woodburn home, the prosecutor said.
They’ll also describe how they committed other crimes to boost their status in the organization, retaliated “quickly and violently” when anyone disrespected them and created a culture of fear so others wouldn’t mess with them, Bolstad told jurors.
“The United States is not asking you to like these witnesses, but the evidence will show the Gypsy Jokers likes them,” Bolstad said. “They’ll tell you how the club works and crimes committed by them.”
She presented the national president’s heavy black leather Gypsy Joker motorcycle jacket as evidence and described how club members wear a diamond-shaped patch with a 1% in it.
“The old saying is that 99% of the motorcycling world is law-abiding,” she said. “This group embraces being part of the 1% who do not follow society’s rules and they wear a patch that says as much.”
In one beating that occurred in Kennewick, Washington, Hause is accused of knocking out the teeth of a man who had been late to a motorcycle run and then having another club member tattoo a large “X” over a Gypsy Joker tattoo on the man’s back, she said.
Lawyers for the three men on trial cautioned jurors to consider the motives of the government’s main witnesses, arguing that by cooperating with prosecutors they’re hoping to draw more lenient sentences.
Other federal witnesses expected to testify received substantial payments from the government to help them relocate or pay rent, the defense attorneys noted and testimony confirmed.
Co-defendant and lead government witness Tiler Evan Pribbernow told investigators “exactly what the government wanted to hear” and other co-defendants fell in line, said attorney Erik E. Eklund, one of Dencklau’s defense lawyers.
Pribbernow delivered the fatal blows to Huggins with baseball bat strikes to his head, according to court records.
Loggers found Huggins’ battered body in a field on July 1, 2015. He had a fractured skull, a broken rib, a broken leg, a removed nipple, nails driven through his boots, slash wounds to his back and face and many blows to his face, prosecutors said.
Huggins had been “beaten out” of the club a year earlier after other members found he had cleaned out the club’s cash draw to feed his heroin habit, Bolstad said.
The cooperating witnesses “curried favor with the government to get the best possible sentences for themselves,” said defense lawyer Thomas K. Coan, representing Erickson.
Defense lawyers said their clients are motorcycle aficionados who sought camaraderie but didn’t fit into the more establishment American Motorcycle Association.
“They like bikes loud and fast,” Eklund said. “And it may not be surprising to know that some of these people use methamphetamine and some of them sell methamphetamine on their own time. And some of these steal motorcycles on their own time.”
Eklund argued that no physical evidence ties Dencklau to Huggins’ murder, so the government had to rely on his co-defendants to implicate him.
“They don’t have anything on Dencklau except for a motive,” he said.
Erickson was present but didn’t participate in the beating or killing of Huggins, said his lawyer, Coan.
Erickson wasn’t aware Huggins had been kidnapped from Portland and was trying to find Huggins in Longview, Washington, himself because he knew the chapter president was looking for Huggins, Coan said.
Once he met other club members at a rural Washington location where Huggins was taken and tortured, Erickson admittedly didn’t intervene or tell the others to stop, but was “frozen or paralyzed by his loyalties to the club or his fear,” Coan said.
The brutal beating and torture of Huggins “was worse than anything he had seen in Iraq,” Coan said of his client.
Police mistakenly thought Erickson was an “enforcer” or “sergeant in arms” for the club, when he was simply a sergeant in the U.S. Army, Coan said.
Erickson, who was born and raised in Portland, didn’t join the Gypsy Jokers to commit crimes, but saw it as a substitute of sorts for his military experience, offering a sense of camaraderie and loyalty, his lawyer said. Erickson was never an officer in the club but a member who held menial-type roles, Coan said.
The defense lawyer also accused the government of improperly coaching witnesses. Coan said investigators didn’t record the final interviews of the cooperating co-defendants and asked one defendant to look at statements made by other cooperating witnesses to try to refresh his memory.
“Guess what? The next day he remembers something,” said Coan, who didn’t identify which witness that involved.
Hause faces a single count of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy.
He’s a father and grandfather who ran a motorcycle shop in Coos Bay for 20 years after his U.S. Navy service, said his lawyer, Todd E. Bofferding.
The 1% on the Gypsy Jokers’ patch poked fun at the more straight-laced American Motorcycle Association, Bofferding said.
“Back in the ‘50s, the American Motorcycle Association was basically kind of like AARP” – if you had a motorcycle, you could sign up, he said.
“Well, not everybody wants to be a member of something like that,” Bofferding said. “And the AMA stated that 99% of all motorcycle riders are part of our club.”
He argued that the government’s allegations of racketeering are a serious overstep and that any problems between the men were individual disputes not representative of the club.
“These men have strong personalities,” Bofferding said. “When strong personalities clash, oftentimes there’s fights, fights between independent men. It’s the affairs of individual men, not the club. It’s overreaching. It’s overcharging.”
Caleb Enk, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was the first witness called by the prosecution.
He confirmed that his agency paid about $125,000, divided between five witnesses, including about $75,000 to Dencklau’s ex-girlfriend who was moved out of state, and $15,000 to Pribbernow’s family, also moved out of state for safety.
Some of the money covered the moves, their stay in long-term motels or first-and-last months of rent, meals and utilities for those put up in apartments, Enk said.
The trial is expected to last six weeks. Prosecutors plan to call 80 witnesses and present about 200 pieces of evidence, including Gypsy Joker meeting minutes, recorded jail calls of some co-defendants and GPS tracking of the defendants’ cell phones to pinpoint their locations during various alleged crimes.
U.S. District Judge Karin J. Immergut presided over the opening of the trial after Judge Michael W. Mosman tested positive for COVID-19 two days after jury selection. Mosman is expected to return as trial judge in one to two weeks, Immergut told lawyers and the jurors.
— Maxine Bernstein
Email [email protected]; 503-221-8212
Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian