IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lines blur between cops and bikers across the country

The undercover NYPD detective now charged with taking part in a bike gang’s assault on an SUV is not the only police officer who may have crossed the line between cop and biker. Across the country, say experts, that line has grown blurry as the number of active police officers joining and forming motorcycle clubs has soared.“Within the last 10 or 12 years, there has just been an explosion of t
Get more newsLiveon

The undercover NYPD detective now charged with taking part in a bike gang’s assault on an SUV is not the only police officer who may have crossed the line between cop and biker. Across the country, say experts, that line has grown blurry as the number of active police officers joining and forming motorcycle clubs has soared.

“Within the last 10 or 12 years, there has just been an explosion of these clubs of law enforcement, firefighters and military,” said Terry Katz, a retired lieutenant in the Maryland State Police who is vice president of the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators’ Association.

Most simply ride with friends in their free time, but some have been involved in violent incidents while in “biker” mode. An Arizona officer goes to court Thursday for allegedly assaulting a bar patron who made comments about his bike gang's “colors.”

According to Katz, it doesn’t help that many of the law enforcement motorcycle clubs model themselves on outlaw gangs like the Hells Angels and the Warlocks. They wear the same kind of patches, ride the same bikes, and, sometimes, break the same laws.

“You can’t act like something and not become it,” said Katz, who spent three decades investigating bike gangs. “You can’t be a biker by night and a cop by day.”

Officer Eric Amato, a 13-year veteran of the Phoenix police force, may have crossed the blurred line one night last December when he and other members of a motorcycle club called the Iron Brotherhood decided to party in full regalia at the bars on Prescott, Arizona’s “Whiskey Row.”

The club gathered on Dec. 22 at Hooligan’s to celebrate the Christmas holidays. By about 10:30 p.m., some had moved to Moctezuma's, where the bouncer stopped them at the door. The bouncer later told investigators the bar normally did not let in people wearing biker club paraphernalia, or “colors.”

Then one of the Iron Brotherhood bikers, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt. William “Bill” Suttle, a member of the local narcotics task force, flashed his badge. The bouncer let them in.

Prescott Police Chief Clair “Billy” Fessler, the president of the Prescott chapter of the Brotherhood, was also at Moctezuma’s wearing his colors. Most of the club’s members knew him as “Tarzan.”

A 23-year-old bar patron named Justin Stafford then approached Fessler and began asking about club patches on Fessler’s motorcycle vest, according to a report later filed by investigators.  Both men had allegedly been drinking. A brawl ensued. Surveillance video from the bar obtained by a local newspaper, the Prescott News Courier, shows men wearing Iron Brotherhood jackets taking swings at Stafford and another man.

Watch video of the Moctezuma brawl

The Special Investigations Unit of the state’s Department of Public Safety launched a probe of the incident. In a report that runs more than 350 pages, investigators reported that Stafford said he was “very intoxicated” when he approached the bikers to ask about their machines and their patches. Fessler said that Stafford’s questions were aggressive, and that he was touching the patches while cursing.

Read the report here

According to the report, Stafford said that a biker standing next to Fessler grabbed him by the throat, pushed him against a wall and punched him in the face. The report said that Amato, who also used the gang name "Guido," threw the punch. He has been charged with one count of assault and appears in an Arizona court for a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Other men traded blows in the scrum that followed the first punch. But the investigators said that their probe of the fight was hindered by an alleged lack of cooperation from Suttle and Fessler. The report recommended charges of felony obstruction of criminal investigations and misdemeanor charges of false reporting to law enforcement against Fessler and Suttle, as well as a disorderly conduct charge for Stafford.

None of the three men were ever criminally charged. Fessler, 54, denied taking part in the fight, but retired from the Prescott force soon after the incident to prevent what he called "further uncorroborated accusations." Suttle resigned from the Sheriff’s Department.

Amato has declined to speak to the media. The Phoenix police department will not comment on the case due to an ongoing internal investigation, but said Amato is still at the department, though unable to make arrests.

In Baltimore in 2008, 65-year-old Norman Stamp, a 44-year veteran of the city police force, was drinking in a strip joint with fellow members of the bike club he helped found, the Chosen Sons, when a brawl started in the street outside.

Police said Stamp, off-duty and dressed in his Chosen Sons gear, rushed into the fray with brass knuckles. On-duty city cop John Torres, who’d been called to the scene to break up the fight, used a taser on him. When Stamp, on the ground, allegedly reached for his service weapon, Torres shot him.

Stamp identified himself as an officer as he lay dying on the street. Stamp’s widow brought a wrongful death against Torres in 2010, but he was cleared.

That same year, five off-duty Seattle police officers gathered at the Loud American Roadhouse bar in Sturgis, S.D., during the city’s annual motorcycle rally, which draws thousands of enthusiasts from around the country.

All five officers were members of the Iron Pigs motorcycle club, composed of law enforcement and firefighters who ride American-made V-Twin-engine motorcycles.

Several hundred people were in the bar when shots rang out at 1 a.m. A member of the famed Hells Angels motorcycle gang was hospitalized. Investigators found that one of the Seattle officers had fired the shots, but the charges against him were dropped after video evidence showed he acted in self-defense.

But it’s not necessary for police officers to join old-school bike gangs for them to find themselves in compromising positions, as the videotaped confrontation between a group of sport bike riders and a New York driver on Sept. 29 shows.

In recent years, sport bike enthusiasts have begun forming impromptu packs, sometimes assembled via social media, for massive “runs” that clog highways and can intimidate motorists. On Sept. 29, as many as six police officers who took part in an annual New York City sport bike rally called Hollywood Stuntz were nearby when bikers surrounded Range Rover driver Alex Lien in Manhattan, pulled him from his car and beat him in front of his wife and daughter.

Only one officer has been charged with taking part in the attack on the car. Video of the incident allegedly shows undercover NYPD officer Wojciech Braszczok bashing in the rear window of the SUV after it had been surrounded. The officer did not take part in the assault on the driver.

This detective had originally been defended by officials as a deep undercover who failed to defend Lien because that might have damaged his cover.  When the videotape surfaced those officials felt duped, sources said.  Braszczok has been charged with riot and criminal mischief.

For some members of formal bike clubs, the growth of these loosely organized and loosely controlled rides has become a black mark on a culture defined by codes and credos.  

Michael Spano has been riding in New York’s Islanders Motorcycle Club for 14 years, and has designed artwork for clubs across the nation, many of them made up of law enforcement. He says whatever the division between the outlaw clubs and those made up of police, in both, members must follow codes of conduct and rules of the road absent in the big sport bike runs.

“We don’t consider them bikers -- they give us a bad name,” said Spano. “They’re like a pack of wolves.”

Spano said that any cops who were part of the pack that pounced on driver Alex Lien “should be kicked off the force.”

“They should have been the first ones to run over there to pull their gang members off the vehicle,” said Spano. “And they didn’t.”

More from NBC News Investigations:

Follow NBC News Investigations on Twitter and Facebook