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Blast from the past: Pagans vs. Angels

Friday, March 08, 2002

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"You go to a bar and the prestige is unbelievable. You walk into a big nightclub and you can hear a pin drop. Everybody knows us, like [Moses] separating the Red Sea. Everybody moves back: 'Ooh, that's them!'"

That's the kind of reverence the Pagans motorcycle gang once enjoyed, a former member told the now defunct Pennsylvania Crime Commission.

But respect has always come hard in the outlaw biker world.

That's why investigators fear that last month's deadly assault by the Pagans on the archrival Hell's Angels at a Long Island catering hall is almost certain to spawn more violence, some of which could spill into Western Pennsylvania, home to as many as 25 of the 72 Pagans arrested after the brawl.

The retaliation may have already begun in the eastern part of the state.

Police in Philadelphia suspect that the firebombing of a South Philadelphia tattoo parlor on Tuesday was the latest volley in a long-simmering war between the rival gangs.

The owner of the shop, Joseph "Coney Island Joe" DeMatteo, was among the Pagans arrested Feb. 23 after the attack at the Angels "Hellraisers Ball" exposition, where one Pagan, 51-year-old Robert Rutherford of Lancaster, was shot dead and 10 other people were injured.

Police believe some of the violence could spread to the Pittsburgh area, where the Pagans, though not nearly as strong as they once were, have a long history and some powerful members.

"Most of these guys are in their 40s and 50s and still riding around," said Larry Likar, a former FBI supervisor in Pittsburgh. "They're not as powerful as they once were, but they are still trading on the Pagans name to intimidate people."

Among those held in New York is Dennis "Rooster" Katona, 35, of North Huntingdon, the national sergeant-at-arms of the Pagans' Mother Club. Katona is the successful owner of East Coast Cycles Inc., which has shops in Rostraver, Florida, Germany and Austria.

According to police and the FBI in New York, Katona was also one of the plotters in the attack. Police said he had a map of the Hellraiser Ball exhibits and the catering hall, suggesting he was responsible for scouting the location before the assault. He is charged with attempted gang assault and riot.

Another local Pagan arrested in New York is Warren Schaller, 51, of Youngwood, who is former president and part-owner of Schaller's Bakery of Greensburg. Schaller, whose Pagan handle is "Bake," is charged with attempted gang assault, riot and a weapons offense.

A relative of Schaller's who answered the phone at the bakery said the family-owned shop employs 50 people who would like to distance themselves from the arrest. He didn't want to be identified by name, but he said the family and the employees had heard rumors that Schaller was a Pagan but never thought they were true.

"We're as surprised as anybody by this," he said. "This is terrible for business."

A federal magistrate judge in New York has ordered that Schaller be held without bond as a "danger to the community."

Schaller has a criminal history in Western Pennsylvania, serving a prison term from 1979 to 1985 in connection with the 1977 shooting death of Michael Pierce, 21, of Staten Island, N.Y., outside a Greensburg club. Schaller was originally convicted in 1979 of third-degree murder but granted a new trial in 1981, after which he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Another Western Pennsylvania man charged is Steven Jurnak, 48, of Mount Washington, who, investigators said, was president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pagans until about five years ago.

Some of the Pagans arrested told federal authorities that the attack was authorized by the Pagans' Mother Club, its national organizing body, because the Hell's Angels had taken over former Pagan turf on Long Island.

According to a federal complaint, about 80 members rode in several vans to the exposition. Armed with clubs, baseball bats and guns, they rushed inside, turning over tables and striking some of the 700 people inside the hall during a 10-minute attack that stunned onlookers and police alike.

According to police, the Pagans got the worst of the brawl.

"I wouldn't give these guys too much credit for being bright," said Lt. Steven Skrynecki of the Nassau County police.

The war between the Pagans and Hell's Angels dates to the 1950s.

But the two gangs have been heading in opposite directions in recent years, with the Hell's Angels becoming more established and the Pagans losing influence.

The Hell's Angels, by far the most organized biker gang worldwide, say they are trying to become a legitimate organization and put their outlaw past behind them. Skrynecki said that may be true but "we don't lose sight of the fact that this has been a criminal group." In Canada, the Hell's Angels are so dominant in the drug trade that police have created a special unit, the Wolverines, to go after them.

The Pagans were nearly eliminated from Long Island by a federal prosecution in 1998. But when the Hell's Angels moved into their former territory, investigators believe, they felt they had no choice but to fight back.

Mark Lancaster, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represents the Pagans, contends they were entitled to attend the Hellraiser Ball expo and were victims of aggression by the Hell's Angels. He didn't return a call from the Post-Gazette, but he told news organizations in New York that the Pagans went to the expo to "show they're not afraid of the Hell's Angels despite the absence of the Pagans from the Long Island community."

Four biker gangs have long dominated in the United States: the Hell's Angels, the Pagans, the Outlaws and the Bandidos. The Pagans, who got their start in Maryland, have always been Pennsylvania's dominant gang.

Two major federal prosecutions in the 1980s hurt them badly here, however, when the FBI used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to "decimate" the group, according to Likar.

Despite the decline, the Pagans in Pennsylvania remain involved in drug dealing, particularly methamphetamines, and shaking down bars and clubs. They have also moved into the video poker industry as the power of other organized crime groups has diminished, according to state police.

In addition, some of those who had been sent away to prison are now out.

"They're making a strong comeback," said the police investigator. "But this is going to hurt them. They are in disarray right now, so many of them are locked up."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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