“The times have changed,” says Peter “Big Pete” James, 62, who lives in the west suburbs. “Somehow, there’s no testosterone out there.”
James hung up his Outlaws vest — black leather with a skull and crossed pistons patch — last year amid an internal dispute with other local leaders and his own ongoing fight with cancer.
Contrary to the biker rumor mill, James isn’t returning to the fray, he told the Sun-Times. His wide-ranging interview was unusual because so-called “1-percenter” bikers generally are loath to talk publicly about their business.
Watching from the sidelines, James says that maybe the biggest indication his old club is slipping involves the rise of the rival Hells Angels motorcycle club, which he believes is poised to overtake the Outlaws as the big-dog biker group in the Chicago area — an unthinkable development not long ago.
He predicts — but insists he isn’t advocating — renewed conflict between the two groups resulting from the shifting dynamic.
An attorney for the Outlaws responds only, “There wouldn’t be any comment at this time.” The Hells Angels didn’t respond to inquiries.
Back in the 1990s, the Outlaws and Hells Angels — both which have weathered intense federal prosecutions and allegations they’re nothing more than gangs on wheels involved in drug dealing and mayhem — were locked in “war” in Chicago, as the Hells Angels made a foray into the region, the Outlaws’ long-established turf.
After a series of bombings, shootings and stabbings, the rival clubs formed a fragile truce. The Hells Angels, formed in 1948 in California, gave up their attempt to put a clubhouse within the Chicago city limits and, instead, planted a flag in Harvey, remaining there today.
“Big” Pete James. | Provided Photo
Since then, the Outlaws have maintained a stronghold in Chicago, with a South Side clubhouse at 25th and Rockwell and a North Side clubhouse on Division Street. It also has several other chapters in northern Illinois.
As regional vice president, James had domain over all of them and also was president of the North Siders. In all, he says there were maybe 100 hard-core members in northern Illinois.
But James says smart moves by the Hells Angels — plus waves of prosecutions, poor leadership by some current Outlaws and changing times and attitudes — have changed Things.
For one, James says local Outlaws are less willing to take orders from the top.
“It used to be the boss’ word was law,” he says. “He says, ‘Ride off the cliff,’ and guys would ride off a cliff. The quality of the members has gone down.”
Fear of prison has also had an impact on some local club leaders, according to James, who’s critical of his old group for not being “entrepreneurial.”
Unlike the Outlaws, Hells Angels members are Internet-savvy, with the group’s local Facebook page accumulating more than 29,000 “likes” and the club selling T-shirts and other merchandise on its website.
The Hells Angels also have made money by holding parties at its Harvey clubhouse and at bars in the Chicago area, according to James, who says the club welcomes “civilians” and members of smaller biker clubs to their parties.
“The Outlaws are losing out on the party money,” he says, along with the chance to market themselves and gain supporters.
Chicago-area law enforcement officials periodically have cracked down on both clubs. They say they’ve been preoccupied with other groups in recent years — especially the African-American gang factions behind Chicago’s staggering 50 percent rise in murders this year.
It was more than a decade ago when federal authorities charged Melvin Chancey, the former president of the Chicago-area Hells Angels, with racketeering and drug trafficking.
Melvin Chancey, then 29 and president of the Chicago chapter of the Hells Angels in 1998 in Harvey. | Sun-Times files
The last major Chicago law-enforcement crackdown of the Outlaws was more than five years ago. Chicago Outlaws member Mark Polchan was convicted of orchestrating a 2003 bombing outside C & S Coin Operated Amusements, a video-poker business in Berwyn that reputed mob boss Michael “The Large Guy” Sarno wanted to destroy to protect his own gambling interests. The pipe bomb blew out windows and damaged the building.
Polchan, who also was accused of fencing stolen jewelry for the mob at his Cicero pawnshop, was sentenced in 2011 to 60 years in federal prison.
James describes Polchan as his one-time “confidant” and says, “I love him.”
He says he has continued to receive occasional visits from federal agents looking for information on the biker world that he says he’s unwilling to give. “I try to be polite, to a point,” he says.
He figures his former club isn’t engaged in criminal activity at the same level as in the old days. Drug dealing, he says, worries graying members who don’t want to face a prison stretch lasting decades.
Even if things seem more low-key, though, “It doesn’t mean there’s not violence,” James says. “It’s just not as flagrant.”
But there have been reports of Outlaws roughing up members of weaker Hispanic biker clubs in the Chicago area since James left. The apparent aim: to force them to ally more closely with the Outlaws, which has long enjoyed a “support system” from other clubs.
James says there’s nothing wrong with building alliances, but it’s stupid to enlist “Neanderthal” methods, adding, “They’re not thinking it through.”
James says that when he was in charge, he created a confederation of dozens of biker clubs, part of an effort “to change the stereotype.”
He says the TV show “Sons of Anarchy,” which aired on FX from 2008 to 2014, popularized but also caused headaches for “1-percenter” biker clubs — so-called for representing the 1 percent of bikers supposedly involved in crime.
“I watched the show,” he says, laughing. “It was like an Outfit guy watching ‘The Sopranos.’ Kind of a joke.”
Fans of the show about a criminal biker group in California formed their own clubs and made pilgrimages to the Outlaws clubhouse on Division Street to ask James to “sanction” them. James says he refused to avoid giving the feds a reason to charge him with racketeering.
He says those newbies might dress the part and ride around on Harleys but don’t share 1-percenters’ “toughness.”
Jay Dobyns got a firsthand look at the 1-percenter lifestyle when he infiltrated the Hells Angels in Arizona as an undercover ATF agent in the early 2000s.
“These guys are not book smart but have their Ph.Ds in violence and intimidation,” says Dobyns, now retired and living in Arizona. “I think the term ‘brotherhood’ is very easily thrown around in today’s society. We hear it and use it a lot. They take it to a life-and-death level. When I was with the club, there were guys who would have stepped in front of a bullet for me. Now, they want to put a bullet in me.”
Dobyns says he crossed paths with Chancey — “one of the true believers that the elimination of the enemy was a critical part of the mission, the survival of their own club. In that area, the enemy was the Outlaws.”
The continued animosity between the Hells Angels and Outlaws makes James’ recent friendship with George Christie an unlikely one. Christie is a former high-ranking Hells Angels leader who left the group in 2011 and was “excommunicated.”
Christie and James both have appeared on CNN to offer their expertise on biker life and both wrote books on the subject — James’ memoir is expected to be released next year.
James says the main reason he wrote the book was to show how far things have slipped in what he regards as a once-noble brotherhood and to spur change in leadership and attitudes among the Outlaws in Illinois.
“It used to be guys banded together who believed in something, and they had fun,” James says. “There’s no brotherhood left in the Outlaws any more.”
Peter “Big Pete” James. | Provided Photo
He says the Outlaws in Chicago have a choice to make as their rival grows and encroaches.
“The choice is fight or flight,” he says. “They know the Angels will push them out of town. Who’s going to light the match?”
James says he won’t be on the front lines if that happens. Last year, he had his “God Forgives, Outlaws Don’t” tattoo covered up with a new design.
“I’m borderline ashamed already to say I was once one,” he says.