Facebook Twitter

Bikers evoke love, loathing

Fight against child abuse revs up deep emotions

SHARE Bikers evoke love, loathing

The rumble can be heard blocks before the parade of Harley-Davidson riders decked out in black leather and attitude roar two-by-two into a quiet Payson neighborhood.

Fifty-five members of Bikers Against Child Abuse park their motorcycles along the street in front of Ann Clark's house. Her 6-year-old twin boy and girl eagerly await their arrival. The children wear T-shirts reading, "Warning: The surgeon general has determined that it is hazardous to your health to mess with a BACA child."

The bikers, some sporting grizzled beards, black bandanas and ponytails, form a serpentine line in front of Clark and her children. They're looking for hugs, but the shy, dark-haired girl prefers high fives as her mother holds her. Her freckle-faced brother runs around greeting bikers left and right.

"I was a little nervous about having them come at first," Clark said of BACA's initial visit in April. But now two months later she said she has seen a change in her daughter. She no longer hides behind her when a man approaches. "It's probably the best thing I could have done for their healing."

BACA members often are big teddy bears who gently hug an abused child. And sometimes they are burly brutes who enforce the mock surgeon general's warning on the T-shirts. They have been known to threaten and allegedly even beat up suspected child molesters.

"Some guys have a tendency to take the law into their own hands," one former member says.

Critics call them vigilantes. Others see them as sort of Hells Angels of mercy.

They straddled their hogs in search of Elizabeth Smart. They were kicked off an airplane for intervening with parents whom they believed inappropriately disciplined a toddler. They sit menacingly in courtrooms glaring at accused child molesters. "We're not vigilantes. We're not out hunting down people. We're here for the children," said JP "Chief" Lilly, a Provo child therapist who founded BACA.

The April visit to Clark's home resulted in a heated, profane confrontation with Payson police. The teenage perpetrator, who has since been placed on probation, lives on the same street, and his father called police because the boy was scared, Lt. Bill Wright said.

BACA members said they didn't know where he lived until police told them.

"We don't go out and harass 15- and 16-year-olds. If he's 21, maybe," said Chris Clark, BACA's Utah president. (No relation to Ann Clark.) "We work hard to be nice."

The June ride went off without trouble.

A motorcycle enthusiast, Lilly formed Bikers Against Child Abuse in 1995 to empower abused children and provide them a support network. In addition to visiting children to "adopt" them into BACA with a denim vest bearing the group's fist and skull-and-crossbones patch, rough-and-ready bikers accompany them to court and parole hearings. More than 1,000 Utah children are now part of the fold.

The group has taken off rapidly since Lilly lined up 27 bikers for the first ride. There are now 1,500 members, including 200 in Utah, in 52 chapters nationwide.

According to BACA's Web site, bikers must ride with the group for a year and undergo a criminal background check before becoming members.

Lilly said BACA initially faced "stiff opposition" from police departments and other authorities. The organization, he said, has gained credibility by sticking to its mission and abiding by the law.

Asked how far the group will go to protect a child, Central Utah Chapter President Geno Chidester says "pretty far" and refers to the group's mission statement.

"We do not condone violence and physical force in any manner; however, if we are the only obstacle preventing a child from further abuse, we stand ready to be that obstacle," the statement reads in part.

Utah County public defender Richard Gale says BACA went way too far with one of his clients, convicted kidnapper Chris Gardner.

"BACA jumped me," Gardner said in an interview at the Utah State Prison. Initially charged with first-degree felony child kidnapping, Gardner is serving up to 15 years after pleading guilty to a reduced charge.

Gardner, 23, claims five men tricked him into going for a walk in Kiwanis Park in Provo in June 2000. He said they beat him up saying, "Leave that kid alone" and "That's what you get for kidnapping that kid."

Bystanders called police, and an ambulance transported a bloodied Gardner to the hospital, where he was treated for facial bruises and a broken nose.

Gardner told his attorney in a subsequent court hearing that he recognized one of the assailants, later identified as BACA's Chris Clark.

Gale sought criminal charges against Clark through both the Utah County Attorney's Office and the Utah attorney general to no avail. He unsuccessfully petitioned for a grand jury indictment the following year.

All Clark has to say about the accusation is, "Prove it. He's full of crap."

Except for the CTR ring on his finger, Clark, a 47-year-old grandfather, strikes an imposing figure in his black leathers, black bandana pulled tightly over his head and mirrored sunglasses. His deep voice and tough talk add to his Darth Vader-like persona.

But "we're not the monsters that people makes us out to be."

Clark says his involvement in BACA is "for the kids, bro."

"There's no one else to stand up for some of these kids. Sometimes we might get a little zealous, but we feel so bad for these kids that are betrayed."

The Central Utah Chapter gathers every second Saturday to visit children in Utah Valley. The June ride took them to seven houses.

The motorcycle group brings morning yard work to a halt when it thunders through a neighborhood. Riders and their bikes are more a curiosity than anything else. It's as if a motorcycle show has rolled into town. Residents drop brooms and shovels in favor of cameras and camcorders.

Troy and Julie Bohling stood in their driveway watching the spectacle in Spanish Fork earlier this month. Troy Bohling said he was somewhat familiar with BACA.

"I know enough to know their purpose is pretty good. I'm not sure about their methods because I don't know about their methods. But the message is clear: Don't mess with the kids."

A former BACA member says the group's vision to protect children gets skewed and some members act before they think. "I think sometimes the biker mentality takes over."

Some criminal defense attorneys see BACA as nothing more than a street gang.

Anecdotes of slashed tires, bikers circling clients' homes and workplaces and mysteriously placed bumper stickers reading, "I support child abuse" abound.

"They're all about an effort to intimidate people who participate in the judicial process," said Salt Lake defense attorney Mark Moffat.

"Through their clothing, through their dress and through the symbols they adorn themselves with, they're attempting to bring into a courtroom setting what is, in all reality, a prison ethic regarding the treatment of people accused of sexual offenses."

Imprisoned child molesters are considered the lowest of the low and are subject to mistreatment at the hands of other inmates.

The bikers, those lawyers say, have no concept of innocent until proven guilty, presuming all alleged abusers committed the crime.

Clark said BACA errs on the side of the child. "We apologize if there's some collateral damage, but that's our rule."

BACA members frequently attend high-profile court hearings en masse, ostensibly to support the child.

But a recent recording on the BACA court hotline said of one defendant, "He's been a pest to a witness. We need to be a pest in court with our presence."

Says Central Utah Chapter member Mont Barney, "If the perp is intimidated by our presence, so be it."

Sometimes their milling around outside the courthouse leads to confrontations with those accused of child abuse and with defense lawyers.

Provo attorney John Allan said the bikers heckled not only his client but his client's parents during a trial last year. He told them to back off.

"I support the idea of, 'Hey, we're tough bikers and therefore we're going to stand up and we're going to protect these children.' If it gives the children that mentality, great," Allan said. "But, 'We're tough bikers and we're going to threaten and coerce the defendants and scare them to death,' I think that's completely out of line."

What's worse, defense attorneys say, is BACA's presence in the courtroom

"We behave ourselves in court," Lilly said.

But bikers in full BACA regalia, attorneys say, influence judges and juries and compromise defendants' right to a fair trial.

"My clients have a right to go to court not feeling intimidated, not having to question if the court is somehow accepting what BACA is promoting," Moffat said. "I don't want them anywhere near one of my juries."

BACA contends the First Amendment give them the right to wear their biker patches. But Moffat said case law shows judges have absolute discretion to maintain decorum in courtrooms.

A federal judge recently granted Moffat's motion to bar BACA members from wearing their logo during a pre-trial hearing in a sexual abuse case. The U.S. Attorney's Office appealed the ruling, arguing biker attire is neither disruptive nor prejudicial.

Lilly doubts BACA holds sway with a judge. "That doesn't make any sense to me," he said.

Juries, though, might be another matter. The "show of force" puts undue pressure on jurors who might fear retaliation, Allan said.

Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson doubts that.

"I don't see where it would intimidate a jury. It might intimidate a defendant," he said. "But I'm not sure it intimidates a defendant any more than having a large number of family members there to support a victim."

Provo defense attorney Mike Esplin successfully petitioned a Fourth District judge to ban BACA members from wearing their insignia during a child abuse trial last year.

"I'll do it routinely if I sense there is an interest by BACA," he said.

A dozen BACA members showed up in court this month to support 6-year-old Ben Bladh, the Mapleton boy who last fall was kidnapped, wrapped in duct tape and cut numerous times with a knife. Robert Allen Kartchner pleaded guilty to the crime June 11. Ben did not have to testify.

"The reason he pleaded guilty is because he knew Ben was going to get up and nail him," Chris Clark told BACA members assembled on the Bladhs' front lawn the next day.

Meantime, Ben, wearing his denim vest with the BACA logo, wandered around his yard hugging every biker in sight, clearly enjoying his new friendships.

"It's meant a lot to him," said his father, Dan Bladh. "He feels like he's got a whole new family."

Now that he's in the cradle, the bikers have Ben's backing for the rest of his life.

"He'll always be part of the BACA family. We really mean that. He knows that when he graduates from high school, we'll be there," Lilly said. "He's like our son or brother all wrapped in one."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com