STURGIS, S.D. — Never-before-seen crowds are expected to ride into the craggy, evergreen-dotted Black Hills of western South Dakota this week, all headed to the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
The rally is famous for bawdy behavior, with police busting hundreds each year for drunken driving and drugs, but authorities and bikers alike say there’s no indication there will be violence like that seen this spring among outlaw clubs in Waco, Texas, where a shootout left nine people dead and twice as many injured.
Several law enforcement agencies with a presence at Sturgis said they haven’t received intelligence from officials nationwide that outlaw motorcycle gangs are planning violence as an extension of the Waco shootings. And a former Hells Angels chapter leader said it’s likely the gangs will work to stay low key because of the attention on the Texas incident.
“There’s a lot of information out about Waco, (but) not a lot of information that any of it’s going to spill over into Sturgis,” said Dan Satterlee, an assistant director at the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation. “But, like all our operations … not just related to outlaw motorcycle gangs, we are heavily invested with personnel and resources in this Sturgis rally.”
The rally officially kicks off Monday, capping years of planning among state and local agencies for the landmark event, which reportedly began as a race that attracted a handful of people in the late 1930s.
Attendance guesses for this year’s rally exceed 1 million people — a huge jump from the estimated 442,000 people who flooded the town of roughly 6,900 last year. But Sturgis police Chief Jim Bush said he hasn’t changed his security and policing plan much since 1995.
Gangs will likely try to avoid violence at Sturgis this year because of the public attention Waco received, said Pat Matter, who was president of the Minneapolis chapter of the Hells Angels until he went to prison in 2003.
Nine people were killed and 18 injured in the May 17 shootout involving bikers and police at a restaurant that authorities say arose from an apparent confrontation between the Cossacks and Bandidos.
“With everything that’s going on in Waco and just all the stuff with the clubs, for their own preservation, they’re going to want to try to keep this mellowed out and not have a problem …
“(Sturgis) wasn’t the typical place we was going to solve our problems at,” Matter said.
Law enforcement would likely know about planned violence at Sturgis because biker gangs frequently have members “on the hook” to police who provide information, according to Steve Cook, executive director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association.
Biker gang violence can be localized and spurred by turf wars, but it’s also unpredictable, state DCI Director Bryan Gortmaker and other law enforcement officials said. In 2006, two men affiliated with the Hells Angels shot and wounded five people connected to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in Custer State Park, about 70 miles from the rally. In 1990, a Sons of Silence gang member shot an Outlaws member in a bar brawl in Sturgis and two Sons of Silence members were stabbed.
On a recent morning, Randy White and JR Miller sat in lawn chairs under a tarp at the Sturgis Swap Meet, where there’s an open view of the street. They said bikers typically get pulled over for small infractions — “Tail lights, loud pipes,” Miller explained.
“Most people are just up here to have fun and get away from their jobs for a week,” White said. “If you’re looking for trouble, I guess you can find trouble, but I think it’s going to be minimal.”
Just weeks after Waco, roughly 300,000 people attended New Hampshire’s Laconia Motorcycle Week. Authorities also had no specific indication from intelligence reports that there would be spillover violence, and the rally was quiet, Laconia police Chief Chris Adams said.
Bill Moelter, a Sturgis lifer, said he loves the rally because it’s a chance to meet new people and have old friends visit. Perched on a Yamaha Virago in his driveway, the 43-year-old said he anticipates there will be routine violence, but he said police will be able to stamp it out quickly.
“We haven’t locked our doors in 10 years,” Moelter said.