Even now, nearly six decades after it first appeared on the backs of local bikers, the gold knight’s helmet and red feather patch serves as a reminder that this is Kingsmen turf.
Yes, there are other biker gangs here, but none as large or with roots as deep in the community as the one with the motto, “Live Kingsmen, Die Kingsmen.”
Over the years, the gang grew from a small club in Lockport into a major East Coast organization, all the while avoiding the violent outlaw reputation that followed bigger national gangs like the Bandidos, Mongols and Hell’s Angels.
But then, according to federal prosecutors, two things happened to the Kingsmen: North Tonawanda native David Pirk became national president and, on Pirk’s orders, two of the club’s leaders were executed in North Tonawanda by a fellow gang member.
Suddenly, the Kingsmen were seen as “one-percenters,” biker slang for the small number of motorcycle riders who are hardened criminals.
“There was a big split in the Kingsmen,” said Donald C. Davis, a former biker gang member who writes “The Aging Rebel,” a national blog popular with bikers. “Pirk wanted them to become a one-percent club, and a lot of members were against it. A lot of the Kingsmen in New York State and Pennsylvania wanted to mellow it out, and not become something out of the ‘Sons of Anarchy.’ ”
Pirk, a Florida resident, and 15 other Kingsmen are now charged with turning the club into a criminal enterprise dependent on drug-dealing, illegal weapons sales and prostitution. Pirk at one time faced a possible death sentence but now faces a lengthy prison term if convicted of ordering the two murders, a charge he denies.
Law enforcement officials say the Kingsmen were essentially split into two factions – club members in Western New York who didn’t want to be one-percenters and the guys down in Florida who did.
“These killings were done to send a message,” said one investigator familiar with the case. “There has been a civil war within the Kingsmen organization over the past few years, and these two killings were 100 percent connected to the civil war.”
Over the years, the Kingsmen had their share of rivalries that turned ugly, most notably a longstanding feud with the Chosen Few, but the violence never reached the level of other, more notorious biker incidents across the country.
But then, in September 2014, came what many saw as a clear message that life among the Kingsmen was changing – the murders of Daniel “DJ” Szymanski and Paul Maue by fellow gang member Andre “Little Bear” Jenkins.
“It’s hard to make sense of,” Randy McBee, a professor at Texas Tech and the author of “Born to Be Wild,” a recent book on bikers, said of the killings. “It’s almost a kind of old-school gang politics.”
In the eyes of many, the murders were a warning to Kingsmen everywhere. Investigators say between 20 and 30 Kingsmen had already left the gang for a rival club, the Niagara County-based Nickel City Nomads. Sources say Szymanski and Maue were rumored to be leaving, as well.
Maue’s friends don’t buy it.
“There is no way Paul would ever have left the Kingsmen,” said a longtime family friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity after voicing extreme fears of the Kingsmen. “Paul was just too loyal to that club. He cared more about the Kingsmen than he cared about many of the people in his own family.”
Bikers have told the Maue family that there was an earlier confrontation at the North Tonawanda Kingsmen clubhouse on the night when Maue and Szymanski were killed. They claim Jenkins, who is serving life without parole, had been locked out of the club and was angry.
“I don’t understand why Paul was killed,” the family friend said. “A war between two biker groups? I can see that. I can see people getting killed in something like that. But killing someone from your own club? Your brother bikers? I can’t understand that.”
Focusing on Pirk
Even though 16 Kingsmen are charged in the federal prosecution, it’s David Pirk that the feds want more than anyone else. Investigators say the Kingsmen president was the force behind the double murder plot and the campaign to become one-percenters.
Now 65, Pirk, with his tattoos, long white hair and beard, has the look of a biker. He grew up in North Tonawanda, lived in a Lockport mobile home for a time and eventually moved to Eustis, Fla., where he ran a tree-trimming service.
“Most bikers are followers, but David was a leader,” said one biker who knows Pirk. “When I knew him, he was working for a guy who cut down trees. Dave was a family man, not a troublemaker. I never even knew him to get into a fight.”
Prosecutors claim there’s a much more sinister side to Pirk. They also claim he was behind the transition to a criminal organization.
Bill Peidlow, the Kingsmen’s new acting president, wouldn’t comment on the murders or Pirk’s alleged ties to them in an interview with The Buffalo News, but he described the indictment as “embellished” and “overblown.”
When asked about the reports of a civil war within the club, Peidlow said there was discussion over the move to a one-percent club three years ago that never went anywhere. After the murders, the club’s national board formally voted down the idea, he said.
“We’re not into that type of lifestyle,” Peidlow said. “We’re a family-oriented club, and that’s a priority for all of us.”
After Pirk’s arrest in Florida, a federal prosecutor there told a judge that Pirk is a dangerous man with a criminal history that includes past arrests for obstruction, escape, resisting arrest, conspiracy, reckless endangerment and leaving the scene of an accident. Prosecutors did not specify the outcomes of those cases.
In 1995, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office charged Pirk and another individual with going to a Lockport man’s home and beating him with a crutch and a television set. The outcome of that case also was not available.
Before their arrest earlier this year, Pirk and co-defendant Timothy Enix met with FBI agents in Florida and denied any involvement in the North Tonawanda murders.
“Specifically, they mentioned that Kingsmen members do not kill other Kingsmen members,” Special Agent David Brown told a judge there last month.
Pirk and Enix also made it clear that they would have preferred that law enforcement not get involved, Brown said, and that the Kingsmen would have handled Jenkins on their own.
A few months later, during his first appearance in Buffalo, Pirk again denied that he was behind the murders.
“David Pirk has entered a not guilty plea, has contested these charges, will continue to contest these charges and will confront the allegations at trial,” said William T. Easton, a defense lawyer with a record of handling death penalty cases. Buffalo defense attorney Cheryl Meyers Buth is also representing Pirk. Because Pirk has told authorities he cannot afford to hire a lawyer, both attorneys are court-appointed and paid by taxpayers.
For decades, people’s perception of the Kingsmen was limited to frequent sightings of their trademark colors on local highways, or of a Kingsmen and his “old lady” at a local bar, concert or fundraiser.
The club had its share of run-ins with rival gangs, especially the Chosen Few, but never had a reputation as one of the nation’s most violent biker gangs. That dubious distinction belongs to larger national and international gangs like the Hell’s Angels, Outlaws, Mongols, Pagans and Bandidos.
“There are guys who join clubs to become weekend riders and partiers, and then you have the one-percenters, who join to commit crimes,” said Steve Cook, a Missouri police officer and president of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association.
Cook says smaller clubs like the Kingsmen are often involved in a laundry list of criminal activities – drug dealing, gun trafficking, assault and stealing motorcycles. He estimated that, on average, about 50 bikers are murdered by rivals each year, but he said murders by members of the same club are unusual.
“It’s a violent subculture,” Cook said. “Sometimes, when you have people split off and leave a club, it threatens the very existence of the club, and there’s violence.”
Investigator James Dillman, a biker gang expert in southern Florida, says he’s not surprised by the allegation that Pirk had members of his own club killed.
He recalled that eight bikers were murdered by their own gang – the Bandidos – in the small town of Shedden, Ont., in April 2006. The bodies were found stuffed in the trunks of cars on a farm property in Shedden, 167 miles west of Buffalo.
“In that case, the Bandidos were trying to cleanse the chapter of what they thought were bad influences,” said Dillman, a member of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.
With roots dating back to the 1950s, the Kingsmen have grown over the years. Until recently, they operated a dozen clubhouses throughout the region, including rural areas such as Attica, Arcade and Gowanda. They also have a presence in Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
Prosecutors say the clubhouses are used for meetings and parties, and there were strict rules on who was allowed in and out. Inside, there was often a fully stocked bar, as well as slot and poker machines. Members hold meetings in the clubhouses that are referred to as “church” meetings.
“Each clubhouse also had a stripper pole,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi said in court last month.
To hear investigators talk, the clubhouses were used to store drugs and weapons, and sometimes were the site of Kingsmen-on-Kingsmen violence.
In August 2013, at least four bikers broke into a Kingsmen clubhouse on North Transit Road, attacking a club member with baseball bats and the butt of a gun, police said. One of the intruders pointed a gun at the victim while his cohorts stole a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and several guns
Investigators said the biker who was injured that night told them he was attacked by fellow members of the Lockport Kingsmen chapter. Four men were arrested and all pleaded guilty, said police, who identified the attackers as “old Kingsmen” and said the victim was one of the “new Kingsmen” who had taken over the chapter.
“This was a very violent attack,” one officer said.
The Lockport incident occurred around the time of other alleged attacks by Kingsmen on fellow members at Kingsmen clubhouses in Springville, Attica and Hernando Valley, Fla., according to federal court papers.
Four Kingsmen named in the federal indictment are accused of driving to their gang’s clubhouse in Springville in June 2013, where they “forcibly shut down” the chapter and stripped several Springville members of their beloved Kingsmen “colors” – leather vests with Kingsmen insignia on them.
In one of the indictment’s most disturbing charges, prosecutors allege that in September 2009, a Kingsmen named Gregory Willson repeatedly punched a woman in the face because she tried to walk out of a Pennsylvania clubhouse without official permission from a Kingsman.
After that, the indictment alleges that Willson confiscated the woman’s cellphone so she couldn’t call police and took her to a house in Olean where Willson and other Kingsmen gave the her heroin and repeatedly sexually assaulted her over a period of four days. Willson has denied the allegations.
With local members in their 40s, 50s and 60s, the Kingsmen, like a lot of biker gangs, are an aging organization with deep roots in the community.
Now nearly 60 years old, the club started out as a half-dozen weightlifters with a passion for motorcycle riding. Over the years, it grew beyond its Lockport roots and began attracting a more diverse membership, including a few accountants, lawyers, clergy and members of law enforcement.
Despite its run-ins with other biker gangs, some of them violent, the Kingsmen also earned a reputation for charitable work, especially in the dozen or so communities where they had clubhouses. The group is known for its fundraising rides, and Peidlow says its South Buffalo clubhouse served as a “sanctuary” for stranded motorists fleeing the Thruway during a heavy snowstorm last year.
“I think they’ve painted a pretty broad picture,” the new president said of federal prosecutors handling the case. “A lot of what they said was embellished and overblown.”
Many of the Kingsmen facing charges grew up here, made their lives here and have families and friends eager to poke holes in the government’s case.
Defense attorneys for the Kingsmen, including Daniel C. Oliverio, say they’re certain that at least some of the 16 defendants had “absolutely nothing” to do with the two murders or other violent acts charged in the indictment.
Oliverio represents Thomas Scanlon, 46, president of the Olean Kingsmen chapter. Prosecutors claim some of the planning for the two murders took place at the Olean clubhouse.
“My client is an Army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who got a Purple Heart after he was injured by an improvised explosive device in the war,” Oliverio said. “He’s a family man who had a good job as a chemical salesman, which he lost as a result of the indictment, and his brother is a state trooper.”
Oliverio, a former federal prosecutor, said he knows that some biker gangs are involved in violent criminal activities, but it’s unfair to portray every biker club member as a criminal. He said his client was a good friend of Szymanski and Maue and had no involvement in their murders.
Sean McIndoo, 43, a graduate of Nichols School and Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told a judge he joined the Kingsmen in 2009 in an effort to meet new people.
Seven years later, he finds himself accused of supplying weapons to the gang. Prosecutors say McIndoo was called a Kingsmen “Nomad,” a rank reserved for the most violent members of the club.
“That’s mythology,” Mark J. Mahoney, McIndoo’s defense lawyer., told U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer. “The government has decided, because it’s a motorcycle case, we’re going to put everyone in jail.”
It’s no secret the government is watching biker gangs more closely since two well-known rivals, the Bandidos and Cossacks, clashed last year at a crowded restaurant in Waco, Texas. Nine people died and 18 others were injured.
“It’s kind of open season on motorcycle gangs,” said McBee, the Texas Tech professor. “Bikers are attracting more scrutiny now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of it.”
Defense attorney Paul J. Cambria, who has represented many bikers, noted that the last major effort to prosecute a Buffalo-area motorcycle club failed miserably in 2011, when prosecutors decided to drop all the charges they had filed against 18 members of the Lancaster-based Chosen Few. In that case, defense attorneys proved that a key FBI informant had lied about some of the activities of the Chosen Few, who had been accused of bombings and other attacks on the Kingsmen.
From Day One, prosecutors have gone out of their way to challenge allegations that the feds overreached in their pursuit of the Kingsmen. During court hearings, they stressed the leadership positions held by the gang members facing federal charges, and the importance of those positions in the club’s decision-making.
They also were quick to note that, while each of the 16 defendants had a different level of involvement in the Kingsmen, each of them played a central role in the criminal enterprise at the heart of the indictment.
“This indictment charges the worst of the worst,” said Tripi, who is prosecuting the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Caleb J. Petzoldt.
The Kingsmen case was investigated by the FBI-led Safe Streets Task Force, which also includes members of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and several other agencies.
When David Pirk appeared in a Buffalo courtroom for the first time, DJ Szymanski’s parents were there to see him arraigned.
Sigmund Szymanski said his late son loved riding his motorcycle with his buddies in the Kingsmen. He said “well over 100” bikers, many of them Kingsmen, showed up to pay their respects at his son’s wake, lining up to express condolences to the slain biker’s family.
Something about that sad day at a local funeral home now haunts Sigmund Szymanski.
“I may have shaken hands with some of the very people who were behind the murders,” he said.
email: pfairbanks@buffnews and firstname.lastname@example.org