Authorities put the brakes on Wheels: Camden biker clubhouse shutdown for code violationsWHEN A SWAT team rolled down Princess Avenue in Camden last month to close the local Wheels of Soul Motorcycle Club's infamous clubhouse, the bikers weren't loading guns, sharpening switchblades or gripping brass knuckles.
"We were watching the History Channel," said "Hot Rod," 44, president of the Camden chapter. "It was about Nostradamus, so I guess we should have seen it coming."
The Jan. 26 raid on the "Doghouse," the nickname the members gave their foreboding but beloved fortress of nearly 40 years in the city's Parkside section, didn't end in a barrage of bullets. Instead, the city's code-enforcement office brought legal firepower, checking off a laundry list of health, safety and fire-code violations and nailing fresh plywood across the front door.
Police sources also said that the Wheels of Soul, notorious for their shoot-out with a rival gang at a high-school football game in 1979, ran a speakeasy from the property and that police found a small amount of crack cocaine during the raid.
"Thanks to the joint efforts between city and county law- and code-enforcement agencies, the Wheels of Soul gang will not be able to run illegal operations from the Princess Avenue property," Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said in a news release. "This gang has plagued the Parkside community of Camden for too long. Hopefully, we have shut their operations for good."
"Hot Rod," a Camden resident who declined to give his real name, said that as long as the beef between the city and the Wheels is about code violations, the club should be able fix the problems and reopen.
"This is the first time they came to us with all these violations and permits. They said we need a permit for our stove," he said, standing outside the clubhouse last week wearing a leather vest. "We're going to do what the city asks of us."
The city said in its news release that "the Wheels of Soul gang has a history of illegal activities" and that "multiple shootings" - both fatal and nonfatal - have occurred on the 800 block of Princess Avenue, a stretch that consists entirely of industrial buildings. Two of the shootings happened in recent months near the clubhouse, police sources said.
The Wheels of Soul take great offense to the labels "outlaw" or "gang," but readily admit they will fight anyone with their fists if the situation arises. They also claim to frisk anyone who comes to their clubhouse to shoot pool or drink beer; this is mostly, they say, because they've all been shot before.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy," said "Gorilla," a 51-year-old member and postal worker from Willingboro. "We don't like getting shot."
Dennis "Eagle" Black, who pulled up to the clubhouse last week with a handicapped tag on the rear-view mirror of his Mercury, said he's not fighting at all. He just wants a place to hang out.
"Man, I'm 60 years old, I'm not looking to get my ass whupped," the Camden resident said.
In April 2007, Paul Medley III was shot dead in what authorities described as a fight that started in the clubhouse and spilled outside. Last month, a club member and another man were sentenced to jail for a cocaine-distribution ring authorities contend operated out of the clubhouse.
The Wheels deny that any crack cocaine was seized during the Jan. 26 operation, and said no guns or stolen goods were confiscated either. Camden police confirmed that one Wheels member was arrested on warrants during the raid, but deny the group's claim that police beat the man.
Club members say that any problem on Princess Avenue gets unfairly blamed on the Wheels of Soul.
"We're always seen as the bad guys," Gorilla said. "There's a lot of myths about guys who like to ride motorcycles and party. They don't pay attention to the good things we do."
The good things, the Wheels claim, include keeping "criminals and drug dealers" off their street and hosting an annual Halloween party for kids in Camden on neighboring property that the city says they don't own. The group also looks out for businesses on the block, including a Campbell's Soup building riddled with bullet holes across its rear wall.
"Yeah, somebody shot that up years ago," said Clarence "Coyote" Maske, 57, who is one of the chapter's original members.
Loud Harleys aside, one business owner a few doors down from the clubhouse said the Wheels have always been decent neighbors.
"They don't mess with me and they keep people away from my fence," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "I think the police said they sell drugs there, but [people] sell drugs everywhere in Camden."
Campbell's Soup did not acknowledge the close relationship that the Wheels claim the two have.
"No one seems to know much about them except they have been there a long time," a Campbell's spokeswoman said.
The only thing most people in greater South Jersey know about the Wheels of Soul stems from an incident that happened a long time ago in Camden.
On Thanksgiving 1979, a growing beef between the Wheels of Soul and a recently formed offshoot, the Ghetto Riders, spilled over during the football game between Camden and Woodrow Wilson high schools.
Mike Rozier, a senior running back for Woodrow Wilson, had already scored twice and was driving again at the 10-yard line in the third quarter when he said gunfire erupted.
"Man, we all hit the dirt," said Rozier, 48, a college star and NFL pro who won the Heisman Trophy in 1983 and now lives in Sicklerville, Camden County. "A friend of mine's dad was a cop and I saw him shooting back."
Nine people were wounded in that shoot-out, including Maske's brother, Jessie. Maske himself was only stomped, he said.
"That was another time. That's not us anymore. We just like to party," he said. "This is probably the safest place in Camden now."
Rich Norcross, a retired gang-intelligence investigator with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said the Wheels of Soul in Camden, along with other chapters, are definitely a "gang," one that actively recruits new members and still dabbles in drug sales, robberies and theft.
Like every other outlaw motorcycle gang, the Wheels of Soul also paint themselves as Robin Hoods on bikes, he added.
"They do one nice thing, once a year," Norcross said. "The other 364 days are mayhem."