This article was originally published Feb. 5, 2016.
Army officials in Colorado say they're considering placing the Iron Order — one of the fastest-growing motorcycle clubs in the country, and particularly popular among military and law enforcement personnel — on an off-limits list of extremist groups and criminal gangs in the wake of a deadly biker brawl in Denver.
"After what happened this weekend, it is definitely under review," said Lt. Col. Jason Brown, a spokesman for Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division.
One man was killed and several others critically injured when dozens of bikers from the Iron Order and Mongol motorcycle clubs collided in a gun and knife fight at a Saturday swap meet in downtown Denver last Saturday.
About half of the Iron Order bikers involved in the brawl were military veterans from the Colorado area, according to a top leader in the club.
The Mongols are among about seven dominant "Outlaw" motorcycle clubs, also known as "1-Percenters" in the biker world and recognizable by the three-piece patches they wear. The Mongols — whose own website describes them Self-described as the "baddest 1%er motorcycle club known worldwide" — the Mongols have long had a reputation as one of the most violent gangs in the country and are considered off limits to military personnel by most commands.
The Iron Order is a relative newcomer, started in 2004 by a former Secret Service agent, but growing rapidly. One expert told Military Times the law enforcement-heavy Iron Order has a reputation for starting a fight then being the first to call police. The club's attorney, however, says members of the charitable organization don't want any trouble because they have important careers on the line.
Both the attorney and a report by federal investigators say violence often stems from the Iron Order's choice to wear a certain style of patch.
"The Iron Order is one of the fastest growing motorcycle clubs in the United States," according to a 2014 Justice Department report. "Members wear a traditional three-piece patch with a State bottom rocker. The fact that they wear the State bottom rocker has infuriated the [Hells Angels Motorcycle Club], Outlaws, Iron Horsemen, Pagans and Bandidos. More importantly, many of their members are police and corrections officers, active-duty military and/or government employees and contractors."
Fort Carson officials say the Iron Order is not on the post's list of off-limits groups but could be soon as part of the command's regular assessments with local law enforcement leaders.
"I can guarantee it will be part of that conversation," Brown said.
The off-limits list, part of a May 2015 memo to troops signed by Maj. Gen. Ryan F. Gonsalves, states that soldiers will not actively advocate, associate with or participate in groups that advance, encourage or advocate the use of force, violence or criminal activity to include outlaw motorcycle gangs.
In the meantime, Brown suggested troops steer clear of involvement in the Iron Order.
"In light of the events of this weekend, I would advise them to hold off until we can review this policy letter and take a look at Iron Order, look at their charter, and see what they're about and see if there's a pattern," Brown said.
Officials at neighboring Peterson Air Force Base were unable to say whether Iron Order is among no-go groups for airmen there and referred questions about Iron Order to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
"OSI educates the military populace on the criminal threats, which includes but is not limited to motorcycle gang activities and their attempts to recruit military members," said OSI spokeswoman Linda Card in a statement. She did not respond to whether OSI considered Iron Order a gang or whether it had any concerns about the group.
Colorado isn't the only place where officials are trying to come to grips with the Iron Order.
Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, for example, is among commands that put Iron Order in the bucket of "known supremacist, extremist, and criminal gangs" and bar anyone wearing their colors from the base.
In a July 14, 2014, all-hands memo, the command targets Iron Order and the Mongols — among five others — as groups that "pose a criminal and security threat, inhibits the mission of NAWSCL and interferes with the loyalty, morale, good order and discipline of NAWSCL personnel, and discredits the reputation of the installation and the United States Naval Service."
Marine Corps officials at nearby Camp Pendleton, however, say Iron Order is not on an off-limits list or flagged by leaders there as a concern.
A bloody brawl
The Denver melee began when a recent Army veteran — an African-American Iron Order member in his late 20s — was taunted with racial slurs by members of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, according to John C. Whitfield, an attorney for the Iron Order, as well as chairman of the group's legal division and a riding member since 2008.
Whitfield said about 16 Iron Order members were present at the Colorado Motorcycle Expo, an annual swap meet in downtown Denver's National Western Complex. Denver police say as many as 80 Mongols were at the meet.
A few Iron Order members were grabbing a beer when the incident erupted.
"The Mongols surrounded them and picked a fight with an African-American brother that we've got. They decided for whatever reason to jump him and another brother," Whitfield said. "There were racial slurs. He didn't do anything, just sat there listening to them. They knocked the beer out of his hand, and then they just jumped him. They threw him down the stairs and were kicking him. It was just a beat down — a total beat down."
Denver police confirm that multiple people apparently fired weapons.
"It appears that this event started as a verbal altercation down in the area at the bottom of the stairs," Denver Police Commander Don Saunier said in a press briefing Monday. "It quickly escalated into a physical assault, a physical altercation where ultimately gunfire occurred. We believe there were multiple parties that discharged their weapons."
Whitfield says other Iron Order members arrived on the scene and that gunfire was exchanged.
One of the Mongols "took out a gun and hit one of our guys, grazed him, hit another fella in the chest and shoulder area. And then there was a return of fire."
By the time the smoke cleared, one Mongol rider, 46-year-old Victor Mendoza, lay dead. Three other bikers were wounded by gunfire, another suffered critical stab wounds, and three others were also hurt, according to Denver police. Officials did not say how many from each side were injured.
A lawyer for the Mongols, however, insists the Iron Order members were spoiling for a fight and drew first blood.
"After [an Iron Order off-duty corrections officer] shot the first Mongol, a fight started," Stephen Stubbs told reporters Feb. 1. "The Mongols beat Iron Order in a fist fight and let them go."
He said a picture shows the Iron Order members leaving.
"The [Department of Corrections] employee gets to the top of the stairs, waves the gun around, threatens to shoot. That's when Mendoza charged him, was shot in the chest and died."
The Colorado Department of Corrections says officer Derrick Duran, a member of the Iron Order, is on paid administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.
Denver Police officials said late Thursday that they're still trying to piece together what happened and that so far no one had been charged in the incident.
OMGs: A growing concern
Problems between biker groups, of course, are nothing new.
But officials are becoming increasingly concerned about troops' involvement in them.
In a 40-page Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives internal report obtained by Military Times, officials outline a trend among current and former military personnel in what ATF calls "outlaw motorcycle gangs" or OMGs.
The July 2014 report is dubbed "OMGs and the Military" and issued by the agency's Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information in cooperation with scores of state and federal law enforcement agencies and military commands.
"Their insatiable appetite for dominance has led to shootings, assaults and malicious attacks across the globe. OMGs continue to maim and murder over territory," the report warns. "As tensions escalate, brazen shootings are occurring in broad daylight."
OMGs "continue to court active-duty military personnel and government workers, both civilians and contractors, for their knowledge, reliable income, tactical skills and dedication to a cause," according to the report.
"Through our extensive analysis, it has been revealed that a large number of support clubs are utilizing active-duty military personnel and U.S. Department of Defense contractors and employees to spread their tentacles across the United States."
Since the ATF's first report was released in 2010, "OMG members continue to fly their colors while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other destinations across the globe."
Meanwhile, Iron Order's rapid growth has gotten ATF's attention as well.
"Over the past 4 years, the Iron Order has had several violent confrontations with each of the aforementioned OMGs," reads the ATF report. "Despite the violence, they continue to move into territory controlled by one of the Dominant 7."
ATF officials did not respond to a request for an updated assessment on the Iron Order.
'Trouble soon follows'
Dr. William Dulaney is not surprised to hear the Iron Order is in the middle of another mess.
"Wherever the Iron Order pops up, trouble soon follows," Dulaney said in an interview with Military Times. He should know.
William Dulaney, a professor at the Air Force Command and Staff College, poses on his Harley in front of an HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant static display at Maxwell Air Force Base.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook/Air Force
Aside from being a professor at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, the former Air Force special operator is also an expert on biker culture — he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic — and is president of the local Hell on Wheels motorcycle club.
Dulaney says respected riders from clubs big and small report that "members of the Iron Order provoke violent incidents with existing MCs and then the Iron Order calls the police claiming to be the victims. And these reports span the United States; they are not regionally or locally isolated. In my own field research, I've witnessed three separate events — in three different states — where members of the Iron Order did just this."
Dulaney says the root of Iron Order's problems rest in a simple lack of respect for other clubs and understanding of basic biker culture. "Respect is the foundation on which the MC subculture is built. In order for respect to be earned, respect must first be shown."
Instead, the Iron Order acts more like thugs, he says.
"And thuggery isn't respected. On this I want to be clear: A new MC will not earn the respect of older MCs through thuggery. Thuggery isn't difficult. It doesn't take much intelligence. And people who do it only cause trouble for their brothers and other MCs. But patch-holders will defend themselves if physical violence is visited upon them."
The evidence, he says, "is unequivocal on this: The Iron Order is usually the problem."
His advice to troops interested in joining a motorcycle club: Avoid the Iron Order.
"In my professional opinion, there are many, many more appropriate organizations that would provide meaningful membership opportunities to our nation's warriors."
Members of the Iron Order Ohio MC and cheerleaders for the Marion Blue Racers prepare to make their entrance into the arena prior to the Blue Racers vs St. Louis Attack football game on Saturday, April 18, 2015. Matthew Hatcher/ The Marion Star.
Photo Credit: Matthew Hatcher
Whitfield, the Iron Order attorney and senior member, says he knows Dulaney personally. "He's a friend of mine, but I respectfully disagree."
Criminal activity "is just not something we're about. We don't want any part of it. We've got too many people in the military with security clearances, for example, that can't take this heat. We've got law enforcement people that are trying to do their job, that can't take any heat of illegal activity. You've got lawyers like me who love our license too much to do anything that's illegal. We're not going to do it, and we're not going to put up with it."
Indeed, he insists the club is staunchly law-abiding and trains all new members on rendering proper respect when it comes to other clubs. He says the group is 501(c)(7) tax-exempt organization that is heavily committed to charitable causes and is a good fit for those in and out of the military.
"Because of the way the club is set up, it's attractive to military people and some law enforcement."
Whitfield says he estimates about 25 percent of Iron Order is current or former military with about another 15 percent in law enforcement.
He refuses, however, to provide any hard numbers of the Iron Order's overall membership.
"It's not something we give out ... we've decided we want to keep that private," he says.
How does that square with the club's open and law-abiding stance?
"You've got to remember when you tweak and lift certain protocols and certain pageantries from some of these 1 percent clubs — just wearing a three-piece patch — just by virtue of doing that you get some of these clubs that don't like you. And they believe that they can poke you, they believe they can start things, they believe they can start an altercation just like they did down in Denver," Whitfield says.
"So, we're real careful about making sure we don't publish that — how many chapters we have and how many members we have — because we don't want in any way to give any of these 1 percenter clubs any type of leverage over continuing to cause trouble with us. So, it's more of a security matter than anything else."
The Iron Order's website, however, lists more than 300 chapters across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, most with links to their own websites. Plus, there are another 20 international chapters in 11 countries, including several in U.S. military hubs in Germany, South Korea and the U.K. The group's website also touts a special "Patriot Chapter" for active-duty troops.
Whitfield says the rapid growth of the Iron Order has led to some problems, but only in provoking jealousy and attacks from other clubs.
"The bigger you get, exponentially the more potential you're going have for problems like this. This is starting to be something we have to be cognizant of. You can't grow at the rate we're going and not expect some issues."
To date, he says, those issues have always been a case of Iron Order members being targeted and defending against other clubs, never a matter of having their own bad apples.
"Without a doubt. There's no question in my mind about that," he says. "Because in the motorcycle world, if you're going to wear a three-piece patch, you ask permission [from the established clubs]. Well, we don't do that. We've never done that. As a result, it's caused problems. Especially as you get bigger. And we have grown at a pretty big rate."