Rare federal racketeering trial in Portland paints disturbing inside picture of Gypsy Joker motorcycle club
Nov. 10, 2021 Updated Wed., Nov. 10, 2021 at 6:36 p.m.
PORTLAND – Members of the Gypsy Joker motorcycle club or their associates went by nicknames like “Vice Grip,” “Striker,” “Dog Boy,” “Skid” and “Nazi.”
Many would snort and share methamphetamine or cocaine, steal motorcycles and “beat out” wayward members who didn’t adhere to club rules.
Membership was open to men over 21 – but they couldn’t be Black or gay. Some women were considered “club mommas” and were passed around for sex.
If someone was late to a motorcycle run or broke one of the club’s rules, they’d get their “eyes dotted” by another member.
The prosecution’s lead witness, Tiler Pribbernow, described what that meant: “You have to stand up, hands at your side and you’re going to get punched in your face. If your eye is not blackened, you’re going to get punched again. So hopefully, the first one is a good one.”
Pribbernow, a member of another club that paid dues to the Gypsy Jokers, and other associates painted a disturbing picture of the inner workings of the savage subculture operating in Portland and around the Northwest.
They described the rule by fear and retribution that prosecutors allege led to horrific acts of brutality, including the torture killing of a man in 2015.
The club earned a reputation as an outlaw gang that ran roughshod over other biker clubs and controlled who had the right to wear the three-piece Gypsy Joker patch on their vests.
Mark Dencklau, president of the Gypsy Joker Portland chapter, Gypsy Joker national president Kenneth Hause and member Chad Erickson are on trial in a downtown courtroom on federal charges of participating in a racketeering conspiracy.
Dencklau and Erickson also face charges of racketeering in aid of murder and kidnapping.
It’s the first racketeering case to go to trial in federal court in Oregon in more than 15 years.
The trial is in its fourth week and revolves around the June 30, 2015, killing of a former Gypsy Joker member who witnesses testified was targeted by Dencklau.
“This was Mark’s show,” Pribbernow said during 2½ days on the stand.
Pribbernow acknowledged he delivered the fatal blows to Robert “Bagger” Huggins Jr.’s head with a bat.
But he said he felt he had no other choice or would meet the same fate.
Prosecutor Leah Bolstad asked Pribbernow: “Why did you follow Mark’s orders to hit him?”
He responded: “I mean, I didn’t really think it was an option not to.”
Bolstad then asked: “If you didn’t, would you become a target?”
“Absolutely,” Pribbernow said.
How the club was formed
The motorcycle club apparently was born out of a 1956 motorcycle run in California called the Gypsy Tour, said Brandt Jensen, a one-time Gypsy Joker who joined in 2009.
At that run, a group of bikers “got drunk and just raised hell,” Jensen testified. The next year, the man planning the run warned that he wasn’t going to be “putting up with any of these Gypsy jokers,” Jensen said.
“They just kind of embraced that and created patches, and that’s how it was formed,” Jensen said.
Ultimately, the Gypsy Joker club was run out of California by the Hell’s Angels, he said.
The club claims a nationwide territory, but it’s largely been active in the Pacific Northwest since the 1980s, operating out of clubhouses in Portland, Salem and Klamath Falls in Oregon and in Seattle, Spokane Valley and the Tri-Cities in Washington.
In recent years, federal agents working with local police raided the clubhouses with search warrants and obtained copies of the club’s bylaws. They tracked the GPS locations of members and associates through their cellphones, listened to their recorded jail phone calls and examined their jail mail.
The club’s national bylaws, seized from a clubhouse, identify it as a 1% club, what prosecutors say stood for the part of the motorcycling world that doesn’t follow the law. Friday night gatherings in the basement of the Portland clubhouse were dubbed closed “church” meetings, according to court testimony.
“In Portland, there’s a crew you cannot tear apart. A righteous … crew I love with all my heart,” Dencklau wrote in one handwritten letter from jail that prosecutors showed to jurors. “These are my Portland brothers, and I am telling you. With our heads together, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
In another, Dencklau wrote: “For the 1% patches on a leather vest, and every outlaw biker that I met in the West, I always keep drinking, sob. If you don’t like that … then you won’t like me or my outlaws! love you brother, love your brother. GJ Mark.”
While the trial has centered on the kidnapping and killing of an ex-member, witnesses also described robberies, extortion, motorcycle thefts, drug distribution and witness tampering they said they or other club members or their associates committed.
Pribbernow and four co-defendants have testified against their former club brothers.
The five have already pleaded guilty to conspiring in a racketeering criminal enterprise and await sentencing.
“I’ve pretty much engaged in some kind of criminal activity everywhere we went,” Pribbernow testified. “Like, no matter where we went, my head was on a swivel for a bike loose somewhere that I could go ride off on that wasn’t mine or anyone else’s I knew.”
Pribbernow’s nickname initially was McLuvvin, after the skinny kid with glasses in the teen comedy “Superbad,” but then Dencklau changed it to “Projects,” he said.
Why? “I like to get high and work on stuff,” Pribbernow testified.
Defense lawyers have questioned the motives of the witnesses, noting the cooperating co-defendants are expecting to escape life sentences and receive lesser prison terms for testifying or have received financial or other support from the government to relocate their families, pay their rent, get legal help or even in one case have a detective vouch for him in his child custody dispute.
Prosecutor Damare Theriot tried to show that any potential benefits of testifying might not compare to the possible drawbacks.
She asked one co-defendant, Ryan Negrinelli, aka “Striker, “what it means to turn against the leaders of the club.
“Dead man walking,” Negrinelli said, followed by an uneasy chuckle.
Prosecutors called one witness who refused to testify.
Ron Thompson took the witness stand last week, but when U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman ordered him to testify with a grant of immunity from any prosecution, he didn’t budge: “I refuse to answer, your Honor.”
The judge ordered Thompson be taken into custody directly from the courtroom. He’ll be held in contempt of court through the trial, unless he agrees to talk.
‘The one calling the shots’
Pribbernow, wearing a gray jail-issued sweatshirt and sweatpants on the witness stand, said he and other co-defendants were acting at Dencklau’s direction when they went looking for “Bagger” Huggins six years ago.
Their leader was furious at Huggins. Dencklau suspected him of tying up Dencklau’s then-girlfriend in Dencklau’s Woodburn home and stealing money and property. Huggins had been kicked out of the club the year before for supposedly stealing from the clubhouse till to support a heroin habit.
Pribbernow said a group forced Huggins into a Suburban in Northeast Portland on June 30, 2015, and drove him to a shed on rural property in Woodland, Washington.
Dencklau and others took turns pummeling him – smashing Huggins’ nose and splitting his lips, Pribbernow said.
Dencklau was “the one calling the shots,” according to Pribbernow.
Erickson, the club member on trial, used a hook knife to carve an “X” into a tattoo on Huggins’ chest, Pribbernow said.
Cooperating co-defendant Ian Jung drove a buck-style knife into the top of Huggins’ leg, Pribbernow said.
Pribbernow said he grabbed the hook knife and cut off Huggins’ nipple.
The abuse included waterboarding, as Pribbernow said he put a shirt over Huggins’ mouth and nose and poured water over it.
After Huggins was dragged out of the shed on a tarp, Pribbernow said Dencklau ordered him to smash Huggins’ hands.
“He told me he wanted to remind him of what happens when you steal from a Gypsy Joker,” Pribbernow said.
Then Dencklau told him to knock Huggins out, Pribbernow said.
He struck Huggins once in the back of the head with a bat.
“And Mark tells me … that didn’t work. Go hit him again,” Pribbernow said. “I was doing exactly what he said.”
As Huggins lay on the ground, Pribbernow said he hit him a second time with his wooden Louisville Slugger in the back of the head.
“Bagger died for breaking into Mark’s house,” Pribbernow testified.
Defense lawyers question government tactics
After Huggins’ body was dumped in a field in Ridgefield, those involved in Huggins’ kidnapping, torture and death met at the Gypsy Joker clubhouse in Portland, Pribbernow and other witnesses said.
According to Pribbernow, Dencklau offered advice:
“If any of us are arrested, just ask for a lawyer right away – if you ever get a lie detector test, answer the question and bite your tongue. That’s how you get by on a lie detector test,” he said Dencklau told them.
Dencklau continued, Pribbernow testified: “He said this was a righteous thing and that he was ready to go to prison for it and hoped everybody else is if it comes down to it.”
Pribbernow said Hause, the national president, also talked to him before his arrest. They were at the Gresham clubhouse of the Road Brothers, the Gypsy Jokers support motorcycle club that Pribbernow belonged to.
Hause told him that if he ever went to prison, “he would make sure the club would take care of me while I’m locked up” and that “I’ll go to prison as a Joker,” Pribbernow said.
Defense lawyers attempted to discredit Pribbernow and show inconsistencies between what he said and the accounts of the other co-defendants who testified.
An ex-girlfriend of Pribbernow’s called him dishonest during her cross-examination.
Pribbernow acknowledged he alone did most of the torturing of Huggins and that he hadn’t entered into a formal agreement with other club members ahead of time to kill Huggins.
Defense lawyer Erik Eklund asked Negrinelli if he told a detective that Pribbernow was a “fruit loop,” that Pribbernow “was always high” and “always trying to fight people.”
Negrinelli said he had.
Defense lawyers asked why the government made a deal with the man who issued the fatal blow to Huggins before approaching any of the other co-defendants.
“So prosecutors in this case, and you – agents – made the conscious decision that you were going to kick off this federal investigation by making a deal with the guy who caused the murder, the most culpable person, isn’t that right?” defense lawyer Richard Wolf asked now-retired Portland detective Jim Lawrence.
Lawrence confirmed Pribbernow was the first of the defendants approached to cooperate in the case.
The defense lawyers also cited concerns about Lawrence’s interview tactics, noting he used the same train analogy with Pribbernow that the Oregon Supreme Court found improper three years ago, leading to the suppression of a 2015 statement by an unrelated murder defendant in a state case.
Lawrence, according to an interview transcript discussed in court, said he’d rather see Pribbernow as a passenger on a train than get run over by it as a way to persuade Pribbernow to give detectives a statement.
The defense lawyers also repeatedly pointed out prosecutors and investigators failed to record the cooperating co-defendants’ statements acknowledging their roles in the alleged crimes.
Prosecutors were expected to rest their case Wednesday before Mosman.
Then attorneys for Dencklau, Hause and Erickson are scheduled to call up to 10 witnesses each as the trial continues at least into next week.
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