Members of a Melrose Park motorcycle club called Reapers Inc. look the part of rough-and-ready outlaw bikers.
They ride Harley-Davidsons, sport tattoos, hold parties at their clubhouse, pose for photos with middle fingers extended. And their club insignia – displayed prominently on the back of their jackets – includes a ghastly skeletal figure holding a red, white and blue scythe.
But to hear it from the club’s president, T.J. Datoli, the group in no way embraces the damn-the-rules lifestyle espoused by the likes of the Hells Angels and Outlaws – two of the largest and better-known "outlaw," or "1%-er", biker organizations that have been repeatedly targeted by federal authorities for drug trafficking and other alleged gangland activities.
After all, the Reapers club was founded by Melrose Park cops and has included at least a half dozen or so over the years.
"We’re nothing but a bunch of guys that like to hang out . . . and ride together," said Datoli, a patrol officer in the west suburb. "All we want to do is have a good time."
But a Better Government Association/CBS2 inquiry raises questions about whether police officers can function in such an environment and maintain their integrity and independence.
Consider the findings:
- As the Reapers were forming in or about 2005, Melrose Park police Sgt. Nunzio Maiello, who was one of the club’s founding members, sought out a leader of the Outlaws at an event to discuss the new group.
- A number of Reapers members have worn patches on their club jackets showing support for the Outlaws, which the federal government has described as a criminal enterprise.
- Reapers members have gotten into fights while wearing their "colors," including a 2009 brawl in a Villa Park bar in which an off-duty firefighter was beaten.
The findings don’t conclude illegal activity by the Reapers, whose members include several well-regarded police officers. And any interaction between the Reapers and the Outlaws seems more surface than substance.
Even so, Melrose Park Police Chief Sam Pitassi said he was disturbed enough by what the BGA and CBS2 uncovered that he ordered the Reapers members in his department to make a choice: quit the club or find another job. They opted to "dismantle" the Reapers in just the past few days, and Maiello apologized in a memo.
Pitassi determined that their involvement in the group violated an internal policy governing conduct on- and off-duty.
Among other things, the policy prohibits officers from engaging in any activity that they know "or reasonably should know is unbecoming a member of the Department . . . or which tends to reflect unfavorably upon the Department or its members."
Experts interviewed by the BGA question the wisdom of cops forming or belonging to biker organizations that cross paths with outlaw motorcycle clubs – and dress similarly, with specific colors and menacing patches.
It sends the wrong message to the biker world and to the community at large, they said. And it creates the opportunity for conflict or, worse, collaboration.
"These guys are . . . nobody you want to emulate," said an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) who successfully infiltrated biker gangs in the Midwest and agreed to be quoted so long as the BGA did not use his name because of his undercover work.
So why would a cop approach the Outlaws to discuss forming an independent biker group?
It’s not unheard of for new motorcycle clubs to ask permission of the dominant outlaw biker group in a particular region before forming so they aren’t seen as a threat or rival, experts said. In the Chicago area, the Outlaws are that dominant group, whereas their bitter enemies, the Hells Angels, historically are stronger on the West Coast. Each has a number of affiliated clubs of different names.
Datoli said the Reapers weren’t asking for a blessing so much as alerting the Outlaws to their creation so there was no confusion if they ever crossed paths.
"Some of our guys are little guys, so we don’t want their asses kicked because they’re wearing an ‘MC’ [motorcycle club] patch" and come across Outlaws, Datoli said.
Maiello said his main intention was to distance his group from an outlaw club called the Grim Reapers, which was the subject of a federal prosecution more than a decade ago in Downstate Illinois. Not only are the clubs’ names similar, so are their patches.
Datoli said the Reapers club has nothing to do with the Grim Reapers and adopted the Reapers name out of a sort of gallows humor.
Datoli said the Reapers clubhouse – which is located on 25th Avenue in an industrial area of Melrose Park, and includes pool and ping-pong tables – is laid-back and friendly but outlaw bikers aren’t welcome.
Datoli said they may "bump into one another" at events – members of the Reapers and the Outlaws, for instance, both attended a recent motorcycle "swap meet" in St. Charles. But they don’t interface, they’re simply "cordial" to each other because they’re all "in the biker world," he said.
"A couple of the guys [in the Reapers] know them [the Outlaws] from the past," he added.
Of the 20 or so members of the Reapers, a half dozen are cops, mostly in Melrose Park, Datoli said. "We’re about quality, not quantity."
But why have Reapers members been photographed sporting "Support Your Local Outlaws" patches? Some of those photos were, until recently, displayed on Facebook.
Maiello acknowledged that doesn’t look good, and said he told members to remove the patches a year or more ago. (The pictures apparently were from before then.)
"Basically if they were on the road and they saw an Outlaw, [the ‘Support Your Local Outlaws’ patch would ensure] they wouldn’t mess with them," he said. The Outlaws "are very territorial and we don’t want any problems."
David Bradford, the executive director of Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, called the BGA/CBS2 findings "very disturbing."
"When most people become police officers they understand they are being held to a higher standard than an ordinary citizen," Bradford said.
"You do not engage in behavior or conduct that discredits the uniform, that tarnishes the badge, that calls into question the professionalism, the integrity and the credibility of the law enforcement agency that employs you."
As for the bar fight in Villa Park, Maiello said the whole situation was a big misunderstanding, and his club members did not pound on the off-duty firefighter en masse, even though the police report suggests that’s what occurred.
Contacted by the BGA, the off-duty firefighter didn’t want to comment. He never pursued criminal charges against Reapers members, nor did they pursue charges against him.
Pitassi said he didn’t know about the brawl until a reporter told him. But he said he’s been aware of the Reapers for several years.
Alluding to past problems with the police force – whose previous chief went to federal prison for corruption, and which has a long history of mob connections – Pitassi said of the Reapers: "It’s a terrible image. Here I am killing myself trying to change the image of this place. . . . Appearance is everything."
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp, and CBS2’s Pam Zekman. They can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9030.