An interview with the co-writer of a book about infiltrating the USA’s most notorious and violent biker gang
I have a fascination with and revulsion of outlaw biker culture, and I’m far from alone. We’re a sub-set of the readers (and podcast listeners and TV documentary viewers) who salivate over the most lurid of true crime tales.
Big men riding big hogs, taking no shit and stirring up a lot more shit commit these particular crimes. Dealing drugs and guns are their primary occupations; getting high on cocaine and/or crystal meth while doing so only adds to the merriment. They proudly call themselves “the one-percenters,” after the American Motorcyclist Association’s declaration that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens.
Which brings us to a book by Ken Croke and Dave Wedge, Riding With Evil: Taking Down the Notorious Pagan Motorcycle Gang, published March 15. Croke was the ATF agent who went undercover for two years, starting in 2009; Wedge is the veteran true-crime writer who shaped Croke’s tales into story form.
Wedge and Croke had played pickup hockey together in Bridgewater, MA, back in the day, but didn’t really know each other. Wedge only knew there was an ATF guy in the game. Wedge had published a book with frequent partner Casey Sherman about notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. He was looking for a new project. A friend of both Croke’s and Wedge’s called to say he should meet Croke because he had a great story.
“I thought maybe it’d be a magazine piece,” says Wedge. It turned into much more. “I’m glad I took that coffee meeting. It lasted two hours. This guy is a decorated ATF agent, the main guy on TV when they had these big takedowns. He rose up through ranks to highest levels of the federal agency.”
Wedge, a former Boston Herald staffer, has gone on to carve out quite a productive career writing about the world of true crime. Among his efforts are the Bulger book, the story about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy (adapted into the Patriots Day movie in 2017), and 2020’s joint effort with Sherman and James Patterson, The Last Days of John Lennon.
The process with Croke took about two-and-a half-years, beginning in the fall-winter of 2019. Croke, says Wedge, “wasn’t jazzed up about it. He was just calmly telling me what happened. Ken has ability to compartmentalize and he has an iron-trap memory. His attention to detail is incredible. My job was to take notes, look at the case files, do research and background vetting, corroborating and shaping narrative. It’s such a great story and he needed someone to help him tell it in a readable way.”
Croke now lives in the Virginia-D/C. area. He’s mostly retired but does private consulting and speaks with colleagues in law enforcement. “He’s readjusted to normal life again,” Wedge says. “He’s a very aware, confident guy. He knows ‘Book or no book, there are guys that hate me.’”
Riding With Evil
Riding With Evil is sordid and squalid. Croke and Wedge immerse you in the muck and mire for about 300 pages. You’ll meet Hogman, J.R., Roadblock, Tracy, Izzo, Doc, Boston Bob, Pop Tart, Cano, Pita, Hellboy and more, a cast of proud ‘n’ filthy boot stompin’ Nazi-favorin’ Pagans, whose basic job description is: Buy and sell guns and drugs, beat who’ve crossed them (including lower-level club members, who maybe didn’t give the right answer to a question), ride obnoxiously loud Harleys, intimidate other gangs and the world at large, and have girlfriends or wives that they inevitably call “old lady” and consider property, not people.
A fed had never penetrated them. Until Croke, who went by the alias “Ken Pallis”–and eventually the Pagan name Slam–insinuated his way into the club. The way initiates climb the ladder is they rise from “hang around” status to “prospect” status, both hellish sub-ranks where you’re at the beck-and-call of the gang, degrading yourself constantly. It’s like being a fraternity pledge, but so much worse. Eventually, they rise to patched member. … if they can last that long. Many don’t and disappear or the Pagans show them the door, not with any real diplomacy.
If they patch you, you get to put all the precious coded logos and symbols on your denim vest and signal and you are indeed ONE OF THEM. You’re also sworn enemies of Hells Angels–so much alike, yet so different. In Riding With Evil, some Hells Angels give one Pagan a hellacious beatdown outside the Pagans clubhouse and revenge is very much on their minds. The main idea is to disrupt their merry little Angel lives with “Christmas presents,” home-made bombs.
The action is mostly on Long Island and New England, but there are Pagans chapters all over. The Mother Club rules over all. This elite corps of leaders come from other chapters and the Pagans seem to choose them to serve because of their dedication, like A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, to leadership via ultra-violence. They hold court at so-called “mandatories”–basically massive parties in the wilds of Ohio and Pennsylvania, that suspend pretty much every societal rule. Debauchery rules. Well, even more than usual.
Croke’s goal, he says, early on is not to take out a few folks on the lower rungs but dismantle the whole organization or at least take down a lot of the heavyweights. For a gang so frequently fucked up on coke, meth and booze they seem maniacal about maintaining order, book-keeping and discipline, negotiating drugs and arms deals, lawyering up proper when caught, and circling the wagons–well, hogs–when threatened. I won’t tell you how far he gets in his pursuit, but let’s just say some of the nice fellas we meet and ride with throughout the book disappear as it heads toward the finish line.
It’s a tense book, though one I had to keep putting down at regular intervals because, well, you almost, as a reader, feel as filthy as Croke does as a fake Pagan. It seems Croke is always in danger of being tricked by and thus nailed by his bros. There’s a re-burying a dead body scam; they’re always laying out lines of coke (which he as an agent can’t snort and has developed a deft magician’s touch at making the powder disappear). They want to make sure he’s participating when it’s beat-down time, which is most always is. Croke also finds a way to minimize the damage he does on those who he must beat. Axe handles are a favorite toy for these boys. If he slips up and doesn’t do what the other guys do, he raises a red flag and that could mean banishment or worse.
As the Pagans pride themselves on never having a fed infiltrate them, that’s Croke’s primary goal and challenge. We learn he’s spent a lot of his career undercover, doing various nefarious deals and forming a myriad of shaky criminal alliances, but this, for him, is the big kahuna. There are other bad biker gangs out there but the Pagans are the worst of the worst.
Croke is a large, shaven-headed bearded man who looks the part, talks the talk and walks the walk but yearns for Ang, his wife back home in Massachusetts, and two daughters. His cover is that he’s a lobster poacher when he’s not doing Pagans’ business, so he travels back home and does have some surreptitious family time.
Of course, while he played husband and dad for real, he still looked like a bad-ass biker. He put on requisite biker weight (quite a bit, mostly via delicious ribs at cookouts) and followed biker cleanliness guidelines (antipathy to showering, fresh laundry) and thus his daughters’ school friends and neighbors are rightfully appalled to find him in their suburban midst. You won’t be surprised to find out that even though Croke and his wife share an undercover backstory–she knows the game he’s playing–what he’s doing here is on a whole other level and puts a severe strain on the marriage. That’s the secondary storyline: Can this marriage survive the off-premise mayhem.
Croke seesaws between the dual roles. I found his juggling act hard to understand. How does he not trip up? How does he slide into one role and out of another with none the wiser? Sometimes, it’s hard to understand these transitions between lifestyles; there seems a certain disconnect in the storytelling.
Another problem, I had: I’m not a fighter but I’ve been in low-level skirmishes and the beat-downs Croke describe here sound hellacious and most everyone walks (or staggers) away, maybe hospitalized but not completely wrecked.
Croke does have a hidden backup team watching him, hovering somewhere in the shadows (most of the time), and they seem to go completely unnoticed by the ever vigilant (or tweaked-out Pagans), which seems weird that they’d grill him so relentlessly but not sniff out those on the periphery.
There’s also tension at some points with the people ostensibly on Croke’s team. When some of the guys in the home office shift around, Croke loses some key contacts and the sense of trust he once had for the mission. There are some pencil-pushers always wanting to pull him out, take down the small-potatoes guys and call it a victory. There’s also the ever-present fear that his ill-mannered bros might sway him over to “the dark side.” Other agents have done so; it’s a real risk. Surrounded by scum, you become scum.
Though tempted at a superficial level, Croke did not break bad. He reminded himself–constantly–that these guys were racist, sexist, violent, neo-Nazis and not his brothers, even if they could cook some tasty barbecue beef ribs over the grill.
I couldn’t read this book in just a couple of sittings. I had to put it down and go to something lighter. You can’t help but feel dirty, as an observer. I wondered what kept Wedge out that psychological muck while writing the book?
“I think what kept me focused from drifting into dark corners is the journalism of it, the research,” says. “To dot the i’s, to cross the the t’s. To balance the world and not get pulled into the muck. [Readers] have to understand why we’re telling them about this sordid stuff. You hear those stories and can’t help but get emotional about it, but I’ve done this for 25 years, been a journalist my entire life and I’m a little bit numb to some of that stuff. I’ve covered a lot of tragic, dark places, but I try to bring in a voice of compassion.”
A question to ask Croke–which we did via Wedge–was how much fear he felt for his life?
“Fearing for your life is such a weird question,” Croke responded. “You don’t sit and say ‘I’m afraid for my life.’ When you’re in the moment you don’t look at it that way. If you start thinking, I’m afraid for my life right now, you’re in big trouble. You’re going to implode. Was I concerned? Sure, I was concerned every day. But I woke up every day with a plan to minimize that risk the best I could.”
Well, how about now, with publication of this book? Is he in more fear?
“I’m not,” he said. “The agency looks out for me and monitors the gang’s activities. They would take steps to stop any threat and would notify me. So I’m not worried about it all.”
(Riding with Evil: Taking Down the Notorious Pagan Motorcycle Gang; Morrow, March 15, 2022)