The Hells Angels Hit
Who shot Anthony Benesh?
Just after 7pm on March 18, as the final traces of twilight dissolved into the evening sky, 44-year-old Anthony William Benesh III, his girlfriend, and his 9- and 11-year-old sons finished their dinner and walked out the front door of Saccone's Pizza in far Northwest Austin. It was a typical Saturday night at the popular eatery where Benesh had been a regular customer for several years; the New Jersey-style pizza joint was bustling with diners including several other families with children. Seconds later, as the four approached their car, a single bullet, fired at a distance from a high-powered rifle, pierced Benesh's skull, tore through his brain blowing bits of tissue onto his two stunned children and dropped his body onto the pavement. In an instant, Benesh was dead. "It's very shocking," pizzeria owner Dan Saccone told a KXAN reporter. "Saturday night, people were coming and going; the parking lot was packed. Nobody heard or saw anything while this incident unfolded."
At least as far as has been made public, no one apparently saw who fired the lethal shot. Police have declined to release any details about the shooting itself they have not said whether anyone saw a muzzle flash or heard the distinctive lightninglike crack of a rifle report (or whether, perhaps, the shooter employed a silencer). And they have made only general comments about the possible position of the assassin, saying the shot might have come from a car somewhere on the U.S. 183 access road or nearby overpass. "We have very few things going for us," in this investigation, says veteran Austin Police Homicide Unit Sgt. Hector Reveles, "and one [thing] is that information that you're asking about." Conversely, police have been uncharacteristically outspoken about who they believe the shooter to be or, more precisely, with whom police believe the shooter is associated. "That's a point we feel fairly comfortable talking about," says Reveles. "We try to consider who would've had a motive, and we go from there to try to eliminate or implicate those individuals." And in this case, he says, the evidence implicates a member, members (or, at a further reach, someone associated with members), of the infamous Bandidos Motorcycle Club. "Everything ... has been pointing toward the Bandidos," he says. "Few or no other things point away."
According to police, family, and others who knew him, in the months just before his murder Benesh had gotten crossways with members of the Bandidos by riding around town flashing the "colors" the red-and-white and Death Head insignia patch of national rival motorcycle club, the Hells Angels. Police say it appears that Benesh was attempting to start a Texas chapter of the Bandidos' California-based rivals; more importantly, sources say, Benesh was proceeding with the plan without the permission of the Bandidos' leadership. In the exclusive and secretive world of the nation's most notorious motorcycle clubs the Bandidos, Hells Angels, Outlaws, and Pagans are the four largest Benesh's actions would indeed cause a stir. The clubs (or gangs, as police define them) are extremely territorial, and Texas is the exclusive territory of the homegrown Bandidos. In short, says one law enforcement officer with extensive knowledge of the clubs, Benesh's attempts to start a Texas Hells Angels chapter would not (to put it mildly) be well-received by the Bandidos. "Oh, no," says the officer, "that would not go over well."
His family and friends agree that Benesh was treading in dangerous waters in essence, thumbing his nose at the Bandidos but nonetheless they remain unconvinced that the Bandidos are responsible for his murder. "To snipe somebody in front of his kids is definitely not the style of the Bandidos," said one person familiar with both Benesh and the Bandidos, and who asked for anonymity. "First, they wouldn't knock you off for doing what he was allegedly doing. You might get a good thumping, but they wouldn't snuff you, and they certainly wouldn't snuff you in front of the world or your kids."
This is not to reject outright the notion that the Bandidos might be behind the job, but rather to note that those who knew Benesh well think the circumstances could be much more complicated. Benesh was no angel, says his uncle Richard Benesh, and he "wasn't afraid of much." And Benesh had a knack for pissing people off, beyond whoever he might've angered within the Bandidos organization. In short, while the police seem convinced the Bandidos are behind the hit, others say the list of people with a potential motive to kill Benesh is longer than a single entry. In order to solve the mystery, it seems likely that police will have to plunge not only into the closed society of Texas' most notorious motorcycle club, but also into the darker corners of Anthony Benesh's life.
Walking the Knife
Benesh came to Texas in the early Seventies from the Long Island town of Babylon, N.Y. Although he had a fairly tumultuous childhood his "father was an alcoholic, and his mother was a crazy Italian," says his uncle Richard and was constantly shuffled back and forth between parents and grandparents, the young teenager followed his father when the elder Benesh packed up and headed south. Several of the clan had already made the migration, including Richard, lured partly by a cousin's promise that in Texas it was possible to swim in a backyard pool in the middle of November. While the Texas climate was far milder than New York's, the relationship between father and son Anthony was chilly. "I think I spent more time with him than his father did," Richard recalled recently, and the two developed a "pretty close" relationship that they maintained until Benesh's death.
Benesh was smart and industrious working as a contractor, he had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of building codes, useful in scoring him his most recent gig as a superintendent for a local contractor building low-income housing. And Benesh embraced fatherhood, perhaps in response to his strained relationship with his own father. At a press conference shortly after the murder, Benesh's ex-wife, Carol Hall, told reporters that he was a loving father who "doted" on his sons and enjoyed spending time with them on the weekends; the boys, she said, "loved their father very much."
Nonetheless, family and friends concede that Benesh also had a dark side, volatile and unpredictable. "He was kind of in-your-face," says Richard. "He was the kind of guy that if you were in a fight with him and pulled out a gun, he'd say, 'Go ahead, pull the trigger.' ... I'd say he was obstinate." Friends and acquaintances agree: "You looked in his eyes and you knew he wasn't right," says one. And in the two or three years before his death, "he'd gotten crazier," says another. "He was very smart but very disturbed."
Within Austin's circle of serious motorcycle riders, Benesh's darker side and the stories and gossip that followed was nothing new. "He had lots of run-ins" with people, says a source close to Benesh, and not just with the Bandidos. In fact, Benesh had no qualms about starting shit with people he didn't even know like the time, not long ago, when he spotted two black guys on motorcycles passing by as he pulled into the parking lot of an auto shop on North Lamar. Benesh thought the pair had been following him, so he shouted something at them as they rode by. The pair made a U-turn "and come up to [Benesh], and one of them pulls a silver-plated .45 on him," says the source. The gesture was only a quick retort; the man put the gun away, and the two rode off. But instead of letting them go, Benesh "gets back in his truck and follows them," says the source. "He was the kind of guy that, if you drew a knife at him, he'd walk toward it."
Riding the Territory
Thanks to that reputation, acquaintances say they weren't completely surprised when, several months before his death, Benesh began riding around town sporting the Angels' Death Head patch on his leather jacket, and the club's red and white colors on his truck. Benesh had long been into bikes and riding his Harley-Davidson, says Richard, who is also a veteran and avid rider; nonetheless, Benesh's latest show of brazenness was troubling. "He stopped by at the house [for a visit] and showed me his colors," Richard recalls. "I said, 'You got a gun?'" Although the affable Richard's response had been somewhat facetious, his underlying concern was real. In the world of the so-called "one-percenters," or outlaw (or perhaps, "above the law") biker clubs, territory is everything indeed, it is the base upon which a club's power and fraternity are built, and the rules that govern territorial rights are strictly enforced. While there are a handful of states where multiple clubs claim authority, working out sometimes uneasy territorial compromises (as in Colorado, Nevada, and Washington, says one law enforcement officer), there is absolutely no ambiguity about which club "owns" the Lone Star State: Texas is the exclusive domain of the 40-year-old Bandidos Motorcycle Club, founded by ex-Marine and Vietnam vet Donald Eugene Chambers in San Leon, Texas, in 1966. That means, in part, that the Bandidos have the power to decide not only when and where and by whom individual Bandidos chapters will be formed but also the exclusive power to sanction the formation of independent, Bandidos "support" clubs (like the Desperados and Amigos Motorcycle Clubs, which police describe as "Bandidos wannabes"), or of a start-up chapter of an already established competitor club, like the Hells Angels. The number of Bandidos chapters (at least 2,500 full-patched members in Texas and around the world) and the number of support clubs has steadily increased. But the BMC has never approved the in-state formation of a chapter of any major rival, and certainly not the Hells Angels.
Not Child's Play
Given the Bandidos' temperamental reputation and their adherence to territorial protocol it was confounding perhaps incomprehensibly bold, or instead just plain stupid that Anthony Benesh would be flashing the Angels' colors so prominently while living so deeply within Bandidos territory. If he'd merely been into his bike and into riding, that would be one thing indeed, plenty of people who ride heavy-duty motorcycles are not members of any club, and thus rarely butt heads with the Bandidos or their allies. But flashing easily recognized colors of a club to which you don't belong, or of a club that's not Bandidos-approved, is another thing altogether and why Benesh chose to do so remains a matter of considerable street-side speculation.
Some say that Benesh had, at least at one time, expressed an ultimately unreciprocated interest in joining the Bandidos and that the club's rejection left him bitter. Others say that although the Bandidos declined to welcome Benesh into the fold, it wasn't until an ex started dating a Bandido that he added the BMC to his enemies list. Whatever the impetus, sources say that sometime last year Benesh and a friend devised a plan to start up a chapter of the Hells Angels in Austin, and that the friend (possibly with Benesh) made a trip west to discuss the matter with Angels' leadership. What exactly happened on that trip is unconfirmed, but according to the same sources, the men were told that the Angels would not authorize the creation of a Texas chapter and certainly not without the Bandidos' knowledge. (An alternative rumor suggests, however, that the Angels might have been willing to incorporate a previously unauthorized chapter several years down the road, if Benesh and his buddy were somehow able to get a chapter up and running without retaliation.)
Whatever the outcome of that trip, by the start of the year Benesh was already wearing a Death Head patch he had made (it wasn't an official Angels patch) and was sporting the club's red and white. It wasn't long before members of the Bandidos took notice. They were not amused. Benesh was "warned a number of times by a number of people, including members of his family, to stop his crazy behavior," says someone familiar with the situation. Richard Benesh says he told Anthony that what he was doing was reckless and a dangerous affront to the club's authority. Benesh's unauthorized chapter would certainly "be a beef as far as the Bandidos are concerned, and that really should've sunk into Anthony's head," says Richard. "These aren't kids here this is serious." Police say that Benesh got threatening phone calls and messages from BMC members and that he told family and friends that he suspected he was being followed. "He made some indications to people, or comments to the effect of, 'Why are people following me?'" APD Homicide Lt. Pete Morin told reporters. "He may have known he was in over his head, but [he] wasn't interested in backing down."
Still, not even uncle Richard, who is fairly familiar with the club and many of its Central Texas members, thought that Benesh's defiance would result in his death. "I figured they would run him off the road, put him in the hospital," Richard says. 'But I never thought they'd shoot him in the head."
Ten Percent of One Percent
There was nothing subtle about the Benesh murder. The shot was fired from a distance, at night, toward a crowded parking lot, at a target flanked by other people including young children. Benesh was murdered by someone who knew exactly what he was doing and had the rifle-handling skill to do it. The shooter was sending a message a rather loud message; a message that those familiar with the Bandidos say is simply not one the club would want to send, if only because Benesh's murder is the kind that generates plenty of heat and attention from the public, curious for a peek into a world about which they know little, and from law enforcement, determined to apprehend a bold, yet cowardly, killer. In short, for a tight-knit brotherhood that prefers to operate under the radar, the very high-profile hit on Benesh does nothing but invite the kind of scrutiny that most club members would rather do without. Keeping club business on the down-low, and the public's prying eyes away, is crucial for quasi-outlaw biker clubs such as the Bandidos and Hells Angels, police say, because secrecy affords the cover necessary to maintain the clubs' criminal enterprises. And, make no mistake, police insist, crime is not very far from the core of the more notorious motorcycle fraternities. It's also the primary reason, police say, that strictly defined and patrolled territory is so important. "It's all about the money," says an officer. Territorial infringement means competition, and that threatens the bottom line "If you take money out of my pocket, you're going to have problems."
Police generally consider the clubs nothing more than criminal "gangs," and say the BMC and Angels organizations are 100% "one-percenter" outlaws; that as a whole, their members are troublemaking, lawbreaking "turds," says one officer, united in "brotherhood" simply in order to make money mainly through drug trafficking (currently said to be primarily methamphetamine production and sales) and prostitution. The cops say the clubs employ a host of violent tactics to secure their markets including kidnapping, extortion, and murder.
The history of Bandidos' leadership is undeniably littered with criminal convictions. Founder Don Chambers went to prison in 1972 for a narcotics-related double murder in El Paso. His successor, South Dakotan Ronnie Hodge, was sentenced to prison in 1988 for bombing the home of a member of a rival gang. The club's current president, George Wegers, was recently indicted on a host of federal racketeering charges including drug dealing, trafficking in stolen cars, and witness tampering. Lesser Bandido lights have also been implicated in a variety of higher-profile crimes including the 2004 murder in San Antonio of former junior bantamweight prize-fighter Robert Quiroga, who was murdered by former Bandido Richard "Scarface" Merla.
Yet club members dismiss the police characterization of the clubs as mere criminal rackets. While there may be members who engage in illegal activity just as there are criminals in the larger society the clubs as a whole don't condone it or encourage it, says Edward "Connecticut Ed" Winterhalder, a former high-ranking leader of the worldwide Bandidos organization. "Across the board, maybe 75% of the Bandidos are just regular working guys with regular jobs and families, living paycheck to paycheck," he says. Another 10 to 15% are older guys, living on pensions, or guys with breadwinning wives, "and the last 10% choose to do whatever they want," he says. "There are never sanctions on anything illegal to be done. It's not like the Mafia where you work your way up to get permission. It's not organized crime, it's disorganized crime it's a loose cannon." (At least in that respect the police and bikers agree: "There are individuals that are smart they are the standouts, the leaders," says one officer. "But as a whole, the group is stupid.")
The Bandidos certainly can be dangerous, Winterhalder concedes, and a large part of that, in the present era, can be attributed to methamphetamine. Winterhalder, for example, says he left the club and was later branded "out in bad standing," the club equivalent of a blackballing after complaining to Wegers that too many members were getting involved with meth and that things were "getting out of hand," he says. "I told them, and they ignored me." Meth has left its indelible mark. In April, eight members of the Bandidos were murdered in Ontario, Canada a slaying that police (as well as others, including Winterhalder) reportedly believe may be connected to drug use and/or trafficking. Several of the federal charges against BMC President Wegers are connected to meth dealing, albeit in small amounts, and, according to one FBI estimate, the Hells Angels "do about $1 billion per year" in narcotics deals. "All outlaw bikers," reports one local officer, "are now the biggest movers and manufacturers of methamphetamine."
Nonetheless, Winterhalder insists police are wrong to brand the Bandidos as nothing more than a criminal fraternity. The problem, he says, is that the only contact police have with the clubs occurs when something bad has happened. "So that's the only thing they see," he says. "I built a courthouse in McKinney, Texas, and I had Bandidos working there. I had Bandidos as supervisors there for the six months it took us to finish the build. So, the only thing [police] see [is] one side of the clubs." Indeed, the clubs do organize numerous charity events toy runs for underprivileged kids, poker runs, and other events benefiting veterans or other causes. Police counter that the clubs' charity work is simply deliberate subterfuge: "They participate in toy runs and then say, 'See, we're not these bad guys!' [The Bandidos] picked this up from the Hells Angels who said, 'We've got to get the public on our side,' so that then the public will say to the cops, 'Why are you picking on these guys?'" But the club organization belies that purpose, says one officer: "This is not something that you can walk up and sign up for in front of the HEB."
Membership is tightly controlled it can take up to two years to move through the "prospect" and "probationary" periods before becoming a "full patch" member, eligible to wear the Bandidos name and the coveted "Texas" rocker patch along with the Fat Mexican insignia. "The Bandidos is a closed society, in which allegiance to the enterprise and its 'brothers' is valued above all else," reads the Wegers federal indictment. "The Bandidos are very careful about admitting individuals into their enterprise. There is a lengthy process before one can become a 'full patch' member. Among other things, this process is designed to guard against law enforcement infiltration into the enterprise." In short, says one officer, there is nothing casual about joining the club: "This isn't a weekend trip, this is a lifestyle wife, kids, job are all secondary; the club comes first. So, it's not like when you get involved in this crap you don't know what you're getting into."
All in all, Winterhalder argues that it isn't drugs and crime that attracts men to the clubs. "These are psychologically dysfunctional guys ... who never had a family, and they come [to the club] longing for family," he says, adding that was the attraction for him. State Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, a veteran rider and a member of the Lawmakers Motorcycle Club, says that, overall, riders are united by the love of the bike most assumptions beyond that, she says, are just plain wrong. "Bikers come in all stripes. There is a misconception that they're a bunch of thugs, tattooed, and run around with gangs," she says. "It's an expensive hobby [a motorcycle] is not a cheap accessory. I don't know a single club member or chapter president that doesn't have a job; these are taxpayers. ... My opinion of bikers is that, if I had a choice between a biker and a corporate lawyer and it was the end of the world, I'd take the biker because he'd survive."
As it turns out, the weekend of March 17 the weekend that Anthony Benesh was gunned down in a parking lot outside an Anderson Mill pizza joint was the same weekend as the annual Bandidos MC "Birthday Party" in Southeast Texas. Indeed, this year marked the 40th anniversary of the club's 1966 founding, and thousands of Bandidos from all over Texas, the country, and even around the world made the trip to Galveston County for the celebration. "It would've been the largest [Bandidos] party yet," says Winterhalder.
Although police haven't said anything publicly about the coincidence of the two events, the timing raises a host of possibilities about who could've shot Benesh and it also tends to point the finger of responsibility firmly toward the Bandidos, if only in a general way. While sources say that the guys in the Austin Bandidos chapter wouldn't "have the stomach" to off Benesh themselves they're far more full of bark than bite, police say they suggest there is a chance that someone else, a Bandido brother from elsewhere, could've taken on the hit, perhaps to curry favor with the Texas leadership. Jimmy Graves, president of the Austin Bandidos chapter, is not talking to the press but reportedly passed the word that he is not "aware of anything" Bandidos-related about the Benesh hit.
Still others suggest that the Bandidos even the local chapter could very well have an indirect involvement in the hit via one of the dozen or so Bandido-authorized "support clubs." The support groups "have to get the OK from the Bandidos to [even] exist," says one officer. Many are made up of Bandido wannabes, officers say, and serve as a de facto arm of the main club more importantly, they say, the support clubs offer the Bandidos additional cover for illegal activities. That way the Bandidos can remain "one step removed from what's going on," says one officer. "So they can say, 'the Bandidos are not a criminal organization; some people may do bad things, but not under our flag.'"
No matter how it may look, many who knew Benesh well still don't believe that the Bandidos are behind the hit. "Like I told the cops, it could've been the Hells Angels, it could've been the Bandidos, it could've been someone he'd pissed off that was just taking advantage of the situation," says Richard Benesh. "You can't just point the finger."
Indeed, says one source, it's at least possible that the Hells Angels are behind the murder. By flashing their colors and making waves with the Bandidos, Benesh was bringing a fair amount of heat to the Angels an organization no more fond of the police spotlight than the Bandidos. And, say police, the Angels have in the past gotten rid of those bringing discredit to the club's name, or "making them look bad," says one officer. Indeed, the Angels leadership reportedly once sent members up to Canada to "exterminate" a whole chapter of members that "instead of selling [cocaine] were putting more up their nose[s]," says one officer. "They whacked the whole chapter and threw [their bodies] in the St. Lawrence River. Those are extremes, though; you're talking about extremes."
Still others say it's just as likely Benesh was gunned down by someone else entirely someone he'd pissed off, maybe, who was aware of the tiff between Benesh and the Bandidos and who simply took advantage of the situation in order to deflect suspicion onto the club. "There's a 50% chance that it was someone other than a Bandido," says one person who knew Benesh well. Winterhalder agrees: "It's not something [the Bandidos] would've done," he says, but "it might've been that somebody wanted to put the hit on the Bandidos."
A few people who knew Benesh well have suggested even a far darker possibility: that the troubled and volatile Benesh actually set up the hit and had himself whacked, in order to cast suspicion onto the Bandidos; what he might see as the ultimate revenge. "He could've hired someone to kill him, to implicate the Bandidos, with whom he'd had a beef for a long time," says one source. As unbelievable as it may sound, it is not an uncommon theory; the story that Benesh had himself whacked has been circulating, in hushed tones, across Austin: Could it be true that while standing in the parking lot outside the pizza joint, Benesh looked up toward the shooter just before the gun fired? That he was so mad at the Bandidos that he was overtaken by thoughts of melodramatic, even gothic, revenge? It sounds crazy, admits one source, but given Benesh's increasingly irrational behavior over the last few years, it just isn't as unlikely as it seems. "He just kept pushing the envelope," says the source.
Interestingly, uncle Richard Benesh isn't shocked by the suggestion that Anthony could've had himself killed, though he doesn't think that's what happened. "No, he loved his kids," he says, and certainly wouldn't want to scar them with the horror of his assassination. "But, by the same token, if you love your kids you wouldn't take [the] kinds of risks" that Benesh was taking by flashing the Angels colors. Ultimately, though, Richard waves off the possibility that Benesh arranged his own murder: "He wouldn't be that dramatic."
The police certainly don't think Benesh had himself murdered, nor do they think at least not publicly that there is the slightest chance that someone not associated with the Bandidos is behind the hit. The point on which everyone appears to agree is that this was a cold-blooded murder. "It was a sniper-type shot," says Homicide Sgt. Reveles. "Someone would probably be [gathering] intelligence, doing surveillance" in order to carry out the crime. Indeed, Winterhalder says he wouldn't be surprised if the shooter was "somebody who just got out of Iraq," he says, "somebody with the skill to do it a head shot, at night, with kids around."
So far, Reveles says, the murder investigation is "plodding along." In late March, police released two video clips, recorded by cameras mounted under an awning near the pizza joint, which show two vehicles one a Ford Explorer, the other a four-door mid-sized sedan driving "somewhat suspiciously" back and forth outside the pizza parlor. Since then, Reveles says, police have identified the Explorer and determined that it was "there for legitimate purposes." At press time, however, the police had not yet cleared the sedan, nor had they released any other information to suggest they're closing in on the killer. But police have received some tips, as well as "a lot" of calls from Bandidos members who say they are "sympathetic" and denounce the hit as cowardly, Reveles says.
In the end, police say, it will likely take some time to solve the crime. "But somebody knows [what happened], and somebody will talk they'll get drunk, or get a conscience, and they'll say something to the wrong person," says one officer. "It will come out."