by Mike Gordon
There was a motorcycle gang in Anchorage named The Brothers in the early ‘70s. Rumor had it that when one of them died the rest of them would cremate him, roll some of him into a marijuana joint and smoke him. Now that’s taking brotherly love to an all new high.
In the early 1970’s someone in the gang got the bright idea of teaming up with the Hell’s Angels, which they did, so then we had The Brothers roaring around town in Hell’s Angels colors. If they decided to visit your bar they would typically hang in a group and intimidate everyone else in the place, so at Chilkoot Charlie’s we banned the wearing of colors; in fact, in the end we banned all manner of motorcycle clothing, including Harley Davidson logos. Ironically, during a period when a lot of people thought of Koot’s as a biker bar it was anything but. The next bright idea the gang had was to sell “insurance” or “protection” to local bars and they began, logically enough with the topless clubs, where they also had plans to control the flow of female dancers into the state. Jimmy Sumpter, an elderly gentleman who had already been to a rodeo or two, owned a couple of such clubs, one named the Sportsman Too in Muldoon and a larger operation a few miles out on the Old Seward Highway named the Kit Kat Club.
Jimmy Sumpter wasn’t in the market for “insurance” or “protection.” He also didn’t harbor any desire for a gang of bikers to control the recruiting of his dancers. I am unaware of anyone who actually paid the protection fee, and they never acquired control over the comings and goings of dancers, but there was no doubt that the gang took the whole proposition seriously.
Someone broke into Jimmy Sumpter’s house, reportedly stole $20,000 dollars and some jewelry, murdered his forty year old wife, Marguerite and his stepson, Richard Merck, and then set the house on fire. Richard’s sister, miraculously, was able to escape, returning after the attack to try to save her brother by climbing in a window, only to discover he had been shot to death. I went to visit Jimmy at the Captain Cook Hotel, where he was living after the incident, and I can tell you first hand that the desire for revenge was palpable. There wasn’t any doubt in Jimmy’s mind about who was responsible either. Jimmy’s neighbor across the street had seen someone getting into his truck and careening away from the scene after the fire started and she had the presence of mind to write down the license plate number. Police later matched it to that of Gary Zieger.
Gary Zieger was a pledge for the Hell’s Angels/Brothers motorcycle gang, but Gary was such a vicious and unpredictable murderer that even the motorcycle gang was probably never going to allow him full membership. No one will ever know exactly why Gary broke into the Sumpter house and committed the murders and it will never be known whether he did it on his own to impress the rest of the gang, whether he did it simply for the money or whether he did it at the behest of the gang. The talk around town, though, was that Richard Merck’s father was in town from Fairbanks and he and Jimmy were going to take care of the twenty year old Zieger once and for all. Jimmy put a reward on the street of $10,000 cash for information about the murderer of his family, but rumor had it that it was for anyone killing a member of the gang, so it might be assumed that the gang got rid of Zieger themselves in order to pacify Jimmy Sumpter. I am not certain of this, but my recollection is that Zieger was in jail for something else and, though he was not at all excited about being let out, Sumpter actually paid his bail to get him released. Whatever the case, within a matter of hours Zieger was found along the Seward Highway near Potter Marsh with a shotgun blast to his chest. Jimmy had a perfect alibi for his whereabouts at the time and the investigation was brief. After all, why try to find out who had killed Zieger? Nobody really cared who had killed him. It needed to be done. Zieger was responsible for perhaps a dozen murders, including the rape and murder of several young women, though he had avoided being convicted, mostly because of the rudimentary state of DNA testing at the time, and he was also intimately involved in the kidnapping and murder of Johnny Rich, about whom Johnny’s daughter, Kim, wrote in Johnny’s Girl.
The next indication of the seriousness with which the gang took their offer was when they tried to blow up PJ’s, a strip club on Spenard Road. At that time, PJ’s had not occupied the entire building in which it was located and the northern half was a garage. Hallie McGinnis, the owner, was working the bar one night when he smelled gasoline so he started looking around. When he looked outside he saw a couple of guys ducking behind his dumpster and also glimpsed a plunger, and wires leading into the garage beside the bar. He ran back inside and got his pistol but by the time he returned, two members of the gang, Indian and Gypsy, were jumping into a fleeing car on Spenard Road. Hallie popped off a couple of shots at the car as it sped away and called the cops.
One of the Hell’s Angels that had come to Alaska from California and become a member of the newly-minted gang had done a tour of duty in Vietnam and had experience with explosives, and the fashion in which the explosion of PJ’s had been arranged was obviously prepared by someone who knew what they were doing. The plunger that Hallie found behind his dumpster was hooked up to some explosives—dynamite, I believe– stacked up against the storage shed side of the wall on the other side of which was a room full of late-night partiers. Along with the explosives were two or three Jerry cans of gasoline. If their activities had not been interrupted by Hallie and the plunger had been successfully attached and depressed the resultant explosion would have blown through the concrete wall, created a vacuum inside the crowded club into which the blazing gas would have been sucked, making a torch out of everything and everyone in there. Indian and Gypsy were arrested at the Canadian border.
Chilkoot Charlie’s was a much smaller but very successful operation, so I wasn’t surprised when I received a delegation from the motorcycle gang. I sat across from the South Long Bar at a table while gang member Bobby Baer tried to tempt me with their offer by suggesting that I was “very close to the other side.” I knew that if I backed up one inch I was in deep do-do, so I looked Bobby in the eye and said if he was threatening me I had enough money set aside to bury every one of them. I sent Tiffany, my wife at the time, to Seattle and stationed a guy on my rooftop with a sawed-off shotgun. I didn’t go anywhere without my .38 revolver. The intimidation having not worked, the gang decided to leave me alone though we had issues with the wearing of colors at the club and some minor skirmishes for a while. One night when I had been pushed too far I stood out front of the bar waving my .38 around menacingly with the hammer back and one gang member, Happy Jack, shouted out that I was “fucking crazy,” so they left in a hurry. I also had some friends on their side of the street, which I found to be a necessary strategy in those days. All outlaws are not bad guys and some of them can come in pretty handy when the chips are down since the cops would, more times than not, show up to establish a crime scene rather than intervene in a timely fashion.
The east end of the South Long Bar used to be in those days referred to as “Loser’s Corner.” The patrons inhabiting that corner knew about the guy on the roof with the sawed-off shotgun and, to make his lonely vigil less of an ordeal, started sending shots of tequila up to him. As a result he got so drunk he walked off the east end of the building and fell into the dumpster, sawed-off shotgun and all. Good help was hard to find.
It was in 1973 that Johnny Rich was murdered over a disagreement about the ownership of a massage parlor named Cindy’s. Kim Rich writes sympathetically of her father in Johnny’s Girl. The book is well written and a good read and the movie starring Treat Williams is worth seeing, but I knew Johnny and I can tell you he was nothing but a two-bit punk with an over-sized opinion of himself and fast-tracked ambitions that had him stepping over an honest dollar every day in favor of a dishonest dime. My manager at Chilkoot Charlie’s, Dale Vaughn, and I were in PJ’s the night Johnny was celebrating his new ownership of Cindy’s, buying drinks and playing the big shot. In the midst of the celebration I turned to Dale and said, “Somebody’s going to kill that stupid mutherfucker.” Within a few days he had disappeared. His body was eventually recovered from coal mine tailings north of Palmer.
Before the murders and fire at Jimmy Sumpter’s house, when my now ex-manager, Dale Vaughn, was working at the Kit Kat Club as Jimmy’s manager I got word that Jimmy had imported a hired gun from the east coast to intervene on his behalf with the motorcycle gang. One evening I called the Kit Kat Club, got Dale on the phone, and was informed the guy was out there holding court in the bar with the gang. This, I wanted to see. Dale said, “Bring your friend,” referring to my pistol, to which I replied, “No problem.” At the time there were several 20 gauge shotguns at intervals behind the Kit Kat Club bar.
Sure enough, upon arrival the guy from the east coast, big, younger than I had anticipated, wearing a plaid sports coat and playing it up as a tough guy, was sparring verbally with several members of the gang. That night was my one and only face-to-face meeting with the hired gun. It was brief, more like an introduction, and I don’t remember his name, but it might have been Tommy, which is close enough.
Six months to a year later my erstwhile acquaintance, Tommy, left a message on my phone for me to call him. When I called he said, “I need a security job at Chilkoot Charlie’s.” I replied that I had a full staff of security personnel already, to which Tommy replied, “I guess you didn’t hear me. I said I need a fucking job.” I hung up on him. He called back and left me a nasty message adding that the next time he saw me I’d better be carrying. I called Jimmy Sumpter, since he had already had dealings with Tommy, to ask if he had any suggestions on how I should handle him. Jimmy thought for a moment and said, “I’d call Vern Rollins,” which is exactly what I did, Vern being one of the sort of outlaws mentioned earlier that it didn’t hurt to know, and in order to thoroughly cover my ass, I called Anchorage Chief of Police, Brian Porter, a personal acquaintance. Of course, I had Tommy’s phone number for Rollins and Chief Porter, so he soon had received a phone call from both sides of the street. One suggested that if anything happened to me, the police, who happened to like me, knew who he was, where he was and that he had threatened me. The other suggested that if anything happened to me, something was going to happen to him. I never saw nor heard from Tommy again.
I was born in Fort Pierce, Florida and moved to Alaska from Mississippi in 1953, when Alaska was still a territory. I graduated from Anchorage High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Philosophy from the University of San Francisco. I played alto saxophone in the Anchorage High School band, as well as ice hockey through high school and as a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before moving on to USF. Incidentally, I completed the seventeen credits I needed to graduate from USF in the Spring of 2011, forty-eight years late, earning a 4.0 GPA for the semester!
I have been a member of the Anchorage City Council and Anchorage Borough Assembly before unification, twice a board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, State of Alaska, and twice its Chairman. I have been on many boards, including Boys and Girls Clubs of Alaska, Anchorage Opera, Anchorage Repertory Theatre, Anchorage Mental Health Association and Boys Scouts of America, Western Alaska Council. I am an active Rotarian and past president of Anchorage Downtown Rotary and an honorary member of the Homer/Kachemak Bay Rotary Club.
My interests are climbing, running, skiing, scuba diving, reading, writing, traveling, opera and spending summers with my wife, Shelli, in our beloved Halibut Cove home. I have climbed six of the seven highest mountains on each of the continents and made three attempts on the seventh, Mt. Everest, reaching 27,500 feet at age fifty. I have also run fifteen marathons, including the original run from Marathon to Athens.
I have a son, Michael, a daughter, Michele, and seven grandchildren by my first wife. Shelli and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary in September 2013 and hope to spend many more years together in retirement (if the economy ever cooperates) enjoying life on both sides of Kachemak Bay.