Jake Sawyer’s Story: The Lost Episodes

Episode 1: The Iron Horsemen

Editor’s note: “Jake Sawyer’s Story” was the longest series The Bollard has ever published, and the most popular. Biographer Cliff Gallant covered a lot of ground over the course of its 12 monthly chapters and the epilogue that appeared in the May 2017 issue — from Sawyer’s boyhood in South Portland and adventures with the Hell’s Angels in California to his time in some of this country’s toughest prisons and most beautiful mountains — but Jake, who’s now 81, has many more tales to tell. So, beginning this month, we present “The Lost Episodes,” a new series of previously unpublished stories that will continue in future issues. Meanwhile, work continues on the book version of “Jake Sawyer’s Story,” as well as a documentary film about Jake’s life. You can read all the past chapters here.— C.B.

The Iron Horsemen

One of the most common legends I’ve heard about Jake Sawyer over the years is that he was a founding member of the Iron Horsemen, the infamous outlaw motorcycle club. When I asked Jake about this, he barked back, “Absolutely not!” But then I caught that little glimmer in his eye that signals there’s more to the story, and soon we were off to the races.

“The first thing I want to make clear — very clear,” Jake emphasized, “is that the story I’m going to tell you has nothing whatsoever to do with the present-day Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club, or with the true founders of that esteemed club, as I hope will become apparent to you as our little tale unfolds. We’re going to be talking ancient history — you know, the Stone Ages, before modern times.

“When I got back to Portland in the late 1960s, after I was released from San Quentin and had been a patch-holding member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, I was quite a celebrity around the local bar scene, as you might imagine. At times, to tell you the truth, it went beyond celebrity and drifted into hero-worship territory, and that was definitely the case with seven or eight young tough guys who rode motorcycles and hung around a bar I wandered into from time to time. No one else in town even dared to go near that bar, but I could’ve walked in and set the damn place on fire and they would’ve partied with me outside watching it go up in flames.

“Well, these guys were very interested in starting an outlaw motorcycle club in Portland, and I was very into having them, or anyone else for that matter, hang on my every word, so we had ourselves a project. They had even come up with a name for the club: The Iron Horsemen. Great name, no question, so that was a good start, but I had my doubts otherwise.

“It became apparent to me before very long that they had some serious misimpressions about what an outlaw biker club was all about. They had this oogle-eyed fantasy of riding hard and low on stripped-down Harleys, wearing scruffy looking leather jackets and banging female camp followers whenever they wanted to. Those are just the outer trappings of what being an outlaw biker is all about, though.

“What it’s really all about is your absolute allegiance to your brothers and to the club, at all times and under any circumstances. When you’re an outlaw biker you feel good about yourself, maybe for the first time in your life, because you know that you are now part of a group of men who will fight to the death for you. It doesn’t necessarily mean you live a wild lifestyle, either. Hell, my best friend in the Lowell Hell’s Angels was a brother named Pee Wee who was a happily married man with a regular job and never did booze or drugs. You will also remember, my friend, that when I went to the Luau Club in Oakland, California and met my Hell’s Angels brothers for the first time, I walked into that low-life, run-down, outlaw-biker bar very neatly dressed and clean-shaven, and they accepted me for who I was. They were looking for integrity, because they knew that from integrity comes loyalty. Hell’s Angels spot it in someone immediately, because integrity and loyalty are what they’re all about themselves.

“Anyway, I spent a lot of time trying to drill into those guys what an outlaw biker club is all about, and I became extremely frustrated at their lack of progress. They just weren’t getting it. It all came to a head one night when some guys from the Coast Guard base came into the bar to party. They bought us drinks all night, and they even brought some ladies with them who they didn’t mind sharing. A great bunch of guys all around. Towards closing time, though, one of our guys picked a fight with one of them for some stupid drunk-ass reason, and the Coastie decked him. Had to — he didn’t have any choice. What my novices to the outlaw biker world didn’t understand, even though I had placed a great deal of stress on the point, is that it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference one way or the other whether your brother is right or wrong in an altercation. When he’s in a fight, you’re in a fight, no questions asked. They should have immediately piled on that Coastie for having the temerity to strike their brother and made hamburg of any of his buddies who even looked like they might try to interfere. Instead they friggin’ apologized to the Coasties for all the trouble and said they hoped to see them again! I was so outraged and disgusted I chugalugged my beer and ran out the damn door before I started strangling them one by one.

“It wasn’t long after that deeply disappointing experience that I heard something about those guys that made me absolutely furious and wanting to tear each one of them apart and sell their remains down on the waterfront for lobster bait. I had repeatedly told them that the one unforgivable transgression an outlaw biker can commit, besides not fighting alongside a brother, is to shoot heroin. Swill beer, suck on joints all day, trip your friggin’ brains out — have at it. But if you go down that low and lonesome heroin road, you are out of the club, you are gone, because when you’re on heroin, that’s where your allegiance is, not to the club or to anything else but your next fix. You will remember, sir, that I told you my best friend in the Oakland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels was Terry the Tramp, and it is sadly true that my brother Terry was one of those who took the ride on the big white horse, never to return. So when I heard about those outlaw biker wannabes fucking with that shit in spite of what I told them, I decided to stage a one-man intervention by beating the living fuck out of every one of them — one by one or as a group, however it might happen.

“One night I heard they were meeting in a first-floor apartment one of them had in a building over in Red Bank, over near where the Maine Mall is today, and I decided to drop in on them, unannounced. I pulled up in my stolen Chevy Blazer and saw about twelve motorcycles parked out front, which indicated to me that their numbers were swelling. The more the merrier, I remember thinking. The first thing I did was knock very politely on the door, but after one of them peeked through the curtain and saw my Blazer parked outside, there wasn’t a peep from inside. They knew damn well I’d heard about the friggin’ heroin, and they were shaking in their boots.

“So after extending loud and friendly greetings and politely kicking on the door a few times, with no response, I went to my car with the intention of leaving in a huff. But, lo and behold, I saw a baseball bat, of all things, on my back seat. Not picking up a baseball bat is a hard thing to do for a former prep-school baseball star like me, my friend, and I couldn’t resist.

“Now, anyone who’s ever been inside a room when a window’s being smashed with a home-run swing like mine will tell you it is quite a dramatic experience. Shattered glass and splintered wood flies everywhere, and at great speed. To make matters even more interesting, this particular window was protected by a thick storm window that didn’t do its job — if the yells of intense fear coming from inside were any indication.

“‘Any one of you heroin-shooting motha-fuckers who want to come out here and take me on without this friggin’ bat, let’s go!’ I walked to the Chevy and threw the bat into the back seat. Still not a peep from inside, though, so I went back over to the window and looked in, and there they were, hiding under tables and behind the furniture! And they called themselves outlaw bikers!

“Oh, well. I was running out of steam anyway, because I got to laughing so hard when I saw them cowering inside, but I did have enough energy left to retrieve the bat and smash the fuck out of their motorcycles before I left. Can you imagine it? A bunch of men meeting to talk about starting an outlaw biker club, and there’s a guy outside, all alone, smashing their friggin’ machines all to hell, and they all stay inside hiding, just hoping he’ll go away soon.

“Well, they were right, I guess: even crazy-assed Jake Sawyer was going to calm down at some point. After I had my fun thoroughly humiliating them by word and deed, I got into my Chevy Blazer and set off down the road whistling happily to myself, because I knew those assholes were out of my life once and for all. I had only driven a mile or so, though, before a blue light came on behind me.”

“Oh, no!” I interjected. “How much time in county jail did you end up doing for your little fun-filled night?”

“Just hang on and pay attention,” Jake said. “There was no question that my ass was fried, big time. I was facing a list of felony charges that would’ve put me back in federal penitentiaries for the rest of my life. Keep in mind that I was still on parole! When I was miraculously released from San Quentin, I was delivered from spending the rest of my life in one federal penitentiary or another, and here I was about to be sent back! The last thing the warden told me was that if he ever saw me again I’d absolutely never get out!

“As I sat there behind the wheel waiting for the cop to approach my vehicle, I looked through the rearview mirror and saw that he was just sitting there, looking straight back at me, and I realized I knew him. It was Ronnie Damon, a guy who I had lifted weights with a few years back at Martin’s Health Club, in the Old Port. Ronnie and I had always gotten along very well, but I knew without the slightest doubt that he was too much of a professional to allow our personal relationship to interfere with his sworn duty to protect good folks from desperados like me. Sure enough, before long three other cruisers arrived and parked behind Ronnie’s.

“I figured the plan was to take me in, dead or alive — and, if alive, barely. So I was surprised when Ronnie came to my car window all alone and very calmly said, ‘Are you coming from Red Bank, Jake?’

“‘No. I’m on my way home from choir practice, Ronnie!’ I said. ‘I heard there were outlaw bikers hanging around Red Bank, so I wouldn’t think of going there! I’m on parole, you know, and I can’t be associating with people like that.’

Jake Sawyer (fifth from right) with Ronnie Damon (third from right) and a group of friends at an annual gathering. Others pictured here who’ve previously been mentioned in his story include Bruce Chambers (fourth from left), Marty Joyce (sixth from left, in tropical shirt) and Skip Robinson (fourth from right). photo/courtesy Jake Sawyer

“Ronnie didn’t show any sign of being amused, of course. He just ordered me to step out of the vehicle. While I was complying, he spotted the baseball bat on the back seat with glass shards from the busted window embedded it in, along with the variously colored paint flakes all over it from where I had beat up on their motorcycles. He didn’t say a word about the bat, though. He just kind of shook his head in disgust, told me to stay right where I was, and walked back to the other cops and got into a huddle with them.

“Now that they had hard evidence to go with their numerous eyewitnesses, I knew I was a goner. But then Ronnie walked back to me all alone again, and said, ‘Jake, get in your vehicle and leave.’

“‘Yes, sir!’ I yelled, and immediately jumped into my Chevy Blazer and calmly drove away.

“A few months later, Ronnie came into the health club and I asked him why they let me go that night. He told me the tough guys I had deflated had been a big problem for both the Portland and South Portland police departments, and they very much appreciated me doing what they had wanted very badly to do for a long time, but couldn’t do as officers of the law. They’d been watching the guy’s apartment for a long time, he told me, and every one of them was delighted as hell when they arrived in Red Bank that night and saw the smashed window and busted motorcycles. He said those guys didn’t look so tough with all the neighbors watching them shuffle out of the apartment to pick up their bikes and look them over for damage.”

In the spring of last year, as I was finishing up the final chapters of “Jake Sawyer’s Story,” I called Damon to get his take on Jake. A former Navy Seal and Green Beret, Damon retired from the South Portland P.D. in 1989 at the rank of lieutenant, and then worked for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency for another decade. Damon didn’t want to talk about Jake over the phone; he preferred to discuss this subject in person. He parked his long white Lincoln Continental across from my apartment on Munjoy Hill and I sat in its plush passenger seat.

“I learned as a police officer trying to get information out of [Jake] that would make things go easier on him that he will never, ever let a friend down,” Damon told me that day. “He’ll always have your back, no matter what might be in it for him otherwise, and I have the greatest respect for that in a man.”

Sadly, Damon passed away unexpectedly last January, at the age of 81. Jake was at the celebration of life, where he shared warm memories of Ronnie with the numerous men and women Damon worked with during half a century of service to his country and community. When I commented to Jake about the unlikelihood of someone with his criminal background being in that room, and how he might still be in prison had Damon and the other officers handled things differently that night in South Portland, he didn’t respond, but the far-away smile on his face said a lot.

“OK,” I said, “back to the Iron Horsemen.”

“Yes, my friend,” Jake replied, snapping to, “and as we return to the subject, we must again make it very clear that the only thing that early version of the Iron Horsemen had in common with the present-day Iron Horsemen is the name. That group of wannabes pretty much went their separate ways after the South Portland debacle, and not too long later, another group of motorcycle riders got together and started the presently existing and still-going-strong Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club. It must also be noted that when the previous group took the name Iron Horsemen, they either didn’t know or didn’t care that there was already a national outlaw-biker club by that name. The founders of the present-day Portland chapter of the Iron Horsemen did know, and they immediately applied for admission into the national organization and were readily accepted. As far as me being a founding member, though, no, definitely not. Once a man has been a patch-holding member of the Hell’s Angels, he has no desire or need whatsoever to ever consider joining another outlaw biker club.

“That is not to say, of course, that I didn’t serve as a role model for the founding members of the present-day Portland chapter of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club. And, in fact, that was a responsibility I took quite seriously. Perhaps a recounting of the details of a summertime outing I accompanied them on will illustrate that point nicely for you.

“I came up with the whole idea of the club going on a summer run to a beach. It’s something outlaw biker clubs have to do, but the best we could do was a fairly small, privately owned beach up near Brunswick. I won’t name it, because it’s a very respectable beach-front campground today and they might not be all that appreciative of ol’ Jakey’s little trip down memory lane.

“Three or four dozen bikers showed up for this extravaganza — many of them with their wives and girlfriends riding with them — and everyone was over-the-moon about being at an outlaw biker beach party. The men had cans of Bud stuffed in their saddlebags, and the ladies all had marijuana joints hidden in their purses. They were all giddy about the wild time coming their way.

“Now for the winnowing process. I’d brought along a half-dozen carefully chosen young ladies who I knew would very quickly and willingly get into the swing of what an outlaw biker beach party should be. After the stories I told them about what went on at biker rallies in California, they were revved up as hell to get into any kind of drunken, out-of-control orgy that might develop. When they got a look at the wives and girlfriends with their neat little picnic baskets, though, I began to see unhappy frowning and knew I had a potential crisis on my hands. I had to get rid of the respectable element of our little get-together.

photo/courtesy Jake Sawyer

“So here we go! I went over to the lot where my Harley chopper was parked, took off my pants and skivvies, then hopped on my bike naked from the waist down and cruised through the crowd, smiling and waving at everyone! My specially invited female guests went wild, of course. They all threw off their tops and two of them got completely naked and jumped on the bike with me. But the wives and girlfriends didn’t follow suit. Most of them were absolutely horrified and grossed out, actually, and soon they and their male escorts were back on their bikes, rumbling down the highway in great indignation. A-ha! I love it when a plan comes together!

“The photo taken that day of me wearing a 1950s-vintage motorcycle-rider cap and being treated for a minor surface wound needs a little explaining. One of my lady friends had found the cap in a Harley Davidson antique memorabilia store and she decided to give it away because it didn’t fit her. It was very cool and all the guys wanted it, so we decided to hold wrestling matches among us — winner gets the hat. I won eight straight matches, so there you have it.”

“You did put your pants back on for the wrestling matches, right, Jake?” I asked.

What?” he exploded.