Sustained Outrage

Policing the Police: Motorcycles and riot batons

The Lincoln County Massacre wasn’t really a massacre.

No one was killed the night in April 1980 when members of two motorcycle clubs say they were beaten by State Police with riot batons as their children, wives and girlfriends watched. Still, that’s what some of the people connected to the incident call it.

The incident left an indelible mark on the bikers who were there. So much so, in fact, that West Virginia filmmaker Elaine McMillion is making a documentary about it.

Before talking to Elaine, I’d never heard of the White House Tavern or any of the events that happened there. When she told me the story more than a year ago, it got me thinking about how the same types of allegations and problems keep coming up again and again with the State Police. The idea of history repeating itself is not new, but learning about the bikers and what they say happened directly led to yesterday’s story on the State Police.

I helped Elaine get a couple of interviews with lawyers who were involved with the bikers’ case, and in return she gave me more information than I’ll ever be able to use in a newspaper story about the incident.

One more thing to note, Gazette columnist and reporter Rick Steelhammer wrote a great story on it back in 1980 titled, “Modern Day Western.” You can read it, along with other newspaper accounts on Elaine’s website here.

Below is a longer, but still very abbreviated, account of what allegedly happened that night:

April 20, 1980 – Members of the Brothers of the Wheel motorcycle club and other bikers camp out at the White House Tavern in Lincoln County. A local biker, who is not a member of the gang, wrecks his bike outside a nearby house.

The neighbor later testified that another biker who arrived on the scene, who was also not a member of the club, asked him if he knew another man had been killed that night. The biker was lying, no one had been killed. “He said, ‘If you want trouble, you’ll get trouble. There are 50 of us. You’ll never get through the night,'” the neighbor testified.

The neighbor called the police and at 2 a.m. about 20 state troopers clad in riot gear and wielding nightsticks arrive at the White House Tavern. Members of the Brothers of the Wheel said they were mercilessly beaten by the officers with riot batons as they lay in their sleeping bags and tents. They said their women and children were forced to stand in front of the bar and watch.

West Virginia State Trooper B.R. Lester later testified that he called for back-up after residents near the tavern complained they heard gunfire and felt threatened.

Fifteen bikers were arrested and charged with public intoxication and resisting arrest. The charges were dropped when the troopers couldn’t identify whom they arrested. A later Lincoln County indictment on unlawful assembly charges was also dropped.

Rickey Lester, president of the Bootleggers Motorcycle Club, which was also at the White House Tavern, said he held up his hands when he saw the police coming, according to a report published in the Gazette at the time.

“Then a guy hit me on the back of the head with a club and threw me to the ground,” he said. “When I was laying there, I heard screams and thuds. I was kicked and poked. I never said a word, but somebody said I was sassing someone and I got a good portion before I got in the car. … They threw my keys away. One guy stomped on my glasses, then wadded them.”

Members of Brothers of the Wheel sued 19 state police, claiming they were attacked without provocation. They sued for $1 million.

In 1982 a  federal jury awarded 10 members of Brothers of the Wheel and the Bootleggers a total of about $24,000 in property damages and medical and legal costs stemming from the incident at the White House Tavern. The jury did not award compensatory damages to the bikers.