BACA’s Bear Hug
In January 2000, BACA in Texas was down from 30 to 15 members. Sheriff, the co-founder with Danno, had just left the organization. He’d spent too many hours helping victims of child abuse, said Danno, and burned himself out by assuming all the chapter’s responsibilities. It wrecked his home life and his work life. Members held a vote on whether to shut down the chapter.
Danno wanted to continue. He’d been a victim of molestation when he was a child. “My mother constantly used me for a punching bag,” he said. “So I’ve been through all this shit. I know what these kids are going through. No one was there for me, and the perpetrator was never arrested. There was no help of any kind.”
Determined that BACA could make a difference in children’s lives, Danno took a self-expression and leadership course that required him to create a community project. He decided to develop BACA in Texas. He created a 50-year plan to grow BACA and started following it.
Their biggest break came when Danno attended the 2000 “ROT” Rally in Austin, a huge three-day biker fest. He was given a free booth space, and he and other members handed out fliers, stickers, and temporary tattoos advertising BACA. “Our ranks swelled from that,” he said.
In March 2001, BACA members developed a chapter in Dallas, followed by others in Houston, Fort Worth, Wichita Falls, and Austin.
Today, BACA has 26 chapters in Texas. Patched members live in 39 states and 29 other countries.
Jessica “Angel” Heinze was 8 when she first heard of BACA. She’d been going to therapy at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Denton County for a couple of months when the bikers arrived on their motorcycles to visit with the children. At the time, Jessica’s parents were considering agreeing to let the perpetrator who molested their daughter take a plea deal because Jessica was having a hard time being serious in the mock court cases.
“She was just a little kid,” her mother said.
Jessica walked outside with the other kids. The monstrous machines parked on the center’s front lawn mesmerized her, and the bikers, although tough and scary-looking, seemed genuinely concerned for her well-being. They joked with the kids and shared pizza with them.
“At 8, I was really perceptive about who people were,” said Jessica, who’s now 24. “I could really tell that they were there to take care of me. They didn’t have to be there. They cared, and I felt safe. They never pushed the adoption on anybody. I fell in love with them that day.”
She told her mother that she wanted to be adopted by BACA, so her mom invited the biker gang to go camping with them the following weekend at Lake Ray Roberts. More than a dozen bikers roared into the lake park. For a kid’s adoption, BACA members will often invite other chapters from around the state.
“You could just tell that their hearts were really genuine,” said Jessica’s mother. “Here are these guys in leather vests on these big motorcycles, and most of the time you would shield your kids from something like that. But these big guys were saying, ‘I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I’m going to protect you.’ The kids need that. They need that sense of security when they’re so scared.”
The sight of these big guys hugging a teddy bear wasn’t something Jessica or her parents were expecting. After each biker had hugged it, they gave the “BACA bear” to Jessica.
“We tell this child that this stuffed animal is a special animal,” said Oddball. “Any time that you start feeling down or feeling afraid, you just hug this bear, because we’ve filled it up with a lot of BACA power and BACA love. All of your brothers and sisters have put their love and strength and courage into this bear for you, and when you hug this, that power is going to come back on you.”
Next the bikers presented her with a black leather “cut” with the BACA fist patch on the back. The biker term for a vest comes from the days when outlaw gangs like the Hell’s Angels and Satan’s Slayers rode the highways in California, Nevada, and New Mexico in jackets or shirts with the sleeves cut off.
It was then time for Jessica to pick her road name, something BACA groups use to protect themselves and the children from retaliation by child abusers’ family and friends. The bikers have had things thrown at them, and a few of them have been run off the road. The club bestows road names on the bikers, usually references to their driving abilities or things that have happened on the road (like “Splat,” who was almost hit by a van, and “Swerve,” who often had to swerve out of the way of inattentive drivers). The children, on the other hand, are allowed to pick their own road names.
“It’s a way for them to feel empowered,” Danno said.
Jessica chose Angel as her road name. She doesn’t remember why she picked it. But Danno said it was perfect for her because she’s a protector.
She was 6 when her grandfather began molesting her, and from the first, she was afraid he would do the same thing to her little sister. Whenever her grandmother asked, “Who wants to sleep in Grandpa’s room?” Jessica would volunteer, to protect her sister. She waited two years to tell her parents what her grandfather was doing, because she was afraid — he’d shown her the sack of guns.
“I just had this image of my grandparents kidnapping me, killing me, and leaving me in a field somewhere,” she said.
But when she found out that her grandparents were moving to Iowa to live with her aunt and her girl cousin, Jessica decided she had to tell her mother, because she couldn’t be there to protect her cousin.
BACA members stayed at the campsite for several hours with Jessica and her family, celebrating her “BACA birthday.” They played games, told jokes, and enjoyed the lake.
The Denton County District Attorney’s Office was waiting to learn if Jessica would testify in court. She had been afraid to face her grandfather because he’d threatened her, but spending time with the big, burly bikers gave her confidence.
“And when they left,” her mother said, “she told us that she wanted to go to court now because her BACA family would protect her.”
Barbies aren’t supposed to be used this way.
That’s the thought going through young Angel’s mind as she approaches the small table in the center of the courtroom. Ken and Barbie are lying on a pink upholstered Barbie bed with white corner posts. The defense attorney wants her to show the jury exactly what her grandfather did to her. Jurors and audience members gasp audibly as her tiny hands move the dolls into sexual positions that a girl her age shouldn’t know.
Angel had held Danno’s hand as she walked into the courtroom that day, gripping one of several skull rings he wore. He told her if she could get it off his finger, he’d give it to her. She carries it to this day.
“I will say that the only reason she was able to make it to the witness stand is because Danno physically took Jessica into that courtroom,” her mother said recently. “He stood behind her, walked behind her, so she went in. If he hadn’t been there, I don’t know how we would have been able to get her into that room.”
“Which would you rather have — a teddy bear and a dog or to look out in the courtroom and see four or five friendly faces that you know have hundreds behind them, and they’re bikers?” asked Sandtrap. “We just go into court, and we sit, and we’re there. We’re not vigilantes. We don’t want to be vigilantes. Our mission statement is pretty clear. We work with law enforcement. They want the perpetrator to go away, and we concentrate on the kids getting healthy.”
Before Angel takes the stand, Danno waits with her in a small room adjacent to the courtroom. He lets her braid his dark hair, paint his nails. They play Monopoly. They tell jokes and act silly — anything to ease the tension. Danno has had a child vomit in his hands from nervousness about taking the witness stand.
Typically, when BACA members attend a trial, they’re interacting with the child. Every decision or movement they make relates to that child. If she needs to go to the bathroom, BACA members will escort her and form a barrier outside the door.
“We’ve had people call the sheriff on us, because we wouldn’t let them in the bathroom,” Breeze said.
Rhino, of the Dallas chapter, repeated Sandtrap’s statement that the bikers aren’t vigilantes. “We’re not going out and trying to hunt anybody down,” he said. “But you don’t cross the line with us. You don’t get near the child. Period. We give them that safe bubble to be themselves. It’s a perfect instrument. … Quite frankly, we are scarier than any monsters they have in their life right now.”
He’s a giant of a man with a handlebar mustache and a glare that makes many people turn away. He’s been part of BACA for several years. He sometimes acts as a primary contact for a child, but his main job is to provide security at the courthouse.
Back on the witness stand, Angel stares at her grandfather as she testifies, but he won’t look at her. She holds a gold dolphin pendant that her aunt gave her, to help ease her nerves, clutching it tightly as she tells her story. She never turns away from her grandfather. He only glances at her once, when she tells him, “I still love you, Grandpa.”
Going to court with a child isn’t easy for the big, tough bikers either.
“Yeah, we do kind of get attached to a child to a degree,” Rhino said. “Sometimes the child’s personality will hit you a certain way. You feel their pain. We don’t hear any details until the child testifies. You try not to use your imagination about how that made the child feel or anything. But it can be a pretty powerful moment.”
Sometimes the details are so powerful, so traumatic, that members will have to step outside so the child doesn’t see them crying. “We must always be a source of strength for that child,” Rhino said, “and in this instance crying is seen as a weakness.”
It didn’t take the jury long to determine the fate of Angel’s grandfather. They found him guilty of three counts of aggravated sexual assault on a child and one count of indecency with a child. He was sentenced to three life sentences plus 20 years. At the end of the trial, he finally admitted molesting his granddaughter, but he has spent the last decade appealing the conviction.
When the trial was over, the defense attorney apologized to Angel. After that, BACA members took her and her family out for ice cream. They celebrated, not her grandfather’s conviction but her courage in taking the stand and sharing her story, protecting more victims in the process.
Angel’s family joined BACA for a year and a half. They participated in BACA birthdays and new adoptions. Angel shared her story with other children who’d been victims of abuse.
Angel eventually graduated with a degree in psychology and criminal justice from Texas Woman’s University in Denton. She has a child of her own now and plans to return to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling. She wants to help other survivors of abuse.
After several years away from the organization, Angel recently saw several BACA members at a gas station in Sanger as she drove by. She pulled into the parking lot and jumped out of her car.
The bikers weren’t sure what to think — maybe this lady was about to assault them. Instead she told them how much the organization meant to her, how they had helped her overcome her fears of her abuser. Then she told them what she’s accomplished since she left the club.
“I was crying,” Breeze said. “Sixty grown men and women were crying like babies.”
“This is my ministry,” Sandtrap said. “This is the purest form of good against evil. We’re fighting a war.
“One of my BACA brothers, Slider, has said it many times: We’re fighting the devil over God’s babies, with our scooters.”
Editor’s note: The opening and closing court scenes in this story were reconstructed from court documents and interviews with several participants.
North Texas freelance writer Christian McPhate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.