Media Scene

When bikers rode roughshod in Charlotte

Funeral for one of the five people killed at the headquarters of the Outlaws motorcycle gang on July 4, 1979, in Charlotte.
Funeral for one of the five people killed at the headquarters of the Outlaws motorcycle gang on July 4, 1979, in Charlotte.

Last week’s announcement that police felt confident they’d solved the 1979 massacre of five people in an Outlaw’s motorcycle gang clubhouse brought back a rush of memories of the city’s worst homicide and the era of the biker gangs.

Authorities were called to the house on Allen Road South at dawn July 4, 1979, when the bodies were discovered.

Tex O’Neill and Robin Clark were Charlotte Observer reporters who were assigned to dig into the culture of motorcycle gangs. Their stories revealed the gangs were making money on drugs and prostitution with corporate efficiency.

“It was almost like being in another dimension trying to deal with these bikers,” says O’Neill, 70, now retired. “They ran the gamut from very dangerous people to just good ol’ boys.”

He and Clark – who was killed in a California traffic accident in 1995 while covering the O.J. Simpson trial for The Philadelphia Inquirer – went into the project naively, O’Neill says.

“Some of them could be dangerous, and I don’t think Robin and I understood that when we got into it. It’s like inching into water, and before we knew it we were in over our heads.”

When the Hell’s Angels gang gathered at Kerr Lake near Durham, O’Neill and Clark showed up in a camper to watch from the other side of the cove. They weren’t the only spies – photographer Mark Sluder, a techno whiz, picked up the FBI’s radio transmissions coming from a nearby trailer. Before long, suspicious cyclists discovered the Observer team.

“A guy took a swing at me and missed,” O’Neill says.

“I ran to the FBI trailer and the Hell’s Angels had knives out. I got the FBI to step out and walk toward our camper. They were denying all along they were FBI, but I said if you don’t help out you’re going to have some dead reporters.”

When the reporters learned of a Hell’s Angels clubhouse in Marshville, they rented the house behind it to monitor activity and get pictures of the bikers. Authorities were unusually cooperative with the reporters – police were trying to learn about the motorcycle gangs, too.

“It was amazing for me ... we were given stacks of confidential documents on the bikers and the police would leave the room, after telling us where the copy machine was,” O’Neill says.

In what would be an ethical dilemma nowadays, the paper reciprocated by sharing pictures of the bikers with police, O’Neill says.

For a time, the team had to go into hiding because authorities thought they were in danger from biker gangs. O’Neill remembers sleeping on friends’ sofas around town while the Observer sent his family to the beach for a few weeks.

“Robin said that was the greatest pickup line he ever had,” O’Neill says, “telling women he’s on the lam from the Hell’s Angels.”

Media Movers

Joining the morning anchor team at WCNC (Channel 36) is Carolyn Bruck, who worked on the morning show at the ABC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, for four years. She joins Ben Thompson, forecaster Larry Sprinkle and traffic anchor Brooke Katz. Bruck was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles. She got a degree in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside. …

Elsewhere at WCNC, Anjanette Flowers will move from mornings back to the 5:30 p.m. newscast with Bill McGinty, and Sonja Gantt will anchor the 4 p.m. newscast, do special reports and fill in on the 11 p.m. newscast with Fred Shropshire until new co-anchor Beth Troutman arrives in September. …

Kayla Ayres joins WJZY (Channel 46) as evening anchor beginning Sunday, replacing Barbara Lash, who is moving to the station’s morning show beginning Monday. Ayres comes to Fox46 after working at stations in Alberquerque and Houston. She will join co-anchor Bill Melugin, meteorologist Rob Eicher and sports director Anthony Flores on late newscasts. Ayers studied broadcasting and international relations at Boston University. …

Joining WJZY as a reporter is Ashlee McGeehan, who comes from the ABC affiliate in Erie, Pa. She has a broadcasting degree from Penn State. … Amanda O’Hara leaves WJZY, where she covers entertainment, and joins Time Warner Cable News, where she will cover health. At TWC News, she replaces Stacey Sims on the medical beat. …

Morning reporter Stephanie Coueignoux is leaving WSOC (Channel 9) to join the Fox affiliate in Boston. She is the wife of Fox46 meteorologist Rob Eicher.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, Twitter: @WashbumChObs