This story originally appeared in the July 3, 1999, editions of The Charlotte Observer.
By Leigh Dyer
William “Water Head” Allen was the first victim found.
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Allen, 22, was discovered leaning back in a front-porch chair of the Outlaw gang clubhouse on Allen Road in northeast Mecklenburg County. A pistol rested in his lap.
Inside, four more people lay dead, stitched with bullets. A teen-age girl sprawled on a couch, her head resting on the shoulder of a gang member. Some had been finished off with a shot to the head.
The July 4, 1979, massacre was the worst mass killing in Charlotte’s history, and it remains unsolved. Witnesses disappeared, or, intimidated by the biker culture, refused to talk. Tips dried up. Police moved on.
“Even though it will be 20 years, it seems like yesterday to us,” said Sue Benfield, 61, mother of victim Bridgette “Midget” Benfield. “It’s always going to be there, until somebody gives us some answers.”
Bridgette, drawn to Outlaw gang members, was 16 when she died. She was becoming a biker woman, known as an “old lady.”
To this day, the Benfields regret they bought Bridgette a secondhand Mustang. Barely topping 5 feet, she had to sit on a pillow to drive. The car brought freedom to meet new people, including hard-core Outlaws.
“That was our biggest mistake,” said her father, J.R. Benfield, 64, looking down and shaking his head.
Federal court documents and investigators who have spoken to The Observer over the years describe the Outlaws as a tight-knit group, limited to white males and surrounded by compliant women. The gang revolved around a core of about 20 members and dozens of associates.
Their symbol, a skull and crossed motorcycle pistons, was popularized by the 1954 movie “The Wild One.” Other gang logos include Nazi symbols and raised middle fingers.
By the mid-1980s, the drive-by shootings and blatant commercial sex associated with the bikers had waned. Though Outlaws kept a lower and less-violent profile, they continued building strength in the Charlotte area and Lexington, about 60 miles northeast.
Until two years ago, the Outlaws had sophisticated networks for distributing stolen motorcycles, methamphetamines and other drugs, court records show.
An FBI and police investigation sent 13 members or associates of the Outlaws – some active since the 1970s – to federal prison last year. The busts broke up the gang’s methamphetamine network, which supplied most of the state. With the convictions, prosecutors said North Carolina’s Outlaws had been shut down.
But FBI agent James Corcoran said Charlotte probably hasn’t seen the last of the Outlaws.
“We knocked that enterprise into the dirt,” he said, “but they have a way of rising again.”
Wild ones’ rumble into town
In the early 1970s, national Hell’s Angels and Outlaws groups absorbed clubs of bandit bikers in the Charlotte area. Drugs, prostitution and violence fueled the gangs.
Police tied several killings in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties to the two gangs, but some now say there was little systematic effort to crack down on them.
Then came the early hours of July 4, 1979, when Outlaw leader William “Chains” Flamont found the gruesome clubhouse scene. Killed with Allen and Benfield were Leonard “Terrible Terry” Henderson, 29; William “Mouse” Dronenburg, 31; and Randall Feazell, 28.
The killings prompted police to beef up investigations of the bikers, and agencies across the state began sharing information.
“I think it gave birth to Charlotte waking up and saying ‘Hey, we can have major problems here,’” said Ron Guerette, the first lead investigator on the case, now a private investigator.
Flamont, 52, works as a technician at Carolina Harley-Davidson Inc. in Gastonia. He “retired” from the Outlaws after the killings, and lives near Gastonia with his wife, who was not part of his biker life.
“That was a whole different lifetime,” he said this week.
By 1981, police tied 15 homicides to the rivalry between Outlaws and Hell’s Angels, including the still-unsolved murder of a Charlotte police captain’s son. An Observer series that year labeled the sophisticated, well-armed and well-organized motorcycle gangs “the new Mafia.”
“They weren’t just a gang culture. They were businesspeople, and they were good at it,” said retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg homicide Sgt. Rick Sanders.
In the mid-1980s, police shut down the massage parlors where many bikers either worked as guards or supported themselves through the earnings of girlfriends working as prostitutes.
Police assigned new officers to go over old leads in the massacre investigation. Tips trickled in – the last arrived in 1994.
Police initially assumed the killings were the work of Hell’s Angels. Investigators later considered disgruntled Outlaw associates.
Police once said three killers were responsible; they later said one man could have fired all the shots. One theory involved an associate who is now dead. Another involved a man in prison.
By the mid-1990s, Outlaws were a major criminal force in the state, court documents show. But the 1997 federal indictments dealt the group a major blow.
Flamont said he doesn’t believe prosecutors’ assertions that the Outlaws are gone from Charlotte.
“That will never happen,” Flamont said with a quick laugh. “It’s just some people’s way of life. It’s what they do.”
Today, the national Outlaws have a Web page listing chapters in Charlotte and Lexington.
2 decades, no answers
The Benfield family has lived in a modest brick house in Mount Holly in Gaston County for 30 years. Bridgette still smiles from photos on the paneled walls. In the room where she used to sleep, perfume and jewelry still fill her dresser drawers.
At first, J.R. Benfield visited the beer joints along Wilkinson Boulevard frequented by Outlaws, asking around for leads and passing tips to police.
He wrote letters to Sen. Jesse Helms, former Gov. Jim Martin and the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” “I hope, with all of my heart, that the State of North Carolina will . . . reopen these investigations,” one letter said.
He got replies, too. One of the last, from former Charlotte Police Chief Mack Vines, is dated Oct. 19, 1984. “Currently the case is still actively being investigated,” the letter assured him.
After a few more years passed, J.R.’s letters stopped. Time between visits to Bridgette’s grave stretched from days to months.
“I’m kind of burned out,” J.R. Benfield said this week.
He remains angry with police. He believes they were intimidated by the bikers or cared less about the case because the victims were associated with a gang.
Police say they can’t do much without witnesses. And witnesses don’t come forward because of the biker culture, where the penalty for betrayal of members can be death. Mottos of the Outlaws include “God forgives - Outlaws don’t” and “Snitches are a dying breed.”
“There was a tremendous amount of investigative effort expended. . . . The desire to solve these homicides was the same as it is with every homicide,” said Deputy Chief Larry Snider, who worked the case in the mid-1980s.
The Benfields didn’t know until their daughter’s death that she had joined up with bikers. They knew she had begun seeing Allen, the man found dead on the porch.
A few weeks before she died, Bridgette left home. She’d call every few days, but refused to return. She assured her parents she was all right.
Until the last call shortly before July 4. “Mama, I’m into something,” Sue remembers her daughter saying.
“We’ll help. Tell us,” Sue said.
“I can’t. I got into it. I have to get out,” Sue remembers Bridgette saying.
Sue’s eyes filled with tears. “I never got to say goodbye,” she said.
Police say after all this time, there’s almost no chance for a prosecution in the killings.
But many former investigators, including Sanders and Snider, believe people who know what happened are still out there.
The Benfields just want to find out who, and why. “We just keep hoping that somebody will have a change of heart,” Sue Benfield said, “and come forward with what they know.”