"Big" Ed Aki doesn't want your sympathy.
Really, the only thing the 54-year-old chip designer and former Marine wants is a night-black Harley Electra Glide full of high octane, a herd of brothers stretching out along a dry highway first thing in the morning -- and to be left the hell alone.
Aki is co-founder of the Henchmen, an outlaw San Jose motorcycle club. And he's in no mood to discuss the irony of his leather-vested, battle-ax-emblazoned posse demanding their civil rights to stop their most pernicious rivals from hounding them.
No, not the Mongols. The San Jose police.
While the Henchmen are proud to settle just about any dispute the biker way, they're going ultraconventional for this fight. They've hired a lawyer and filed an official complaint with the city's Office of the Independent Police Auditor. They contend the police are illegally profiling them for DWB, Driving While Biker, and the city's code enforcement unit is digging up zoning beefs to run them out of town.
This, from the start, poses a difficult challenge for the Henchmen: Should a biker inked up with skull tattoos who proudly calls himself an outlaw expect the same constitutional protections as you do?
When they are together, the Henchmen look just like you would expect -- tough, intimidating and like they just walked off the set of the cable TV biker series "Sons of Anarchy." Most have the kind of tattoos on thickly muscled arms gripping the handlebars of souped-up, pinned-to-the-fifth-gear Harley-Davidsons that make you pump the brakes on your Prius so they will pass by on the road -- and out of your life as quickly as possible.
Their motto may inspire loyalty, but it doesn't exactly say the Knights of Columbus: "Three can keep a secret, if two are beheaded."
Some have criminal pasts, from youthful drug charges to serious violent felonies. Club president Jason "Pig" Joyce, a plumber, served prison time after attacking a guy with his Volkswagen. But the most egregious charges aimed against the Henchmen as a whole haven't stuck. And while, historically, civil rights groups have championed the rights of blacks and Latinos in racial-profiling claims, the Henchmen have their own version: They say officers routinely pull them over, sometimes photographing their tattoos, based solely on their bad-boy reputations.
Now, the city is trying to boot them from their clubhouse of more than three years: a windowless former bar surrounded by barbed wire in a homely industrial strip near Highway 101.
Watched over by a security camera, this is their safety zone, a sanctuary decorated with broadaxes and bare-breasted women. It is a meeting house and a museum dedicated to their dead. It is where they party, and shoot pool and shots of Jagermeister. On Wednesday nights, at least, women are allowed in, too: girlfriends, groupies, wives and lap dancers.
This year, the city fired off a cease-and-desist order saying the Henchmen must stop holding meetings at their clubhouse because it's zoned for light industrial, not commercial. Such zones may soon include medicinal marijuana clubs, but not "private clubs." Although he acknowledged there is no definition for "private club" in the zoning regulations, the city's top code enforcement official, Michael Hannon, said the issue will be decided based strictly on what's allowed -- and not who the Henchmen are.
But the Henchmen are convinced the zoning charge is just another example of the tactics employed to run them out of town, along with a blizzard of traffic stops.
"We have a police force that feels they are above the law," said Aki, who, like his father and younger brother, served in the Marines. "They feel as though they can tell the public anything and this city is going to believe them. We have grown up here, have deep roots and ties in this city. We are raising families here and now they are raising their families. We should be afforded the same rights as everyone else."
'Bunch us up all together'
The Henchmen have raised money for Williams Rogers Elementary School in San Jose's Alum Rock district and other charitable causes. Like Aki, his fellow co-founders are family men: Joe Bruno is a semiconductor designer; Sergio "Flask" Zenobi is a cabinetmaker and part-time ski instructor who learned how to negotiate moguls on the slopes of the Italian Alps.
The Henchmen even recycle.
Some members say they enjoy doling out a well-deserved beat-down. The ones who aren't on the wagon enjoy their Jack Daniel's. Some enjoy pot. But, despite their proud "outlaw" label, they say they are not criminals; they do not sell drugs, run guns or hurt people for money.
"They bunch us up all together like most people do," said Zenobi, 55, who owns South Bay Woodworks, a San Jose cabinet company. "But it's 2011, it's not the 1960s anymore. They still have that image of the drunk guy in Hollister on a bike."
Police and prosecutors are more than a little bemused that the group they view as a violent motorcycle gang -- which they say serves as a farm team for the criminal gang Hells Angels in the South Bay -- is portraying itself as a victim.
"If the Henchman have nothing to hide, then why should they be concerned to be legitimately stopped by police?" asked Diane Urban, San Jose's former assistant police chief who recently took over the Hayward Police Department.
Law enforcement officials, here and elsewhere, say they don't openly target motorcycle club members. All biker clubs are not alike. There are recreational bike clubs, Christian bike clubs, even police officer bike clubs. But local police agencies and experts say they often see Henchmen, Hells Angels, Mongols, Vagos, and others as little more than gangbangers on choppers.
Outlaw motorcycle clubs, authorities say, can be involved in such illegal activity as drug sales of methamphetamine and marijuana, extortion and bloodshed. The FBI asserts that outlaw motorcycle gangs collect $1 billion in illegal income annually.
"If they were not involved in criminal activity, no one would give them a second look," said Jorge Gil-Blanco, a former San Jose police officer who is an expert on outlaw motorcycle gangs.
"We're not choir boys," admitted Aki. "But we're not the 'Sons of Anarchy,' either. We are ... hardworking, hard-partying and hard-riding!"
Along his arms are a series of tattooed skulls. Aki said a police officer once suggested that he had his three skulls for every man he had personally murdered. That is not the case, he insisted.
"I like skulls."
Cases don't stick
The club itself has ridden into trouble almost from its beginning.
On its first run in 2002, the club was busted on suspicion of organizing an illegal raffle. The case was dismissed.
One of the Henchmen was shot with a Taser by law enforcement in Los Gatos after a bar fight. The case didn't stick.
Then, three years ago, a club member ended up in the emergency room with a broken face. A SWAT unit raided the clubhouse with flash grenades, and inside they found Henchmen along with a Louisville slugger baseball bat, an ax handle, what looked like blood splashes, a loaded .357 magnum and a stolen and loaded shotgun.
The case fell apart last year when the victim could not say who attacked him, a result officials chalked up to intimidation.
The Henchmen get exasperated at the mere mention of these cases, saying they were prime examples of police profiling. They say the police unfairly blamed them for someone else's pummeling of the man's face. Aki points out that all the guns but one were legal and registered to him. "We like to shoot," Aki said. "We're men!"
Precedent on their side?
The Henchmen's complaint is not the first time an outlaw motorcycle club in San Jose has fought the law using the law.
Five years ago, the Hells Angels won $1.8 million after suing police and sheriff's deputies for illegally raiding the club's headquarters and members' homes to link a bouncer, charged with killing a drunken patron at the Pink Poodle, to the biker club. A jury acquitted the bouncer and a federal court sided with the Hells Angels.
The Henchmen's complaint also follows several years of controversy over the San Jose Police Department's use of force and arrest practices, including allegations of profiling by Latino groups.
The club members say their fight to ride free may be futile, but it's worth it.
"This is our line in the sand," said Joey Matichak, 22, the youngest Henchman. "We are tired."
He said the cops once asked him on a traffic stop why he was ruining his life this way. But for Matichak, being a member of the Henchmen is his life -- or at least a large, thrilling, unmufflered part of it.
It is, club members insist, a brotherhood that drinks beer and rides Harleys together. And, sure, to raise a little hell.
But being a Henchmen is not about selling crank or spilling innocent blood.
"We all have a lot to lose. We have families, jobs, kids," said Zenobi, 55. "Why should we jeopardize that?"
Contact Sean Webby at 408-920-5003.