December 13, 2008
Hells Angel Gerald Ward, the president of Niagara's chapter,found guilty yesterday of directing others to commit crimes as part of a criminal organization. A mobster with a motorcycle. At one time, he had it all. For a decade, Ward ruled an empire on wheels from his fortified bunker in Welland. Cocaine and cash flowed liked wine. A loyal band of brothers did his bidding. He felt untouchable. Beyond the law. How did it all go so wrong? In a way, the Hells Angels owe a debt to Ken Murdock. Not that the mob trigger-man could have known it at the time. Not that the Angels actually care. In 1997, years before Ward wore the Angels' death's head patch, Murdock fired three shots. Three shots for two men. Their mafia empire was left as cold as their corpses.Murdock's first shot was in the spring of 1997 after pressing the barrel of his 9 mm gun to the back of the head of Ontario's kingpin of crime, Hamilton mafioso Johnny Papalia ... "Pops" to those who knew him. He controlled the drug trade from Steeltown to Fort Erie. Murdock turned his head away when he squeezed the trigger. Murder at close range is a messy business. Two months later in Niagara Falls, Murdock looked his next victim in the eye. He lured Papalia's chief lieutenant, Carmen Barillaro, to his own front door. Murdock named the rival family that hired him and fired twice. Two men got the hard goodbye and a mob died. Murdock took a payment he could snort straight up his nose. Looking back, Niagara Regional Police Det. Sgt. Shawn Clarkson can't help but wonder how the Hells Angels got so lucky. Today, he hunts killers as part of the NRP homicide squad. He used to be a biker cop, a job he took after working on the task force that brought Murdock down. He saw the aftermath. No one rose up to command Papalia's mob or take control of the local underworld. Niagara was wide open. There was no mention of the bikers at Murdock's 1998 trial, but the murders were happy coincidences for the Hells Angels. "There was nobody to stand up to the Hells Angels the way Barillaro or Papalia would have. Papalia, even though he was 73 when he died, he wouldn't have put up with that," Clarkson said. With the mobsters dead, Clarkson said, the Angels struck quickly.
"I mean, Stadnick was in Hamilton for years and nothing. Then suddenly they put things together." Stadnick is Walter Stadnick, known to his fellow bikers as Nugget. Former national president of the Canadian Hells Angels; presently serving 20 years for conspiracy to commit murder. He's well known in the biker world for two things. The first is for being badly disfigured in 1984 after a Catholic priest crashed into a Hells Angels motorcade in Quebec. The other is that, for more than 20 years, Stadnick wore the Angels' death's head logo alone in Ontario. He lived in a sea of biker gangs united by two things: A love of money, and a loathing for the Hells Angels. In Quebec, bullets and high explosives were the problem-solving tools of choice. The Angels waged a turf war with the rival Rock Machine, with innocent bystanders in the crossfire. More than 100 people were murdered, mostly criminals. At least 10 citizens were killed by stray bullets and shrapnel. For Ontario bikers, the Quebec war was an embarrassment. Above all else, they wanted to turn a profit. Live the easy life on the backs of addicts. Bathing the streets with blood and bullets was bad for business. Better to share the pie than kill each other over it. The murders of Barillaro and Papalia opened the doors to change everything. By 1998, Ontario's homegrown biker gangs were living on borrowed time. They just didn't know it. That summer, the most notorious Hells Angels chapter in Quebec, the Sherbrooke chapter, arrived in Niagara Falls. They earned a murderous reputation for wiping out another Quebec chapter. Police found their victims in the St. Lawrence Seaway, wrapped in chains and shackled to concrete blocks. Stadnick rode from Hamilton to party with them. But there was no rest for the wicked. Amid the booze, sight-seeing and frolicking with topless women in an outdoor hotel pool, the Angels took care of business. In what local police called a "biker summit," Stadnick met with a powerhouse of Niagara's underworld. Gerald Ward. Known to friends and foes alike as Skinny. Ward, with more than 20 criminal convictions to his name, had a rap sheet longer than the legs attached to his ponderous 6-foot-5 frame. Drug trafficking. Assault. Weapons smuggling. Those were just his convictions. Ward beat three murder raps. A judge once exiled him from his home town of Welland during an attempted murder case. Ward was cleared of that, too. But Ward wasn't a biker. He didn't wear colours. Like traditional mobsters, Ward kept a low public profile while conducting business. Clarkson said outlaw biker gangs like the Hells Angels are the only organized crime groups that wear a sign on their backs telling everyone who they are. "That has a benefit for them because it builds their reputation. But it also attracts the full attention of the police," he said. Still, Ward was a known and feared man among known and feared men. He had what the Angels needed. A network. Connections. "These guys were what I guess you could call the criminal elite," Clarkson said of Ward and his associates. If Ward had the connections, the bikers had the rep ... what Clarkson calls "the power of the patch." The very name, Hells Angels, is enough to make would-be rivals leave town or take up knitting. "Even if they don't do anything, the Hells Angels is a brand. People know not to fool around with them," Clarkson said. It's a public brand. Putting on a Hells Angels vest means stepping out of the shadows and announcing to the world what you are. Completely backward thinking for a career criminal like Ward. Then again, Stadnick wasn't taking no for answer. The power of the patch was enough to compel even a man as hardened as Ward. "I don't think (Ward) really wanted to do it, but I don't think they gave him a choice," Clarkson said. "It was either ... he joined up, or the Hells Angels would bring in 10 guys from Quebec to do it. That would be the last thing he'd want." Even as Stadnick and Ward spoke, the RCMP was busy prognosticating. The Angels would attempt to wipe out their rivals, spreading the chaos in Quebec to Ontario, they said. It made great headlines. It was also dead wrong. The Angels, for whatever else they are, weren't that stupid. They didn't have the the muscle to fight a street war with Ontario bikers. So they did what many cops didn't expect: they made peace with their hated rivals. The year after the Papalia and Barillaro murders, the Angels signed an official peace agreement with the Outlaws, whose Canadian operations were based in St. Catharines. Similar treaties were soon signed with the Rock Machine and the Bandidos in the U. S. The deals didn't extinguish old vendettas or inter-gang hatred. Violence was still a staple of the biker world. But a full-out war was now out of the question. The Angels were set to invade Ontario without having to fire a single shot.