Glory Days

Once upon a time, Arlington’s mean streets were ruled by outlaws and hoods. Wayne Hager was one of them.

It’s a sunny day at the Lee-Harrison Shopping Center in Arlington. SUVs, minivans and Toyota hybrids zoom in and out of the parking lot, carting away groceries, lattes, sushi, gourmet dog food, and the occasional ice cream cake for a birthday party. To most, it’s a perfectly innocuous suburban hive.

But for Wayne Hager, who grew up in East Falls Church, this spot brings back different memories. He was there on the summer night in 1966 when 100 shots were fired in an epic gun battle between rival biker gangs. In fact, he was one of the lead instigators.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, “greasers” like Hager were a visible, if not dominant, part of the local landscape. They swaggered around town wearing slicked-back hair, sleeveless T’s (revealing ripped biceps), denim jackets and leather boots of the sort that, as the Northern Virginia Sun put it, were “popular with rock ’n’ roll groups.”

They hung out in places like the Birchmere music hall (then located in Shirlington); the now-defunct Tuthill’s Pool Hall at the corner of Lee Highway and Westmoreland Street; and Whitey’s, the gritty dive on Washington Boulevard that has since been supplanted by the upscale restaurant Tallula and its sister gastro-pub, EatBar. (The original neon “EAT” sign from Whitey’s remains affixed to the building’s façade.)

Perhaps the most infamous gathering spot was the Tops Drive-Inn at the corner of Lee Highway and George Mason Drive (a lot now occupied by a Chevy Chase Bank). “We would have anywhere from 250 to 300 people there on any given night,” says Hager, who in those days went by the pseudonym “Rebel.”

The Ducktails—so named for the way they combed back their pomaded hair on each side so it would meet in a ridge at the back of their head—drove souped-up motorcycles and fast cars. They formed hot rod clubs and frequently staged drag races on Glebe Road near Walker Chapel and on the less frequently patrolled Route 110 near the Pentagon.

They gave nicknames to one another and to the cops they were forever antagonizing. “There was one police officer we called ‘Muffler Metz,’ ” Hager recalls, “because he was famous for giving us all tickets for having loud mufflers.”

They were insubordinates and malcontents. And they were often armed.

Retired Arlington police Capt. Alvin Fuchsman recalls being summoned to an altercation in 1956 at the Arlington Forest Shopping Center at Park Drive and Route 50, where he and his fellow officers confiscated knives and guns, arresting 27 young men without incident.

The next day, Fuchsman was working at the precinct’s public counter. “A mother came in and asked me what right I had to take her son’s guns,” he recalls. “She didn’t even acknowledge that we may have saved his life.”

Like Hager, many of the other local boys who adopted the greaser lifestyle were high school dropouts from Yorktown or Washington-Lee. For those who would eventually form the group known as the Avengers, violence was at first limited to after-school fistfights.

Hager, a veteran of more than 40 such imbroglios, recounts how each one went down. An aggrieved kid would “call out” a rival, which meant challenging him to meet behind the old Blue-Gray Market at the corner of Quincy Street and Washington Boulevard. Each brawl typically lasted until one fighter quit.

“We weren’t a gang back then,” Hager clarifies, “just a bunch of guys hanging out at Tops.”

Members of the Pagans Motorcycle Club. Photos courtesy of the DC Public Library

Members of the Pagans Motorcycle Club, however, were a violent breed. Assembled in 1959 in Prince Georges County, Maryland by a resident named Lou Dobkins, they aimed to become the East Coast equivalent of the Hells Angels. Their jackets were adorned with back patches depicting Surtr, the king of the Fire Giants in Norse mythology. Some were further accessorized with white supremacist and Nazi insignia. By the early ’70s, many would be linked to cases of torture, rape and murder.

“[We] thought we were bad,” Hager says, “but in the Pagans’ world of bad, we were nothing.” He likened those who would become his adversaries to a pack of wolves.

What members of both camps shared—aside from an interest in fast cars and BSA or Triumph motorcycles—was antipathy toward their straight-laced classmates, whom they derided as “fruits,” “collegiates,” “dorks,” or “dips.”

These were the rich kids destined for bachelor’s degrees, who drove new cars or—even worse in the greasers’ view—punier motorcycles made by Honda and Yamaha. “They wore trench coats, madras shirts and heinie-binder pants with tiny little [buckled belts]” just below the waistband, Hager recalls.

By comparison, the weekend warriors, who were known to summarily punch ”collegiates” in the face, unprovoked, and who would eventually stage the Lee-Harrison shoot-out, wore denim and leather. They held day jobs as grocery clerks, drywall hangers and house painters.

“Products of blue-collar workers and often broken homes, these restless, proud men roam the area looking for excitement and showing off to their women,” reporters wrote in The Washington Post. Hager worked as a meatcutter at the local Safeway, where he was known to sneak guns into the store and shoot at slabs of beef for target practice.

The shoot-out in 1966 wasn’t a spontaneous ambush so much as it was the outcome of months’ worth of low-grade tensions. The Pagans had a rule that no one could “go to church without colors,” meaning that only the initiated could attend their meetings. Hager, then in his early 20s, went out of his way to haunt the Pagans’ favorite racetracks but resisted pressure to join. His attitude was flagrant, and resentment ensued.

Pagans began taking potshots at him whenever he showed up at the Vista Raceway, a predominantly African-American venue in Prince George’s County. “Once, they took the end of my finger off. Another time, I dug a bullet from a .22 [caliber gun] out of my upper thigh,” he says. “Back in those days, insurance wouldn’t pay for ‘acts of aggression,’ so I had to make up another [explanation for the injury]. I said I’d accidentally stabbed myself in the leg with a knife.”

In late 1965, Hager engaged in a series of clashes with aspiring Pagan Frederick “Dutch” Burhans, including a fistfight Hager claims to have won, “fair and square.” Hager’s parents’ house at 1705 Roosevelt St. was subsequently firebombed. Not long after, his prized possession, a brand-new Chevy Impala, was set ablaze and shot up with bullets. Molotov cocktails were launched onto his lawn. He received death threats.

“The bottom line: We were from Arlington, and we weren’t going to have the Pagans from Maryland tell us what to do,” he says. So he and some friends decided to form a rival gang.

Calling themselves the Avengers, they made a pilgrimage to the ABC Lettering Shop in downtown D.C., where they ordered 30 or 40 jackets emblazoned with a Maltese cross and a skull.

It was against this backdrop of solidarity that hostilities began to escalate. Following a tussle with an Avenger at a biker bar, a Pagan member named Samuel Frederick was driving home when his motorcycle smashed into the back of a truck and he was killed.
Pagans blamed the Avengers for his death and swore a “blood oath” to kill Hager.

Both camps began enlisting recruits for the show of firearms that would soon take place at “the lot” next to the Safeway at the corner of Lee Highway and Harrison Street.

A homemade weapon counted among the many pieces of evidence that were confiscated by local police on the night of the shoot-out. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library

At 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14, 1966, Arlington County Detective Charles Mackey received a tip from the Falls Church Police Department (as he would later note in a police report) that as many as 200 Pagans were descending on the Safeway with plans to shoot Avengers, possibly from rooftops. At 5:30 p.m., Mackey received a second call, this one from the mother of a Pagan corroborating the plot. Mackey began notifying area police.

The Avengers arrived first, at 8 p.m., some 15 to 20 of them emerging from cars with 25 mm automatics, brass knuckles, an AR-15 assault rifle, hunting rifles, clubs and baseball bats studded with nails. Many of the arms had been purchased from a pawn shop in Lyon Village.

“[Weapons] were lying on the hoods [of cars], in the seats, anywhere you looked you could see guns,” police Pvt. James Winlund would later tell a courtroom.

Hager’s girlfriend stayed in the car—as was common practice among gang women when their men were “conducting business”—while police, who had staked out various positions around the intersection, watched and waited. They were legally prohibited from intervening unless gang members opened fire.

The first shots rang out at 11:04 p.m., just as the police officers on location began changing shifts. Det. Mackey was driving home toward the courthouse when a frantic report on the radio announced that “all hell was breaking loose.” He turned around in Cherrydale and headed back to the scene.

Hager recalls ducking to the ground as gunmen on both sides exchanged fire and police swarmed in with Thompson machine guns. He and his girlfriend sped off with a car full of weapons, drove home to dump the evidence, and then returned just as police were cordoning off the crime scene with yellow tape.

Spotting the ’56 Chevy station wagon of a Pagan rival, Hager pointed out the vehicle to police and then raced after it, precipitating a 90-mph chase down Lee Highway that ended when the driver of the station wagon was apprehended. Hager was also pulled over and nearly arrested by a state trooper until another state trooper vouched for him, noting that he had cooperated with law enforcement.

Eighteen gang members were taken into custody that night and the next day, most of them Avengers charged with disorderly conduct, possession of a concealed weapon and inciting a riot. Eleven were found guilty and sentenced to fines of $100 to $250 and suspended jail sentences. One Avenger, Donald Morley, was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

But no one died. Miraculously, the only injury of the night was sustained by a state trooper, whose leg was grazed by a ricocheting bullet. Later on, police would grimly joke that the delinquents who triggered the “most shots fired in Arlington since 1865” clearly had poor aim.

In the days that followed, a Washington Post editorial thundered about the “appalling ineptitude” of Arlington police for failing to head off the shootout. Ideological debates over the state’s gun laws—particularly the one that prevented police from proactively intervening—ensued.

The gangs, meanwhile, endeavored to resolve their own differences. On June 22, representatives from both clubs met to negotiate a mutual disarmament agreement with the understanding that neither gang would carry weapons or wear colors in the other’s territory.

The Pagans eventually formed a Virginia chapter, but Hager, still bearing a grudge, declined to join. Dutch Burhans, his original adversary, who was notably absent the night of the shootout, went on to become president of the Pagans in the mid-’70s. Burhans was shot and killed in a Fairfax City apartment in 1980.

Hager recounts this and other casualties—including a seemingly endless litany of friends, acquaintances and former adversaries killed in motorcycle accidents—with a matter-of-fact air of inevitability. But not regret.

At 71, he still has his original Avengers jacket and keeps a scrapbook of clippings and documents from his rebel days. The odometer on his now-vintage, impeccably restored 1965 Chevy Impala, which sits in his driveway in Springfield, Va., has ticked past 220,000 miles.

Now married with a grown son, he’s mellowed with age and has even developed a respect and affection for the police officers, prosecutors and judges he encountered so routinely in his youth.

He’s made peace with many of those he once called enemies (he sees them fairly regularly at motorcycle rallies, Tops Drive-Inn reunions and funerals); and he still rides a bike, although he has traded in his Triumph for a Harley, which he says is easier on his back.

The defiant fire in Hager’s eyes still burns and probably always will. But it never was about going for the kill, he explains. It was always more about pride and respect.

“I’ve been shot three times and stabbed twice, but I am not a killer,” he says. “I fight, but I don’t kill people. And I’m still convinced after all these years that the Pagans weren’t trying to kill us that night either. That’s why no one was hit. If they’d been trying, the story would have turned out different.”

Meanwhile, the “fruits” and “collegiates” of his day seem to have exacted their own brand of yuppie revenge at the corner of Lee Highway and Harrison Street. They re-paved paradise and put up a Starbucks and a Harris Teeter.

This story was adapted from “Arlington’s Night of Gang Warfare,” an article by Charles S. Clark that originally appeared in the Arlington Historical Magazine in October 2008. A lifelong Arlingtonian, Clark was finishing seventh grade at Williamsburg Junior High at the time of the shoot-out.

Categories: Local History