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​Waco shootout puts spotlight on motorcycle club culture

People can be forgiven for thinking Sunday's biker bloodbath in Waco, Texas was a throwback to a bad 1970s movie, according to a former federal agent who has first-hand experience with one of the country's most notorious motorcycle gangs.

Jay Dobyns spent nearly 30 years undercover infiltrating the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"What happened in Texas was zero surprise to me -- [though] it may have been surprising to society. They are no different than the street gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. It's all about violence," Dobyns told CBS News.

"If you are familiar with how these guys act, their tools of the trade -- the guns, knives, pipes -- there was nothing shocking about it," Dobyns said. "It just happened to take place on a large scale, in a public venue."

The shootout -- which killed nine people and wounded 18 -- seemed aberrant because the public image of many motorcycle gangs has been burnished in recent years, thanks to the many largely benign bike enthusiasts who've co-opted some of the same clothing and style.

Retired ATF agent William Queen went undercover for more than two years and testified against members of the gang he infiltrated, later writing about the experience in the book, "Under and Alone."

He told CBSN's Jeff Glor that despite heightened concern from law enforcement, the possibility of revenge attacks from the groups involved in Sunday's brawl is low.

"Those organizations know that the eyes of the nation are on them right now," Queen said. "And I don't believe that they're going to be stupid enough to pull something with everybody watching right now."

"I think, as a society, and to a large extent even in law enforcement, we fall into the sense that these guys are these big, rough-looking teddy bears that do blood drives and toy runs and are harmless," Dobyns said in a separate interview with the Associated Press. "These are people that have used the motorcycle culture as camouflage."

The more sinister side of biker culture was thrust into the spotlight after Sunday's shooting in the parking lot of a restaurant where members of several rival gangs were having a meeting. By Monday, authorities had charged about 170 gang members with engaging in organized crime.

Queen described the dispute between two of the gangs -- the much-smaller Cossacks, which has ties to the Hell's Angels, and the Bandidtos, currently one of the largest biker gangs in the world -- as "David and Goliath."

"The Cossacks were getting tired of being pushed around and pretty much 'called it' on the Banditos. There wasn't violence that was going on, but it was kind of building up," Queen explained. "And they were there to kind of talk about this thing at that coalition meeting, and it led from a parking space dispute to [a] full-fledged gun battle."

Watch Queen's entire interview with CBSN by clicking on the video above.

The motorcycle culture's image problem goes back at least to 1947, when a race in Hollister, California, descended into two days of bloody riots. The American Motorcycle Association, the race's sponsor, responded to the coverage by declaring that 99 percent of participants were law-abiding.

Bikers congregate against a wall while authorities investigate a shootout between rival gangs Sunday, May 17, 2015, in Waco, Texas.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP

To this day, gangs like the Outlaws refer to themselves as "1 percenters," says Terry Katz, former commander of the Maryland State Police's organized crime section. Trouble is, it's sometimes hard to tell the dark side of motorcycle groups from the light.

Even the terminology is interchangeable.

Good and bad alike call their organizations "clubs." Both use the term "colors" for the emblems on the backs of their jackets and vests.

"Wear your colors with pride," advertises a California company that makes patches for biker clubs, law enforcement agencies, fire departments, even the Boy Scouts of America.

Don Chambers, founder of the Bandidos gang, modeled his club's emblem -- a sombrero-wearing Mexican caricature carrying a sword and pistol -- after the corn chip company's Frito Bandito mascot, says Katz, who went undercover in the 1970s as an associate to two clubs, the Pagans and the Phantoms. Other clubs that want to operate on their turf are required to wear a patch called a "support cookie," so named because it's the size and shape of a cookie.

"You have a major gang. Then you have like a puppet club or you can call it a farm team that is part of their organization. But they're not a member of the big dogs," says Katz, vice president of the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association.

The names have also grown more sinister. The Boozefighters and Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington of 1947 Hollister have given way to the Outlaws, Cossacks and Hells Angels of today.

Katz says bikers maim and kill each other all the time. The only thing unusual about the Waco confrontation was that it happened in public.

"I get that question all the time: 'Are these guys still around?"' he says. "Of course they are. But they've lowered their profile, because it's bad for business to be involved in something where you're going to attract a great deal of law enforcement attention. They've never gone away. In fact, they've grown."

Some clubs boast chapters on the other side of the globe.

"You look at crime syndicates. They come to America from other places," says Dobyns, who lives in Tuscon, Arizona. "But the biker culture? That is America's export to the... world of crime syndicates."

Part of the problem, Dobyns says, is that the entertainment world tends to glamorize these groups.

The Hollister riots spawned "The Wild One," Marlon Brando's 1953 classic. But Johnny, with his dungarees turned up at the ankles and cap at a rakish angle, seems quaint compared to FX Networks' "Sons of Anarchy."

"They prey on the Americana of it," says Dobyns, who used his own childhood nickname of "Jaybird" in his undercover work. "And it's sexy and it's glamorous. The reality of it is that it's a very dangerous world, inhabited by violent men. And the reality of it is that it's very unsexy and it's very unglamorous."

FX spokesman John Solberg declined to respond to Dobyns' comments.

Like the Mafia, motorcycle gangs aren't interested in big public displays, says Katz. But the cornerstone of that culture is a willingness to kill -- and die -- for your club.

"And that's what you saw yesterday," he says. "I mean, there were marked police cars outside that event ... Once the fight started, it didn't matter."