First blood in possible biker war

Eleven hours after a high-ranking member of the local chapter of the Hells Angels was shot to death, police commanders were bracing for a possible gang war.

"The message we want to send is we are not going to deal with any sort of retaliation. We will not tolerate a war here in Philadelphia," Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson told reporters at a Friday press conference.

Homicide Capt. Richard Ross identified the man slain on the Schuylkill Expressway near Vare Avenue as Thomas Wood, 37, of Upper Darby, and said he may not have been the intended target. Wood was the vice president of the local chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, based on the 4800 block of Merion Avenue in West Philly.

The victim had been shot once in his head at 1:30 a.m. while driving a gray pickup truck west on the Schuylkill from Oregon Avenue, said Ross. A friend of Wood’s, also a Hells Angel, was riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the next lane. Both men had just left Cheerleaders, a go-go bar at 2740 S. Front St.

Police did not identify the other man but said both he and Wood had been wearing identifying Hells Angels club colors.

When two men in a white Chevy Suburban with off-road lights pulled up alongside the pair and started firing at the unnamed man, Wood swerved in an attempt to shield his friend, Ross said.

After Wood was struck, his friend came to his aid and attempted to perform CPR, said the captain. Investigators recovered a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol on the floor of the pickup.

"[Wood] did not fire back to the best of our knowledge," Ross said. "At this point there is nothing that suggests that he did anything to precipitate it — at least the shots fired on the highway."

The victim was pronounced dead at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Police would not speculate if the rival Pagans biker gang was behind the slaying.

"Obviously, there is bad blood between the different groups. We hope to prevent any further bloodshed," said Detective Bureau Chief Inspector Joseph Fox.

Rooted mostly in California and elsewhere on the West Coast, the Hells Angels arrived on the Philadelphia scene about three years ago, Ross said. The club was founded in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1948 and boasts chapters worldwide.

Because of the past history of the Hells Angels and Pagans — the latter headed by Steven "Gorilla" Mondevergine, himself the survivor of a 1999 assassination attempt in South Philly — police are keeping a watchful eye on things here and in New Jersey.

Soon after the attempt on Mondevergine’s life, a tattoo parlor at Carlisle Street and Snyder Avenue known to have a "biker affiliation" was firebombed, according to a high-ranking police source.

New Jersey State Police are investigating whether Friday’s shooting is connected to a New Year’s Day melee between the two groups outside Woodshed Bar on Route 72 in Woodland Township, Burlington County.

Amid the clash, Vincent Heinrich, 37, of Bloomfield, Essex County, was beaten over his head with a wooden board, said state police spokesperson Lt. Kevin Rehmann.

The victim was airlifted to Cooper Hospital with head injuries, but has since been released, the lieutenant said.

Jersey police have made no arrests in the Jan. 1 incident, Rehmann said.

"Our detectives have been in touch with Philadelphia Homicide to see if there is any connection. As of yet, we have no witnesses who have come forward although there were a lot of people in and outside the bar. Everything is still under investigation at both ends," Rehmann told the Review.

In 2003, a Pagan was killed, 10 men from the two rival gangs wounded and 70 arrested in a clash between the bikers at the Hellraiser’s Ball in Long Island, N.Y.