Running on empty: Bikies ride out VLAD
QUEENSLAND is home to 1625 participants in outlaw motorcycle clubs.
The Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act (VLAD) places unprecedented restrictions on their freedom of movement and association.
This tough stance encourages the disassociation of members and the dissolution of clubs.
State Intelligence Command says that as of February this year, 371 participants have formally disconnected.
Those who remain say they are resolute in their commitment to the clubs.
Army bans veteran
REBELS member Steve McCohon reads through his university lecture notes outside a blustery Brisbane cafe.
An empty coffee cup sits beside him. A Harley-Davidson cap sits upon his greying hair. He smiles and offers a handshake.
Before he decided to study law at university and before he became a member of an outlaw motorcycle club, Steve was an infantry officer and a company commander in the army.
His story is a common one. For decades, veterans turned to motorcycle clubs after struggling to reintegrate into civilian life.
Membership grew significantly after the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the return of servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Detective Acting Superintendent Brendan Smith from Taskforce Maxima says the clubs target ex-military personnel for their intimidating presence and weapons knowledge.
"Military people have a presence about them," he says.
"These bikies use their presence to intimidate victims and members of the community. They're trained fighters, really."
Steve paints a different story.
"I was diagnosed with PTSD and my wife left," he says.
"I wasn't coping well. I had lost the camaraderie and mateship the military gave me. There was nothing in the civilian world that could equate to it."
But there was in the clubs, he says. In the clubs Steve found the support and excitement he needed to overcome his personal hurdles.
"It was just fun," he says. "The long rides, the brotherhood, sitting down and having a laugh…it was just good, blokey fun. They helped me through the darkest days of my life."
The introduction of the anti-association laws changed the social nature of the clubs.
Steve says he can no longer meet his mates at the pub, go to the clubhouse or go on runs.
"There's a big sense of isolation," he says. "We're not getting together as much and there are some guys who this has affected big time."
Supt Smith says there are alternative options for club members who seek social support.
"Ultimately, it's about choice," he says.
"There are plenty of other social motorcycle groups, men's groups and hobby groups that they could join.
"Every weekend, there is a social motorcycle ride somewhere in Queensland and they are not impacted by these laws."
To work around the laws, small groups of club members meet in private homes. But this solution, Steve says, is not ideal. Members must ride in twos to and from the location. They may also be subject to police surveillance upon arrival.
After the introduction of the laws, the army severed ties with Steve. He is banned from entering army barracks, he was removed as president of a veterans' association and last year, he says, the anti-association laws prevented him from marching on Anzac Day.
"Someone made a decision without knowing me, without knowing my background, without asking me, to knock that association out of my life," he says.
"In reality, people have to see us for who we are.
"We're still people."
Battling with depression
AT THE local pub, Hells Angels treasurer Terry McCormick is well known. He jokes with the kitchen staff and orders his usual before selecting his favourite table by the window. It gets the best light, he explains.
Terry is also well known across Queensland for being one of the two men arrested for riding in Hells Angels' Good as Gold poker run in March.
A native New Zealander, Terry joined the club at a young age after he was kicked out of the family home.
He says membership provided him with the acceptance, guidance and grounding he failed to receive in childhood.
"It made me realise that my life actually has a purpose," he says. "They've taught me the value of respect, integrity, and loyalty."
Supt Smith says outlaw clubs often target the disenfranchised.
"I think there's a misunderstanding as to how truly criminal the clubs are," he says.
"I think Hollywood has a lot to do with it."
Motorcycling, Terry says, offers men a taste of freedom. Long, shared rides break down interpersonal barriers, allowing close friendships to form.
"These people know your inner soul," he says.
"We share experiences and hopes and dreams and disappointments."
Terry sought medical help after VLAD was enacted. He could no longer find social support at the clubhouse. He felt excluded and marginalised. This lead to symptoms of clinical depression.
"There have been times where I've struggled to get out of bed in the morning," he says.
"There have been times when I've thought if I was dead, there might be some peace."
Terry speculates that other members may face similar struggles under VLAD. He says they may become dependent on alcohol or drugs. He says they may become violent.
"That's not because of their nature," he says. "They are a product of their environment."
Supt Smith believes the laws have the opposite effect. In his experience, members become less aggressive when isolated.
"When they're by themselves they're different," he says.
"It's when there's a group of them together that they use their intimidation to menace the public.
"One of the great things about the legislation is that they've lost that power to intimidate."
With the legislation due for review soon by a commission of inquiry, Terry believes it should be repealed.
"I accept that there are people in clubs who have committed crimes," he says. "But that doesn't mean the club condones their actions.
"Punish the people who commit the crimes. Don't punish the people they associate with."
Social stigma hurts family
IT IS 5pm on a Tuesday and Rebels Motorcycle Club member "Little" Mick Kosenko is in the kitchen of a modest, suburban home, frying bacon for his two children. His wife, Tracey Kosenko, chats with him from the kitchen counter while the teenagers, still clad in school uniform, go about setting the table.
This family is one of thousands across Queensland affected by VLAD.
The Kosenkos have spent a reasonable amount of time in the media spotlight, owing in part to Mick's long-serving presidency of the Brisbane Rebels chapter and his role as spokesman for the United Motorcycle Council.
He also indicated earlier this year he was considering running for politics to fight the VLAD laws.
His wife says there has been increasingly negative media attention toward them as a result.
"We've been called maggots," Tracey says. "The scum of the earth. Pedophiles. We've been called everything and we've been called it on national television."
It is their children who suffer the consequences, she says.
"Our kids have to get up in the morning, put their uniforms on and face all their peers after their parents have been reading about us," she says.
"They have to go to school with that every day."
But it is the anti-association laws that pose the biggest threat to their lifestyle. The couple face jail time if they come into contact with another member or associate in a public place.
"If we go out for dinner and someone walks in, that's six months' jail for the three of us," she says. "It's horrible.
"You're looking over your shoulder the whole time you're trying to eat."
The laws also prevent the couple from attending public weddings, funerals and church services where other members could be present.
Since the laws were introduced, police anti-bikie Taskforce Maxima has shut down 37 clubhouses across Queensland. The clubhouses were used for parties, meetings and barbecues.
Tracey says the entire family would go to the clubhouse on a Friday night.
"It was a second home," she says. "Losing that has been hard."
But Supt Smith says the statewide closure of the clubhouses was a necessary step in disrupting organised crime.
"We've compiled plenty of evidence over the years that show their clubhouses are used for storing guns and for storing drugs," he says. "Now they can't do that."
The increasing pressure on outlaw clubs has led to hundreds of men across Queensland formally disassociating. Supt Smith says he feels optimistic about their future.
"We see a lot of people drop out of gang life," he says. "And we're not seeing them involved in further crime.
"It's a fallacy to say once a bikie, always a bikie."
Mick says members who left the Rebels mostly did so for employment reasons.
He says those who remain are as strong as ever and are still fighting the VLAD laws.
"I'm proud of that. They're going to see it through. This is a family. And you don't just give up on family."