When The Bandidos Came To Town


Donald Chambers, the founder of the Bandidos, was paroled in 1983 and retired from the club. He settled in El Paso, Texas, where he lived out his life in relative peace, his Bandidos tattoos all covered or removed.

Shortly after Chambers’ release and retirement, the Bandidos decided to expand overseas. No doubt they had seen the Hells Angels doing the same, but the decision to act seems to have been prompted by an overture from the other side of the world. Australia was already home to several bike clubs, spread around the country, with the heaviest concentration in New South Wales. One of the largest of these was the Comancheros. The club was founded in 1966, the same year the Bandidos were born in Texas.

Some of the Comancheros, including Sydney "city" chapter president Arthur "Snodgrass" Spencer, had travelled to the US. While they were there, they met with the Bandidos. The Australians had easy access to P2P (phenyl-2-propanone), a chemical used in the manufacture of methamphetamine and available legally in Australia. They were interested in supplying the Americans. In the US, P2P was a controlled substance.

Snodgrass was impressed by the American bikers, and the Bandidos seem to have liked the Australians. They hung out and partied, to the point that in some cases charges were actually laid, though none seem to have been serious.

In 1983, the Comancheros had two chapters: the city chapter in downtown Sydney run by Snodgrass and another based in Parramatta, a suburb just a few kilometres west of Sydney. This chapter was run by William "Jock" Ross, who was the national president of the club and who had brought Snodgrass into the Comancheros in the first place. Ross, a Scot who orginally hailed from Glasgow, had begun to make changes within the club, apparently trying to make it into more of a paramilitary organisation.

Snodgrass did not agree with this direction; he wanted to be a biker (or "bikie," as they are known in Australia), not a soldier. He and several other Comancheros resigned from the club, burning their colours in a ceremonial bonfire. Snodgrass then approached the Bandidos in the US, seeking approval for an Australian Bandidos chapter. He had felt a kinship with the Americans and their ways, and found their approach matched his ideas, much more so than those of his former Comanchero brothers.

Australia was a good choice for the Bandidos because of its vast unregulated territory — and because they could acquire P2P easily and legally. After their American visit, Snodgrass and his associates were also a known quantity and in 1983 the first Australian chapter of the Bandidos was created in Sydney. They lived the biker lifestyle to the hilt, and quickly became famous for their wild parties, among other things.

The surviving chapter of the Comancheros, led by Jock Ross, took great exception to what they characterised as an American invasion. They were already angry with Snodgrass and his associates for leaving the club. This new alliance with a foreign club only made it worse. The new Bandidos in turn wanted nothing to do with any Comancheros who wouldn’t patch over to them.

An intense rivalry developed between the two groups, with the inevitable minor clashes and flashes of violence. There was also ongoing conflict with the other Australian outlaw gangs (like the local Hells Angels and the Rebels) for control of the drug trade, along with other criminal activities like prostitution and gun running. It was the formula for disaster that the Bandidos thrived on. And, as you’d expect, within a year these conflicts came to a head.

On Father’s Day 1984 in Sydney’s Milperra, the British Motorcycle Club, a tough but unaffiliated bike club, organised a swap meet — a family day, complete with a lamb roasting on the spit — to celebrate the move of their headquarters to the Viking Tavern. They clearly didn’t expect that the new Bandidos and the remaining Comancheros would show.

Tensions between the two clubs had been ratcheting up. In August of 1984 war was officially declared, reportedly after a telephone conversation between Snodgrass and Jock Ross. This meant that members of the two clubs would now be attacking their rivals whenever and wherever they could.

Several Bandidos turned up at the home of Glen Eaves, a member of the Comancheros, on the morning of the swap meet and told him that they would be at the Viking Tavern later, effectively throwing down the gauntlet. The Comancheros were more than willing to respond to this challenge; by one o’clock that afternoon, a heavily armed group of them were waiting in the parking lot. The Bandidos arrived shortly afterwards on their bikes, also armed to the teeth, and followed by a van carrying extra weapons. Both gangs had turned up equipped with a variety: baseball bats, knives, chains, iron bars and both shotguns and rifles.

The two gangs lined up on either side of the parking lot, bristling and posturing across the asphalt. Then Comancheros leader Jock Ross, brandishing a machete, gave the order to his men to "Kill ’em all!" and it began. As terrified bystanders scurried for cover behind cars and trees, the bikers attacked each other, shotgun blasts and rifle fire ringing out through the noise and confusion.

Over 200 police officers were called to the scene, but they arrived too late to prevent the carnage. In the melee, which lasted only about 10 minutes, 20 people were injured and seven were killed: four Comancheros, two Bandidos and a teenage girl who was shot in the face. The Milperra Massacre, as it has come to be known, made it clear that the Bandidos were in town, and that they would be a force to reckon with.

The shootout put an end to the undisputed reign of the Comancheros and to their dominance in the Sydney drug trade, and accelerated the rise of the Bandidos in Australia. Their only other serious rivals in size and prominence were the Rebels; the Hells Angels, though they had been active in Australia since the late ’70s, had relatively few chapters and a much smaller membership. They had not become the dominant biker presence Down Under they had almost everywhere else.

In the aftermath of the massacre, police charged 43 people. None of the accused from either side were willing to testify. Jock Ross was singled out by the judge in the trial as being primarily responsible for the violence; he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven other Comancheros also received life sentences. 16 of the new Bandidos received 14 years for manslaughter. At the end of the three-year trial, there were a total of 63 convictions for murder, and 147 for manslaughter. The trial itself was the largest Australia had ever seen.

The massacre also prompted swift changes to Australian firearms legislation. Semi-automatic weapons, for instance, were banned; one had been used during the clash. This measure was extremely unpopular with Australian gun owners in general; it would seem there were a lot of them. The Labor Party, who had passed the legislation in question, suffered their worst defeat in decades in the next election, primarily because of this backlash. The new government quickly rescinded the ban. However, it was eventually reinstated, in 1997, and remains on the books today.

There were only two bikers involved in the massacre who managed to escape conviction. One was Philip "Knuckles" McElwaine. He was a Comanchero, as were his two brothers, Mark "Gloves" and Greg "Dukes" McElwaine; the three were enforcers within the club. Philip, again like his brothers, was a boxer and had won a gold medal as a middleweight at the Commonwealth Games held in Edmonton in 1978. His boxing career was later ended by a motorcycle accident. He was acquitted of charges from the massacre and freed.

The other to avoid conviction was Arthur "Snodgrass" Spencer, the leader of the new Australian Bandidos, though he didn’t share McElwaine’s good fortune. Snodgrass was arrested for his part in the massacre, but killed himself in prison before he was brought to trial.

Some 20 years later, despite the dominance of the Bandidos, the Comancheros continue to maintain a serious presence, frequently challenging their rivals for a share of the Australian drug market. The conflict has been fuelled by another mass defection: in 2007, over 60 members of two Nomads chapters patched over to the Bandidos. This led to a series of brutal attacks by the gangs on each other, and seems to have led to the formation of yet another gang, known as Notorious. A police operation created to deal with this wave of violence resulted in more than 300 arrests on over 800 charges. The defection may have been sparked by a change in Comanchero leadership. In 2006, Raymond "Sunshine" Kucler, a Milperra survivor, took over as the club’s president. He replaced Jock Ross, who seems to have remained in control even while he was in prison, and after he was paroled.

It seems that biker clubs are like weeds — they just keep growing back. And like weeds, they keep spreading: the Outlaws arrived in 1994; more recently, the Black Pistons, their primary support club, opened their first Australian chapter in 2007. Besides all the aforementioned gangs, Australia is also home to several smaller clubs, like the Finks, the Gypsy Jokers and the remaining Nomads. And of course, there remains a small but powerful contingent of everybody’s favourites, the Hells Angels.

This is an edited extract from The Fat Mexican: The Bloody Rise of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club by Alex Caine, published by Allen & Unwin.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.