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Biker group helping abused youngsters feel safe again

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published September 16. 2013 4:00AM   Updated September 17. 2013 8:59PM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Walt "Happy" Dodson awaits the arrival of members of Bikers Against Child Abuse outside Danielson Superior Court in Killingly on Friday.

Editor's note: Changes to this story are the result of an editing of an earlier version.

A dozen bikers, several with scruffy beards and all clad in black leather adorned with patches, pins and chains, turned heads two weeks ago as they entered Danielson Superior Courthouse.

A large oval patch on the back of their vests depicted a closed fist encircled by a motorcycle chain. A smaller front patch has a skull and crossbones.

Judicial marshals greeted the bikers with smiles.

"I know why you're here," a marshal said, with a supportive thumbs up.

The bikers removed their vests, went through metal detectors and re-vested to enter the courtroom.

The large patch reads: "Bikers Against Child Abuse," the letters "BACA" on the fist. The bottom patch says "No Child Deserves to Live in Fear." The writing under the skull and crossbones warns: "The Surgeon General has determined it is hazardous to mess with a BACA child."

On this day, the bikers attended court to hear the latest proceedings in two child sexual abuse cases. The bikers have pledged to protect and support the victims, now ages 6 and 14, whose families have enlisted BACA to help their children feel safe again.

BACA members don't like to use their full names. Each member has a kid-friendly "road name" - displayed on a patch - taken from cartoons, fairy tales or children's books.

A licensed clinical social worker, John Paul "Chief" Lilly, founded BACA in Utah in 1995. Chapters have spread throughout the world.

The Connecticut chapter was launched in 2005 and now has 15 active members - 13 full-fledged "patch" members and two prospective members in their one-year provisional periods. All must be motorcycle riders and must meet the group's stringent commitments, said chapter President "Happy" Dodson, 59, of Norwich.

Interested people agree to be fingerprinted and go through an FBI background check. If that turns out OK, with no domestic violence, sexual abuse charges or other red flags, the person is assigned a sponsor and starts a one-year trial period. The chapter's executive board must approve full members unanimously after that period.

"Sometimes, you say, 'full FBI check' to someone and you never see them again," Dodson said.

Some are attracted to the leather jackets, motorcycles and patches, but BACA members stress that this is a serious group with a cause.

'You're here for the kids'

"You're here for the kids. It's not to get you a date, a patch or to be part of a club," three-year member "Roadrunner" of Moosup said. He asked that his full name not be used.

Dodson said BACA never initiates contact with families. He admitted it's difficult to sit for an entire day of court proceedings, hearing other abuse cases, and not becoming involved. When a family contacts BACA, leaders meet with the parents or guardians to verify the situation.

"We're not looking to be a babysitter or to become fodder for a divorce," he said. "We have interview forms that describe what we do and if they want to use our services, we give guidelines."

Then comes the ride, a dramatic event for the child, with a dozen or more motorcycles roaring to the child's home. Most BACA members form a security perimeter around the house or yard as two members meet the child, bringing a teddy bear and the child's own BACA vest with a road name. Two members are assigned as the child's liaison to contact anytime, day or night, if the child feels afraid or the family is concerned that the suspect might be in the area.

"We tell them we are here for you," said Dodson, who has served as a child liaison in two cases. "The objective is for the child to get comfortable around us."

The level of contact varies depending on what the families and children want, members said.

"Shaggy" Pettigrew, 54, of Plainfield is the primary contact for a 6-year-old girl who had been abused since she was 6 months old. Pettigrew accompanied the child to a school father-daughter dance. BACA paid the portion of the cost for psychological counseling not covered by insurance.

When BACA members first gave her the vest two years ago, she wore it for three days and wouldn't take it off, the girl's mother told Dodson.

BACA members do not discuss specific court cases. On Sept. 6, a dozen members were in Danielson Superior Court for the case of Robert H. Hardy Jr., who is awaiting sentencing on charges of risk of injury to a child and violation of a protective order. His next court date is Oct. 4. He has been on the docket 27 times, court records say.

"I understand there's the Constitution and everybody has rights, but there should be a way to speed things up," said BACA member "Mr. Bill" Matterfis, 68 of Higganum.

At last week's BACA monthly meeting - closed to outsiders - Dodson read a letter he received from the mother of a 7-year-old BACA girl in Derby.

'I'm not afraid anymore'

"They honored my daughter with a vest and a patch on the back that states 'Empowered. I will not live in fear,'" a portion of the letter said. "Gathered around her, each one said to her, 'We will always be there for you. You are now part of our family.' As Mr. Bill handed her a beautiful teddy bear, her face lit up and she whispered to me, 'I'm not afraid anymore.' BACA is and will be in our hearts and lives forever. Through our darkest hours they gave us hope, peace and faith. They are truly our heroes. All my love to you always."

Dodson teared up reading it.

The mother and stepfather of another girl allegedly sexually assaulted by an adult relative contacted BACA. Her stepfather is a former BACA member who had to drop out because of time commitments. The Day does not identify victims of sexual assault and is not identifying the parents in order to protect the identity of the victim.

"They met with our daughter, and told her they're here for her," the stepfather said. "They come to court dates with us. I think it has helped."

BACA members sat with the parents during recent court appearances, a few members accompanying them into the lobby at times to assure they did not run into the defendant, who is free on bond.

The girl's stepfather wore a BACA T-shirt in court with the saying: "Riding Through Hell for our Kids."

Robert J. Labrecque of Canterbury has been charged with first-degree sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a child-illegal sexual contact. His case was continued to Nov. 1 as court officials are awaiting DNA lab results.

BACA members offered varying reasons for making a strong commitment to protect abused children. Dodson, who works at Pfizer Inc. in Groton, joined nine years ago and has been president for five years. He met a former BACA president on another bike run to raise awareness against child abuse.

"Taking care of kids, keeping them safe," he said of why he joined. "I have three boys."

His son, "Scooter" Dodson, 27, of Norwich, joined seven years ago.

Several Connecticut chapter members said they joined because they've been there.

Roadrunner, 29, grew up in Florida with five step-siblings and one biological sister.

"My father was very physically abusive," he said. "He was a heavy drinker and he wanted me to be tough. He beat the piss out of me. He said I would grow up to be a wimp."

Roadrunner moved to Connecticut at age 13 to live with a cousin. He didn't speak to his father again until he was 19. Months later, his father died of cancer. Roadrunner said he and all his siblings were "in and out of trouble" since childhood.

"This is what I want to prevent," Roadrunner said. "It's what really got to me."

He said he is still shy and standoffish - feelings he said allow him relate to what BACA's young children are going through.

Roadrunner is the sponsor for "Pooh Bear" Muttart, 33, of Plainfield, who joined in April and doesn't yet have the big patch on his back. Muttart works at Kellogg Marine in Old Lyme. He and his wife have a 15-month old girl and are expecting another girl.

He too had a "troubled" childhood. His mother was married a few times, and her husbands "were not the greatest." Muttart learned about BACA through a friend.

Pettigrew said he was physically and sexually abused as a young child. At age 8, he said he had his parents arrested and was raised in state custody and group homes. He ran into BACA seven years ago during a Flag Day motorcycle fundraiser for veterans. He and his wife, "Velma" Pettigrew, 51, joined. Their daughter, "Daphne" Pettigrew, 25, joined three years ago.

"Thumper" Zieber, 27, of Bozrah said joining BACA is "one of the best things I've ever done in my life. I had a great childhood, great parents and I was hearing all these horror stories. I wanted to help out."

There are two career educators in the Connecticut chapter. Matterfis retired after 26 years as a school social worker in Smithtown on Long Island. "Tigger" Beauchamp, 50, of Coventry is currently an elementary school principal in East Hartford. She learned about BACA from a pamphlet.

Dodson said although the group has been around for nearly 10 years, awareness only recently has started to spread. BACA members often participate in fellow motorcycle group fundraiser rides and always carry informational pamphlets.

Gaining recognition

State and social services agencies and the courts are starting to recognize them.

Dodson said BACA members are rarely asked to remove their vests in court, but if it happens, "I tell my guys you better have a BACA T-shirt underneath."

Matthew Crockett, a prosecutor at Danielson Superior Court, said his only contact with BACA has been through the LaBrecque sexual assault case.

"I'd never dealt with them or heard of them before," Crockett said. "They certainly do make a presence, that's for sure."

Crockett said the members sat in on meetings when he spoke to the girl's parents and told the prosecutor that the group is available to any family of a child abuse victim.

"I have 75 to 80 cases, and at least a third and maybe more involve child abuse, physical or sexual," Crockett said. "It's an eye opener to see what we are doing to our children. I'm happy there is a group out there willing to do it. You can't just arrest your way out of the problem. It's a societal problem. They put the message out there. These big burly guys are against child abuse."

c.bessette@theday.com

BACA UBox

Bikers Against Child Abuse

www.bacaworld.org; www.bacausa.com

Contact Norwich BACA Chapter on the website, or at P.O Box 561, Norwich, CT 06360

For information or to inquire about BACA involvement in a case, call the hotline at (860) 420-7388.

Fundraiser for BACA Connecticut Chapter:

Pig Roast

Saturday, Sept. 21, 4 p.m. AmVets, 660 Wauregan Road, Brooklyn, CT

Cost: $20 per person.

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