He was 8 years old when he first caught a glimpse of the outlaw bikers on the news. The images – the roaring Harleys, the black leathers, the Hells Angels winged Death’s Head patches gleaming red, white – left a mark on young Mike Koepke as permanent as the thicket of tattoos that later would ink his skin.
As Koepke tells it a quarter century later, seeing the Hells Angels cinched it: He would one day join the biggest, baddest motorcycle club in the world.
The 34-year-old runs a ham-size right hand across the battered knuckles of his left hand. “I was like, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen… It was these guys, Hells Angels, riding in a pack of bikes on the news. It was so tough. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be.’”
He became exactly that a dozen years later: a biker, a brawler, a full-fledged, “patched in” Hells Angel. Koepke spent months shy of 10 years in the club. The life took him and his 1994 Harley Springer Softail from biker bars to emergency rooms, fistfights to funerals. Being a Hells Angel also involved Koepke in a now-legendary 2010 gun battle in Chino Valley, followed by 18 months of legal limbo facing decades in prison. Koepke says the club taught him about manhood. It also taught him the value of second chances. And it provided him with a a lot of great biker stories.
However, the best story Koepke tells isn’t about being a Hells Angel at all. It’s about how he went from being an outlaw to a firefighter, from a motorcycle clubhouse to a small single-family home in Prescott, where wind chimes tinkle in the breeze and Koepke and his wife Sarah tend to two beautiful little boys, one 6 years old and one a newborn.
The big man sits across from a plaque he received from the Williamson Valley Fire District. It’s inscribed, “Firefighter Mike Koepke, Reserve of the Year 2014.” The award occupies a place of honor beside a Stars-and-Stripes poster inscribed “Proud To Be An American” and certificates attesting to Koepke’s qualifications as a first responder.
Koepke raises his left arm to display his most instructive tattoo: the one that reads, “Out 3-19-2014.” Then the former Hells Angel begins the story of the rest of his life.
Koepke with his family in Skull Valley
Some moments carry a sense of inevitability, the feeling that each of life’s events and choices has propelled a human being to a definitive place and time. So it seems with Koepke and Yuma Drive in Chino Valley. In retrospect, it only makes sense that Koepke would have been there alongside his fellow Hells Angels on that August 2010 high noon.
“Trouble,” says Koepke, shrugging his thick shoulders, “just always had a way of finding me.”
As Koepke discusses his youth – the “bio dad” who left early, his west Phoenix childhood raised by a single mom – one word recurs like a cymbal crash: toughness.
If every little boy wants to be deemed “tough,” then young Koepke wanted it that much more. Once his natural father was gone, Mike became his mother Sandy’s protector. He relished the war stories told by his grandfather, who served as an Airborne Combat Medic. Koepke’s uncle worked on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The boy soaked up every visit to the Army base. Joining the military was Koepke’s other childhood dream.
“I looked up to those guys, my grandfather, my uncle. They were my male figures when I was young,” he explains. “That was predetermined in my head for a long time, joining the Army. It was just a natural progression.”
Mother and son moved to south Scottsdale when Mike was 9, after Sandy married George Koepke. An engineer, George adopted Sandy’s young son. Mike “half-assed” it through Saguaro High School, mostly interested in martial arts and lacrosse. At 16, he enlisted in the Army’s delayed entry program. After graduation, he headed to Fort Benning, Georgia, for infantry training.
The “band of brothers” military camaraderie suited Koepke, but his off-hours showed him something even more appealing: biker life. The Army sent him to Vicenza, Italy, to serve with the 173rd Brigade. Koepke bought a ‘94 Harley and shipped it over. A crash led him to a motorcycle shop in Vicenza. There, Koepke fell in with a group of about 50 Hells Angels.
Koepke treads lightly around the details of his club stint, skipping names, dates, misdeeds. What’s clear is that he followed the typical biker progression, spending a year as a “hang-around,” a sort of tryout, then a second year as a “prospect,” the biker version of an internship. In 2004, Koepke gained acceptance into the Vicenza chapter, a full member with voting rights and permission to sport the Hells Angels vest, rocker patches and a Vicenza Death’s Head tattoo. Joining the Angels necessitated a general discharge from the Army, says Koepke, a decision he speaks of regretfully, though it kicked off the six years of European adventures that followed.
He took odds jobs, repairing bikes, working in a nursing home, making bike runs across Europe and learning fluent Italian. When the job market hit rock-bottom in 2008, a return to Phoenix beckoned. Koepke took up with the Hells Angels Cave Creek chapter, then transferred to the Nomads, an HA chapter not tied to any specific geography – the roaming barbarians of the outlaw biker community. He started a security company that guarded construction sites, and rose to the office of vice president in the Nomads, earning a reputation as one of the club’s toughest and rowdiest fellows – a clean-cut member of the club’s new guard who enthusiastically used his fists to protect HA turf from rivals. “Even the older [bikers] knew, he was a guy you didn’t want to [mess] with,” an anonymous source with ties to the Arizona Hells Angels says. “Just a tough, vicious dude.”
Bar fights became a routine pastime for Koepke. Asked to estimate how many bar fights he’s had in his lifetime, he initially answers “thousands” before giving the matter more serious thought. “Actually, it’s only in the hundreds,” he amends.
His reputation in the motorcycle club (MC) community growing, Koepke became a regular at a North Phoenix bar called Hard Tailz. Between fistfights and beers, he befriended a pretty blonde bartender named Sarah. Or so he thought.
“I was scared to death of the club,” Sarah says. “The Hells Angels all freaked me out.”
She laughs at what comes next. “I thought he was totally obnoxious,” she says of her future husband. “I didn’t like him.”
Koepke wheedled Sarah’s phone number from a doorman. Their love story includes months of courtship and a Las Vegas wedding presided over by a biker nicknamed “The Poet.” What’s not included is Sarah trying to talk her new fellow into quitting the club.
“When I met him, that’s what he was in, that’s what he liked. I didn’t want to change him in any way,” she explains. “He pretty much had to leave on his own.”
Which brings us to the moment Koepke had been riding toward since childhood – dark violence, bullets and blood; a firefight between the Angels and a rival “one percenter” MC known as the Vagos.
The agreed-upon facts about what happened along Yuma Drive on August 21, 2010, are few. What can be reported accurately is that Koepke and friends were in Chino Valley for a visit with an Angel named Toth. Toth lived three houses down from a Vagos member known as “Mad Dog Mike” Diecks, who was having a cadre of Vagos pals over for a Saturday barbecue.
Associates of the clubs crossed paths at a Circle K, court records document. One of those bikers was Alfred Azevedo, a Vagos hang around. It was Azevedo, according to police records, who called Diecks to warn that “the Hells Angels were trying to get them.”
Yuma Drive soon became a scene worthy of Sons of Anarchy. At least 50 rounds were exchanged. With bullets still ricocheting, Koepke called Phoenix attorney Richard Gaxiola, who had represented several Valley-area Hells Angels in court and served as the club’s unofficial legal counsel. Over the racket of ongoing gunfire, Gaxiola explained to Koepke how the Angels should unload and lay down their weapons and surrender to police. He hung up with a sense that Koepke’s violent nature had finally reached its logical conclusion – bloodshed and jail time.
“It wasn’t out of the stretch of the imagination of what Mike could get involved in, a shootout with a rival gang,” Gaxiola remembers. “I was actually counting the days before something major would inevitably happen in Mike’s life.”
Five men were shot in the melee, though none seriously wounded. For Koepke, the subsequent pain was judicial in nature. He was among 27 bikers arrested and one of seven indicted on charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and weapons misconduct. Add in additional years for the conflict being “gang-related,” and Koepke faced decades behind bars.
The months after Koepke made bail were full of legal moves, massive bills and anxiety. He was fired after his employer, gun manufacturer Ruger, saw the headlines. How close did Koepke, viewed as the Nomads’ leader by law enforcement, come to prison? Very, Gaxiola says.
“Mike authorized me to meet with the County Attorney and propose an alternative resolution in terms of dismissing all charges against every other person involved in the shootout from HA,” the attorney says. “Mike would take the rap and go ahead and serve a prison sentence… They rejected it, and I’m glad they did.”
Shortly thereafter, the case against Koepke, et al., disintegrated amid revelations that the star witness – Vagos associate Azevedo – was a paid confidential informant who had tried and failed to infiltrate the Angels. Gaxiola’s motion for a full dismissal was granted in June 2012.
By then, the gunfight and fatherhood had gone to work on Koepke’s psyche. So had two other life-changing experiences: one a loss, the other a study in giving.
The grievous moment occurred on December 30, 2010: a motorcycle crash that killed Grant Walker, owner of the Chopper Kings cycle shop in Phoenix.
Koepke and his friend were riding near 17th Avenue and Bell Road when Walker struck a speed bump. Walker nearly righted his skidding bike, but hit a dirt patch and was thrown headfirst into a wall. Koepke dialed 911 and prayed. The Phoenix Fire Department responded. Their furious failed attempt to revive Walker left Koepke devastated and impressed.
“I had this helpless feeling of not knowing what to do,” Koepke says. “But one of the firefighters gets there and he’s doing chest compressions and he’s talking to me, telling me what’s going on. The calm and collected professionalism, the way he worked, I was like, ‘That’s what I need to do. I want to be able to help people like that.’”
That same feeling – the need to be tough enough to answer the call – motivated Koepke to donate a kidney to another Hells Angel in 2011. Koepke speaks about offering up a vital organ like a guy loaning a buddy 10 bucks. He underwent the surgery against the objections of his wife and friends – and while facing that potential prison stretch.
“Basically, a lot of people had told him, ‘Hey, if nobody else does it, I will,’ which just means you’re not going to do it,” Koepke says. “So I went in and got the testing done and I was a match… Another human being needed it and I could do it, so I did.”
Koepke says the medical staff at Mayo Clinic further inspired him. “It just became so clear to me that I wanted to be in the medical field,” he says. “I didn’t think I would be in a clinical setting, though. I wanted to be on the frontlines.”
Koepke enrolled at Glendale Community College. Initially, he balanced student life and biker life, until yet another bar fight and legal close call jarred him awake. Literally.
“That lifestyle became so stressful. You’re always worried about the cops trying to get you,” he recalls. “I would wake up several times a night to make sure the doors were locked… The thought started creeping into my head then: ‘Hey, maybe there’s more to life than the club.’”
Koepke earned his EMT certification in fall 2012. He passed the fire academy with flying colors. He will soon earn his associate’s degree as a paramedic – with an A average. He plans to pursue a four-year degree in paramedicine at NAU. A class at Yavapai College brought Koepke face to face with Dana Owens, the prosecutor once in charge of his case. Owens, a certified EMT, teaches about the legal issues first responders face in the field.
“While I recall being somewhat surprised to see him in class, I also decided that I would treat him no differently than anyone else,” Owens explains by email. “I had heard that he had left the ( Hells Angels), and I was pleased that he had taken steps to move forward with his life. The paramedic course is extremely difficult and requires a lot of discipline to complete. In retrospect the situation was kind of hilarious. I’m sure he was as shocked to see me there as I was to see him.”
Koepke received the same even-handed treatment from his fellow Nomads in March 2014, when he was hired by the Williamson Valley Fire District.
“I decided that was the end of the club for me because I needed to focus on my family and my career,” Koepke says. “I let everybody know, I gave them a call. They were all very happy for me. They thought I was doing the right thing, pursuing a career.”
Leaving the club involved strict protocol, Koepke says. Although he quit in “good standing,” Koepke had to return his leather cuts and rocker patches and get the tattoo marking his out date. While quitting outlaw biker clubs under ugly circumstances can lead to ugly results, Gaxiola, the Hells Angels lawyer, chalks up Koepke’s smooth departure to his fierce loyalty.
“When he decided to walk away, his justification for it was his family, his education and his career,” Gaxiola says. “I think people looked at that as him trying to better himself. He’d always been a stand-up guy, so he walked away in good standing… It speaks volumes about Mike’s character.”
Koepke’s character also resonated with Williamson Valley Fire Chief Bryan Smith. The chief says Koepke has never lied about his past, not during extensive background checks and not under firehouse questioning from his new colleagues. Without a felony conviction on his record, says Smith, Koepke was eligible to be hired. The new firefighter has even become an officer in the union, helping to represent his fellow first responders.
“So far Mike has done an excellent job,” Smith says. “From the beginning, we told him here’s the standard, here’s what you’ve got to hold yourself to, here’s what you have to do to change… And he was told his slate wouldn’t be cleared for a long time.”
Smith believes Koepke’s past even brings certain advantages to his new job. “Mike is very passionate. And you can tell he was in a motorcycle club prior, because he certainly believes in brotherhood and watching our guys’ backs. From a weird, different angle, he’s brought that into the fire department, having the guys make sure they’re looking out for one another.”
Koepke is done reminiscing. He has boys to raise, shifts to work. The Harley is gone, sold to pay the mortgage. It’s been a long time since fistfights. The lure of violence continues to fade by the day.
“I like to help people. I just really enjoy that feeling,” the former outlaw biker says. “When somebody’s having the worst day of their life, I want to be the guy they look to to make it better. And I want to be competent enough in my job to where I can make it better. That’s my whole thing now. I just want to focus on helping people.”