James M. “Beetle” Bailey, Jr.
Hells Angels, Cleveland Chapter
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Revenge for Snitching
Murder Scene and Date
Highway 117 Overpass, I-80
August 14, 1975
By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2010
During the first full week of August for almost every year since 1938, throngs of motorcycle enthusiasts have descended on the Black Hills of South Dakota for the annual Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis.
The Rally can swell the population of the city of 55,000 to as much as 750,000, a figure which nearly doubles the 812,000 population of the entire state.
Bikers from all over the country and world attend. Hundreds of vendors sell motorcycles and accessories, alcohol, food, and clothing.
There are concerts, street dances, and motorcycle competitions, as well as social events like weddings, sometimes of as many as 200 couples a year.
And it’s not uncommon for people to die at the Rally — 11 people died in 1990 during the 50th anniversary of the event — or to be killed in traffic accidents traveling to or from Sturgis.
But in 1975 — the year the event expanded to a full week — a biker was murdered on the way to the Rally.
☛ Shots at the Highway 117 Overpass ☚
On Thursday, August 14, 1975, 32-year-old James M. “Beetle” Bailey, Jr., of Mentor, Ohio, was motorcycling west on Interstate 80 with two friends, 27-year-old Paul “Chip” Philemon and 31-year-old Richard Vesey.
The three belonged to the “Dirty 30” Hells Angels Cleveland Chapter, for which Bailey was Treasurer, and were riding to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota on their bikes. A man and woman from their club followed in a van.
Philemon and Vesey said that as the trio approached the overpass for Highway 117 they heard what sounded like gunfire and saw flashes of light.
Bailey then slumped on his motorcycle, fell off, and skidded along the highway. His cycle rolled into the ditch but remained upright.
Richard Vesey suffered a gunshot wound to the arm, but survived.
☛ Stymied Investigation ☚
Jasper County Medical Examiner Dr. Fred Carpenter, Jr., said Bailey died of a single gunshot to the neck, although his body was also superficially abraded from scraping the pavement.
Bailey was wearing a helmet at the time, so the shot looked as if it were aimed directly at his neck.
The Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) handled the case. Although Assistant Director Warren D. Stump said two gunmen were involved in the incident, the BCI could not determine if the shootings were a deliberate attack on Bailey and his companions or a random act.
Because the angle of entry was nearly level, BCI agents believed the shot that killed Bailey was fired from the embankment beneath the Highway 117 overpass; the bullet that struck Richard Vesey was fired from the overpass, where two shotgun shells were found.
Although investigators combed the ditch for shell casings from a .357 magnum, they were hampered by an abundance of casings already there from previous gun firings unrelated to the murder.
No one was ever charged with the murder.
☛ Circles of Violence ☚
The funerals for Cleveland Hells Angels Club members were themselves violent affairs. The daughter of a former member recalled them from her childhood for clevescene.com reporter Vince Grzegorek:
“There was drinking and smoking, carousing, guns blasted into the air and motorcycles peeling through parking lots. They would go all night, alternating between tears and laughs.”
At some point in the wild and unfettered funeral observance for James Bailey, Paul “Chip” Philemon — one of the men riding to Sturgis with Bailey — was himself killed.
Word was that someone found something incriminating in Chip Philemon’s wallet: the phone number for a member of the Outlaws, another violent motorcycle gang the Cleveland Hells Angels feuded with.
☛ Recollections of a Former Member ☚
In July of 2013, in Avinger, Texas, 73-year-old former Cleveland Hells Angels member-turned-informant Clarence “Butch” Crouch killed himself, his wife, and his step-son.
After that incident, information was released about what Crouch told investigators when he left the Club and headed into witness protection in the 1980s.
Crouch provided chilling details about the Chapter’s involvement with guns, bombs, and killings — of both rival gang members and of innocent victims.
In the mid-1970s, the gang began turning on itself as paranoia from drugs and from suspicious incidents pitted member against member.
Crouch claimed that James Bailey, as the Club’s Treasurer, was building evidence of financial fraud against other members using receipts he had accumulated and kept in his wallet. Club meetings about the matter disintegrated into ill-will and distrust.
Not long after, James Bailey was shot and killed.
After the Bailey homicide and then the murder of Chip Philemon at Baily’s funeral, angry bikers gathered at the Club’s headquarters, demanding to know why some in the organization felt they could kill fellow members without authorization from the entire group.
Richard Vesey rallied the Club and urged a unified front, apparently making no excuses for the death of James Bailey, who had powerful information against fellow members.
In addition, Vesey convinced members to let go of anger concerning Chip Philemon ’s death because he was from another “patch,” a North Carolina Chapter.
☛ In Death as In Life ☚
Bailey, a Navy veteran of Vietnam, cherished his association with the motorcycle club, a devotion borne out by the Hells Angel’s emblem on his tombstone.
The top of the granite monument is formed like the pages of an open book on which are inscribed these words on either side:
They say my life is through
For to Society I’m not true
But if I have to be phoney [sic] to
Live in this world that I do
I’d rather live the life of a
Hells Angel and to myself
James M. (Beetle) Bailey
Hells Angels Cleveland, Ohio
Sept. 25 1942 – Aug. 14, 1975″
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “BCI Probes Shooting Death of Motorcycle Club Member,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 16, 1975.
- ☛ City of Sturgis, South Dakota.
- ☛ Iowa Department of Public Safety Division of Criminal Investigation.
- ☛ “The Last Ride of a Cleveland Hells Angel Informant: a path from destruction to redemption and back, and a family’s trouble with witness protection,” by Vince Grzegorek, clevescene.com, October 09, 2013.
- ☛ “Motorcyclist’s Death Probed,” Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal, August 15, 1975.
- ☛ “Ohio cyclist’s death puzzles Iowa police,” Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram, August 16, 1975.
- ☛ “Probe Death of ‘Dirty 30’ Club Member,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 15, 1975.
- ☛ “Report more than 70 unsolved murders in Iowa,” Nick Lamberto, Des Moines Register, January 25, 1976, p. 28.