PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – C.J. Nordstrom’s motorcycle was likely the magnet for trouble.
The custom Harley-Davidson he has been riding and modifying for more than four decades is well-known in the biker world with its long frame, metal skulls, high back seat and an array of dangling objects including a set of teeth.
“You see that bike, you know its C.J.’s,” Nordstrom, now 64, said in his first-ever TV interview. “I usually say it outlasted my marriage and all my girlfriends.”
He figures that’s just what a group of bikers – including two members of the Hells Angels – thought when they spotted it outside a Bristol restaurant days before the town’s landmark 4th of July celebration in 2009. Nordstrom said he and some friends went to what was then the Topside Lounge to scope it out for his college-aged daughter, who had just made friends with some students at the nearby Roger Williams University.
“I never knew how it was at night,” he recalled. “I just checked out the bar that night to make sure it was a cool place for her to be safe in.”
In surveillance video obtained by Target 12 from that night, one member of the Hells Angels is seen walking up to Nordstrom, a massive and imposing figure with hands like cinderblocks. After some words are exchanged, the Hells Angels member gives Nordstrom a shove. For a second, the video shows Nordstrom staring at the rival biker; then in the blink of an eye, a fist is thrown. A rapid right-hook from Nordstrom puts the Hells Angels member on the floor, and all hell breaks loose.
“In the street … there’s no rules,” said Nordstrom.
It wasn’t the first time Nordstrom beat a member of the Hells Angels, which is why investigators believe the fight in Bristol took place.
“He decked, laid out, almost killed a full-patch member of the Hells Angels,” said former R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell, who was second in command when the Bristol brawl broke out. “Typically, by their bylaws and their rules, there has to be retaliation.”
There was so much concern about the potential for violent payback by the Hells Angels that state police kept watch on Nordstrom’s home following the fight, Target 12 has learned.
The night of the fight, Nordstrom and his crew hopped on their bikes and were making their way out of the coastal community when they were stopped by Bristol police officers. An arrest report shows police found two knives on Nordstrom when they ordered him to the ground and cuffed his hands behind his back.
Neither weapon was used in the fight.
“I’d rather shake your hand than end up hurting you,” Nordstrom said in the interview. “You’re in that environment … and there are guys out there that wonder if they can kick your ass, you know?”
Nordstrom ended up pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and “possession of a weapon not firearm,” and was ordered to pay a small fine. Nordstrom shrugged off the fight, acknowledging he can be a magnet for trouble.
“I felt bad for the bouncer,” he said.
From street to ring fighting
Dustups between rival bikers have put local law enforcement on high alert, concerned that warring factions like the Hells Angels and the Outlaws Motorcycle Club could lead to innocent bystanders getting caught in the middle of a violent clash.
For his part, Nordstrom is unaffiliated with any gang, choosing instead to be an independent biker.
Part of it, Nordstrom said, was he would “embarrass some of his friends” in law enforcement if he became what’s called a full-patch member of a motorcycle gang.
“I’m a gypsy, I don’t fly patches,” he said. “I didn’t need that kind of recognition.”
But the biker world can be a small community, and Nordstrom has forged relationships with members of those clubs. Investigators tell Target 12 he has contact with the Outlaw Motorcycle Club, most likely they say because of the old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Nordstrom said he even had friends who were members with the Hells Angels in other states, but claims they are now forbidden to talk to him because of his clashes with the Rhode Island chapter of the club.
“I feel bad that I can’t talk to them or hang with them anymore because of what went on in Rhode Island,” Nordstrom said, punctuating the thought with an expletive. “I guess that’s a house rule.”
Before his sensational beefs with other bikers, though, Nordstrom was on the police radar for his close ties to a powerful and ruthless faction of organized crime in Rhode Island: the Ouimettes.
In the late 1970s, Nordstrom’s path crossed with Gerard Ouimette, the leader of a gang with strong ties to legendary mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca. Associates included Jerry Tillinghast and Ralph “Skippy” Byrnes – two men who were charged in the infamous 1975 Bonded Vault robbery.
Nordstrom speaks of Gerard and his younger brother John Ouimette like someone talking about beloved family members, and said it was a prison conversation with the eldest Ouimette at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston that propelled him into a professional boxing career.
“He sat me down and told me that my talent with my hands I was totally foolish to want to be Joe Biker,” Nordstrom said. “They were fight fanatics — they were into the fight game big time.”
One man who sparred with Nordstrom was the future superintendent of the R.I. State Police, Brendan Doherty. An imposing figure himself, Doherty said he and Nordstrom worked out at the same gym – Grundy’s in Central Falls – and they occasionally faced off against each other.
“C.J. had unusually long arms and because of that he could surprise people with a jab because his arm extended another four or five inches,” Doherty said. “He was a tough guy. I was hitting him with brutal shots and he would step back smiling at me just to let me know I wasn’t hurting him.”
Doherty wasn’t yet in the ranks of the state police when he fought Nordstrom and was also toying with a career in boxing at the time, but “it didn’t take a criminal investigator to figure out C.J. was up to no good sometimes.”
“That was an education for me,” Doherty said. “There were good guys and bad guys in the gym but it was like a neutral zone: they could come in and get the workout in the ring, but once you stepped outside that door those two sides didn’t want to be affiliated.”
Nordstrom’s right hand – sporting rings the size of wrist watches – is a gnarled human meat cleaver with a couple of fingers pointing in the wrong direction. (Broken and never properly set, “mostly” from boxing, Nordstrom said.) His bike has “The Hunter,” his boxing nickname, etched on the side.
It was the Ouimettes who Nordstrom said helped fund his start in pro boxing, putting him up for two years at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas while he trained with big-name fighters.
“When you make a deal with a guy like Gerard Ouimette you learn real quick to stand by your half,” Nordstrom said. “That kind of straightened my world out.”
But it was too late to be straightened out. By the time Nordstrom’s matches were being aired on ESPN, another fight had already happened that would end it all. A criminal case stemming from a 1976 melee at a Newport bar – resulting in five people from a wedding party getting stabbed nearly to death – was looming over him.
While boxing, Nordstrom used his mother’s maiden name, Vescio, as his true surname was winding its way through the state courts.
After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, which included a new trial after a judge was overheard referring to Nordstrom and his crew as “bad bastards” — “the judge did me a favor on that,” Nordstrom smiled — the final outcome was an 18-year sentence for the crime. Nordstrom walked into the ACI in 1987, but was granted parole after less than five years, according to prison records.
“His career was sidelined from prison,” Doherty said. “He wasn’t the first guy that happened to.”
Investigators say Nordstrom’s relationship with the Ouimettes was another occupation itself and it continued to thrive after his stint in the can. Those ties to organized crime landed Nordstrom firmly on the state and federal law enforcement radar screen as an associate of the infamous crew.
Relationships between outlaw bikers and members of La Cosa Nostra aren’t uncommon, according to O’Donnell. It’s the added muscle that increases fear and intimidation.
“Having a guy like C.J. around John [Ouimette], it just makes him more legendary,” O’Donnell said. “It’s always nice to have someone with that background that is capable with their hands to make sure that you’re intimidated … that you’re not going to mess with that faction.”
Doherty said Nordstrom “was his own gang,” but mobsters benefitted from the biker’s close relationship with them.
“They liked him, and why wouldn’t you?” Doherty said. “You bring C.J. in a room and people stop talking, stop eating… he’s a serious-looking guy.”
Nordstrom was never charged in any cases that ensnared the Ouimettes, but he clearly enjoyed his status with the clan.
“I hung with [John Ouimette] night and day,” Nordstrom said. “He didn’t need a gun when C.J. was standing beside him.”
Gerard Ouimette died in prison in 2015 while serving a life sentence under the federal three-strikes law. John Ouimette died earlier this year.
“They taught me: give respect, you get respect,” Nordstrom said. “Somebody don’t give you respect, [expletive] them, they don’t get respect.”
Nordstrom has been pegged by law enforcement as a “one percenter,” a term used for bikers who are not the 99 percent of law-abiding riders.
“C.J. is a violent guy,” Doherty said. “There is no question about it.”
Nordstrom doesn’t hide from the outlaw biker designation, either, sporting a “one percent” patch on his leather vest and the number “1” tattooed on a finger. But confronted with the idea the label makes him a criminal, Nordstrom pushed back.
“I’m far from that — I don’t pimp off no broads, I don’t shake nobody down,” he said. “I make pay like a regular Joe blow [as an] ironworker, truck driver.”
“I used to be a bone-breaker, but it was professional,” he added, shrugging.
Nordstrom said when he adopted the one percent mentality and identity more than four decades ago, it wasn’t about being a scofflaw, it was about the type of motorcycle someone rode.
“A one percenter is someone who didn’t ride a stock motorcycle,” he said. “Back then it was all bikes, booze and broads. We used to joke about the ‘three B’s.'”
Ironically, along with the one percent patch is a replica Providence Police badge, a nod, he said, to a street cop decades ago whom he had a lot of respect for. “I prefer my son to be Joe cop before some back-patch holder on some [expletive] motorcycle,” he said.
Still, he said he doesn’t reach out to police if he finds himself in a jam.
“I don’t prefer to call the cops,” he said. “I usually take care of my own laundry.”
That lifestyle, Doherty said, comes with risks.
“He had a lot of courage in the ring and in the street,” Doherty said. “Most guys in that situation don’t live to be old men.”