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Wed April 20, 2011
New motorcycle law dredges up 30-year-old cop killing
An April 13th bill signing ceremony in Olympia presented a strange scene. Governor Chris Gregoire was surrounded by a motley crew of leather-clad bikers. They were there to watch her sign into law a ban on police officers profiling motorcycle riders. It was a lighthearted affair.
But some police officers aren't laughing. In fact, they're furious. One of the bikers in the room that day killed a Portland cop 30 years ago. But the story gets even more complicated. It would take a cop's eyes to pick him out of the crowd. It was Robert "Pigpen" Christopher, a longtime member of the Outsiders Motorcycle Club with chapters in Portland and Tacoma.
In 1979, Christopher shot and killed a Portland officer named David Crowther during a police raid. More than 31 years later there he is standing to the right of Governor Gregoire with a gray beard and wearing the uniform of the Outsiders club.
"I think the Governor's office made a mistake."
C.W. Jensen is a retired Portland police captain. He was a young patrolman back then and knew Officer Crowther well.
"To have it be one of your best friends, it was a devastating incident."
Not a black & white case
But even Jensen readily admits there's more to the story. The shooting in 1979 was not black-and-white Turns out, the raid that night on the Outsiders' clubhouse was illegal.
In fact, it led to one of the most notorious police corruption scandals in Portland history. Robert Christopher was convicted of manslaughter but later sprung from prison because of the police misconduct. Today he's a throat cancer survivor and still proud member of the Outsiders.
He invites me to the the Outsiders clubhouse in Tacoma to talk about that night more than 30 years ago and why he was at the governor's bill signing. The place looks and feels like a biker bar - pool table, motorcycle memorabilia, beers in the fridge.
We sit on barstools. He tells me he had no idea who was busting through the door that night. Since his trial he's maintained the police didn't identify themselves.
"I told 'em 'don’t come in here, I've got a gun, don't come in here' and all of sudden the door flew open and this guy filled up the doorway and pointed up his gun in essence to shoot me and I shoot and turned around then a lot of shots came through."
A slap in the face of police?
Christopher says he attended the bill signing ceremony with Governor Gregoire as chairman of the Confederation of Clubs, a group of motorcycle organizations.
His case is legendary among Northwest bikers. He says this new Washington law is the culmination of a decades old tension between two brotherhoods: the police and motorcycle clubs.
"In '79 and getting through that we learned a lot about law to help apply for up here where people were getting discriminated against, they were getting profiled."
Christopher denies he was living a criminal biker lifestyle back then. Retired Portland police captain C.W. Jensen is skeptical.
He makes no excuse for the police corruption. But he believes the cops did announce themselves that night. To this day Jensen can still recall the address of the Outsiders clubhouse in Portland.
"9014 North Lombard Street in St. Johns is etched in my mind and that's because I went there a lot of times. And Mr. Christopher may be a model citizen now, but in my opinion he wasn't then."
A spokeswoman for Governor Gregoire says bill signings are open to the public and attendees are not pre-screened. Still, in emails and chat rooms some police officers in Washington are calling her appearance with Christopher a slap in the face.