'Taco' Bowman, ex-head of Outlaws biker gang, dies at 69

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Harry "Taco" Bowman, leader of the Outlaws motorcycle gang

Detroit — A Metro Detroit native who police say was one of the most infamous motorcycle gang leaders in U.S. history died Sunday while serving a life sentence in a federal prison.

Harry "Taco" Bowman, the former leader of the Outlaws motorcycle gang who reportedly got his nickname because he looked Hispanic, died Sunday in the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed Wednesday. He was 69.

Although he was president of one of the nation's most notorious outlaw motorcycle gangs, police said Bowman kept a low profile during much of his criminal career — until his photo was plastered in post offices throughout the United States in 1998, when the FBI put him on its Most Wanted List.

Federal authorities offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to his arrest, after he was indicted on murder and other charges in 1997.

The indictment claimed Bowman's notoriety in biker circles rivaled that of  Hell's Angels leader Sonny Barger.

After the FBI put him on its Most Wanted List, Bowman went into hiding. He was arrested in June 1999 in a home on Griggs Drive in Sterling Heights and convicted in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 2001 of the murders of rival gang members, firebombings, racketeering, conspiracy and other charges. He was sentenced to serve two life prison sentences plus 83 years.

"He was quite a charismatic guy," said Philip Reich, who served on the Detroit Police Department's motorcycle gang detail from 1985 to 1991. "I can't say I admired what he did for a living, but I admired his leadership abilities. But we did our best to put him away."

Reich, who retired in 2007, said Bowman lived with his wife and his two daughters, who were enrolled in private schools. 

"Taco’s family lived in a modest home in Grosse Pointe Farms, and he drove around in a bulletproof Cadillac," Reich said. "He was a very interesting, bright guy."

Bowman was raised in St. Clair Township and graduated from Port Huron Catholic High School. He became president of the Detroit Outlaws in 1970 and worked his way up the hierarchy until he was named national president at a leadership meeting in Joliet, Illinois, in February 1984.

The Outlaws were one of the largest outlaw motorcycle gangs in the country. They were involved in drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and other crimes, according to police. 

A 1998 FBI Most Wanted poster featuring Harry "Taco" Bowman, president of the Outlaws motorcycle gang

In 1992, FBI agents met with Bowman in a parking lot on Detroit's east side to warn him they had information that Detroit mobsters had put a contract out on his life. Details of the unusual meeting, in which federal agents attempted to protect the head of an outlaw motorcycle gang they were investigating, were contained in an indictment against Detroit mob leader Jack Tocco.

Federal agents got wind of the contract while listening to a wiretap planted in the vehicle of two Mafia enforcers, who discussed killing Bowman as they drove by the motorcycle gang leader's home.

When FBI agents met with Bowman to inform him of the murder scheme against him, they said in the Tocco indictment that they had to convince him they weren't trying to set him up.

"The first time I encountered Taco was in 1980," Reich said. "At the time, he lived in the Outlaws clubhouse (on Detroit's east side), but he hung out in a topless bar called the Please Station, a little hole in the wall on Seven Mile, just west of Van Dyke. Taco went there quite a bit; in those days, a lot of the bikers were agents to the strippers."

In addition to the Outlaws' illegal money-making schemes, they also ran legitimate businesses, Reich said.

"They had a shop in the Eastern Market, off Russell; a little warehouse where they stored bikes," he said. "Then they had a motorcycle repair facility and a T-shirt shop. So he had his hand in a lot of businesses where he made legitimate money."

One popular T-shirt design that Bowman sold featured two pistols pointing at the Renaissance Center with the caption: "Visit Detroit, Murder City."

Reich said Bowman had a longstanding feud with Barger over whether the Outlaws were superior to the Hell's Angels.

"It was an ongoing thing over who had the better club," Reich said. "We have no known Hell's Angels in Michigan, and that's because the Outlaws are here. That's why there are very few Outlaws on the west coast — that's Hell's Angels territory.

"It was like the Hatfields and McCoys," Reich said. "They hated each other."

(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN