Memories of Arlington’s “night of gang warfare” pack a punch nearly a half-century after the drama.
This March 11, I had the privilege of addressing Arlington’s Committee of 100 to share research I’ve compiled on that strange local flirtation with mass violence.
On June 14, 1966, the tranquil suburban Lee-Harrison shopping center, just before midnight on a Tuesday, erupted in gunfire. Some 100 shots were traded by rival motorcycle gangs. Astonishingly, no one was killed, or even injured.
Like the sour presence of the American Nazi Party in our county from 1958-83 (a subject I also discussed), the gang clash recalls Arlington’s seamier side, from a time when alienated working-class whites made themselves visible in ways foreign to today’s gentrified community.
I pieced together the story through interviews with police officers and front-page news accounts from the old Washington Star, Post and Daily News. I also had long talks with the central protagonist, Wayne Hager, then a meat cutter.
Hager fondly recalls his time hanging out at the old Tops Drive-In at George Mason Drive and Lee Highway, drag races near Walker Chapel, matching wits with state troopers and picking fights with boyhood playmates who were members of the East Coast gang the Pagans.
The cause of the melee was tension between the dangerous gang and Hager, who would ride his Triumph to their gatherings but declined to join.
Fistfights between Hager and future Pagans president Frederick “Dutch” Burhans and another Pagan from Maryland followed. The latter was killed in a car wreck after his run-in with Hager, prompting Pagans to call Hager out.
They would rumble at “the lot,” their name for the shopping strip then containing a Safeway, a Drug Fair and Gifford’s Ice Cream. Hager quickly formed a new gang – the Avengers – and ordered jean jackets stitched with the name.
Police received a warning at 5:00 that afternoon, but Commonwealth’s Attorney William Hassan said the law required a crime before anyone could be arrested. (Preemptive action would become an Arlington police option later). The cops did detain two Pagans carrying sawed-off shotguns before the bullets flew.
The Avengers arrived with a 25 mm. automatic, an AR-15 rifle, brass knuckles, hunting rifles and clubs. As the police shift was changing, shots rang out from behind Gifford’s, prompting Hager to hit the ground as Pagan cars peeled by. Hager jumped in his Impala and sped home to dispose of guns before returning to help police, eventually pressing murder charges.
Police called it “the most shots fired in Arlington since 1865.” The reason no one was hit, Hager maintains, is that they weren’t shooting to kill.
The County Board split over whether the clash merited a crackdown on weapons, and whether the board could meet on the subject without jeopardizing prosecutions.
About 20 gang members, aged 18-25, were tried for disorderly conduct and incitement to riot. Most received fines of $100-$250, or 30 days in jail.
The rivals would later reconcile, though Burhans was shot and killed in 1980.
After I published on the subject, a former would-be Pagan wrote to say he’d been tempted to join the gang, but is forever grateful his father insisted he go off to college.
At the Committee of 100, Rex Thomas, whose father was an Arlington police officer, showed up with an actual Avengers jacket, after all these years.
Speaking of violence-prone fringe groups, there’s yet another that once took advantage of tolerant Arlington. The Ku Klux Klan back in the roaring ‘20s staged an automobile parade through Clarendon.
According to a clipping from the Evening Star, Dec. 22, 1922, dug up by Arlington Historical Society activist Annette Benbow, more than 200 robed Klansmen just before Christmas gathered in a field before a fiery cross to initiate 20 new members. Four robed figures then drove up over to the Salvation Army headquarters in Alexandria and presented the charity with a check for $1,100.