The one-story clubhouse in Southeast Baltimore has wood floors and framed photographs of members who have died. It feels like a chapter of an Elks Club, the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But the members are big beefy men who wear red crosses on their backs. Many are covered in tattoos, and some grow long pointed beards. They belong to the Chosen Sons - a motorcycle club started by city police officers in 1969 that bills itself as the largest in the state.
For decades, the Chosen Sons has been an insular group, wary of outsiders and little known except in the East Baltimore neighborhoods where they gather.
That changed early Thursday morning when one of its founding members, Norman Stamp, an off-duty police officer, burst out of a North Haven Street strip club, brass knuckles on his hand, heading toward a brawl that had spilled from the bar into the street. Before he got there, Stamp was stopped by a uniformed officer sent to quell the fight. In the confusion, Stamp drew his gun, and the other officer shot and killed him, according to police accounts. He had been on the force for 44 years.
The unusual fit between the public and private sides of Stamp's life will be on full display at his funeral today. Because his death is not considered to have come in the line of duty, he will not get full police services.
Even so, Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III plan to attend. They will sit in a 100-seat Essex funeral home alongside members of the Chosen Sons and other motorcycle clubs from around the state.
"You will see guys from clubs that feud with each other," said Paul "Nitro" Treash, the sergeant-at-arms of the Chosen Sons. "Norm [Stamp] was the most likable guy."
Little is known about how Stamp balanced his job on the force - for the past decade, he served in the maritime unit, and for years before that, he was a motorcycle officer - with his off-duty activities. Some of his acquaintances from the world of the Chosen Sons say Stamp was always eager for a fight, but current members aren't saying much, other than to offer a relatively wholesome, if tattooed and leather-clad, vision of the club's activities.
Treash said members of the Chosen Sons organized rides to places like Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Stamp, he said, participated in the club's last "poker run" - an outing on which members of the crew ride together to other clubhouses in the city or state. At each clubhouse they pick up a playing card - the person with the best poker hand by the end of the night is the winner.
But there was an air of paranoia at the clubhouse Thursday morning when news of Stamp's death spread.
Members wondered out loud about a Verizon truck that had been sitting outside the building for a few hours. When a man drove up in a car and sat outside, a junior member of the club was dispatched to determine whether the person in the car was the same person who caused a fight with the club members the evening before.
Treash would not answer most questions about the club for this article and would not make any of the members available to comment. Current members declined to talk about the group.
Treash did say that the club is the largest in the state, but he declined to give a number of total membership. A photograph of some members on the wall inside the club showed about 100 men gathered for an event. Treash would not say how many members are police officers.
Initially, the club was open only to public service employees, said William Council, a retired police officer who knew Stamp and was in the club in the late 1970s.
At that point there were 15 to 20 members, he said, including one member who repaired motorcycles for the Baltimore city garage.
"We'd take group rides," Council said. "We'd pick a place where we wanted to go and go bar hopping. It wasn't a threatening group or anything like that."
Council said that the name came from being chosen for the club. "You had to have somebody represent you to get in," he said. "They bring you in, they ask you some questions. Now I don't know how they do it."
According to the Chosen Sons Motorcycle Club Web site, prospective members still need to be tapped: "The C.S.M.C. does not solicit for members or accept any unknowns. All prospects must be sponsored by a member in good standing."
A fictional version of the club was featured in a January 1995 episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets. In the show, the club was called the Deacons, and some members who appeared in it put a Deacons insignia over the red crosses on backs of their jackets. The insignia from one of those jackets is hanging, framed, on the Chosen Sons clubhouse wall.
The group was started in 1969 and grew in the 1970s and 1980s, a macho time when motorcycle clubs like the Hells Angels and the Pagans would fight for territory and respect.
Unlike those clubs, the Chosen Sons is not viewed as a criminal organization, according to a city police source who is not authorized to speak to the news media.
In fact, in the very early days, the club had to combat the perception that they would always run from a fight because its members - all public service employees - could lose their jobs if they got in trouble, said Richard C. Fahlteich, a retired major from the city's homicide unit who knew Stamp and talked to him recently about the club.
That was a perception the club would not abide by.
"If someone was going to attempt to start a big fight, they were not going to run away from it," Fahlteich said. "That is where the tough guy thing came from. They did not go out looking for trouble, but they were not going to bow to trouble either. They were going to stand up for themselves."
The penchant for standing up for themselves was viewed differently in the neighborhood. Steve Fugate, the president of the city's fire officers' union, grew up in the same Highlandtown area where the club members would ride.
"It was a bunch of bad asses," Fugate said.
"From an outside perspective, they were the local version of the Hells Angels. That was anecdotal neighborhood gossip that was going around."
Fugate, 54, said that he would never pick a fight with them. "Because I'd get my ass kicked," he said. "Been there, done that. It's not fun."