Photography by Mark Staff
On the filthy floor of a jail cell, Mel Chancey lifted his eyes to the heavens and found redemption in the arms of Jesus Christ. But even after he began walking the path of angels, his old life caught up with him. Now, a convicted felon is proving the everlasting strength of a second chance and showing the world that sometimes the road to heaven winds through miles and miles of hell.
Ellie’s Crow Bar on Wilmington Island might just be the perfect bar for sitting down with a guy like Mel Chancey. When I entered, the hazy light of morning was just barely filtering in through shades across the preindustrial-looking oak furnishings, casting the whole place in a dingy pallor. The ghosts of a million cigarettes still lingered in the air, despite nearly a decade since anyone was allowed to smoke inside. I was offered a drink right away. It was 10:30 in the morning.
You know that bar you picture when you picture the bar your mother warned you about? That’s Ellie’s Crow Bar. But then I met Ellie, and saw the collage of smiling faces along the back wall, and realized Ellie’s Crow Bar was far friendlier than I’d first assumed. The same was true of Mel Chancey.
When he first shook my hand, enveloping mine in his massive mitt, then squeezed himself down into a ladder back chair behind a four-top bar table, he looked exactly like the kind of person my mother warned me about. I can’t read biker tattoos, but one glance at the canvas of artwork up and down his arms told me anyone who could, would be suitably impressed. Or terrified, depending on their allegiance. His mountain of muscles need no such decoding—they proclaim loud and clear that this is not a guy you want to piss off.
Before we really got down to business, we had to talk about what we couldn’t talk about. Specifically, the name of the famed outlaw motorcycle club of which he was once the Chicago chapter’s leader.
“I don’t want to glorify that, but I also don’t want those guys thinking I’m trying to profit off the name,” he told me, his voice a gruff Great Lakes–accented timber. Despite having been out of the life for years, he talks about his club like family, mentioning how they used to come check in on his mom when he got sent to jail the first time.
We also can’t talk about some of the juicier details. He leads with a story he knows I’ve heard, one that finds him duct taping a guy to a chair and working him over with a baseball bat until he was hamburger. We’re allowed to talk about that. He’d rather we didn’t talk about what he did next.
Mel Chancey isn’t interested in rehashing the past. He doesn’t hide from it, certainly, and it’s almost impossible to. Even if it wasn’t written in ink up and down his body, no one gets to hide he presents what happened as preamble to what came next. And that’s when I find out that, much like Ellie’s Crow Bar, Chancey’s intimidating facade hides a surprising wellspring of humanity.
He’s more than what he was. He’s a father. A devoted husband. A grandfather. A champion of the bodybuilding community and an inspiration to thousands. He’s a survivor of a hell of his own creation. The story of Mel Chancey only truly begins with his second chance, in that moment when he found God. But first we have to discuss the past, and his life with the outlaw motorcycle club he’d rather not mention.
Running and Gunning
As a kid, Mel Chancey seemed like the last person who would wind up on the wrong side of the law. Born of a Northern Italian mom and a German Irish dad, he was raised a strict God-fearing Catholic. If you can believe it, he was an altar boy. But even he admits his faith wasn’t always as strong as it is now. “I was the Catholic who prayed every night, saying ‘God forgive me for my sins, and the next day went out and did them all again. It was like I was mocking him.”
At 16, he first discovered a love of bodybuilding that would run the course of his whole life, starting out by lifting cheap weights made of plastic and sand. He also discovered his extraordinary talent for raising hell.
“I got kicked out of high school six months into my freshman year,” he said. The expulsion was partially due to a fight he got into with some other students, one that saw the other students going through a library window. But mostly it was due to what happened after. He was sent to the dean’s office, where he found his mom in tears and the dean berating her, telling her none of it would have happened if she’d done a better job of raising her kid.
“I jumped over the desk and broke his nose.” Odd jobs working with his uncle’s cement company over the next few years sustained him until he joined the motorcycle club at 19. By 24, he was president. “That’s very fast… Usually, if you’re president you’re usually in your 30s or 40s. The guy who was president at the time kind of took me under his wing.”
For a guy who had spent his high school months putting other students through windows, the club was a natural landing pad. “It was high school revisited, except you were doing it in public.”
Punching Above Their Weight
The biggest problem facing Chancey’s motorcycle club was an entrenched rival gang, one that had a huge advantage when it came to manpower. Chancey thought back to the bodybuilding he’d pursued for years and found a way to even the odds.
“The other guys outnumbered us five to one,” he said. “If they wanted to put arms together they had 100 guys to our 25 right now. We had to think of a way to be a little bit smarter. We had young guys training at this gym hitting the bags. We had a hard crew to physically fight, even if they outnumbered us.” Adding to their advantage, Chancey made sure his guys did one thing the other guys didn’t—stay sober.
“When we were in a bar we were very alert. If I wanted to take a night out, I brought a crew with me. They’d say, ‘Alright boss, get [explicit] up.’ It wouldn’t matter how I was because they had my back,” he said. “Other crews would get [explicit] up and in the door comes six straight guys. I said, ‘Don’t be that dude…If one or two of you are out and getting twisted on the booze, and they come in, your reaction times are slow.’”
He spoke from experience. As the violence escalated between the two clubs, Chancey said it wasn’t unusual for him and his guys to raid a bar where they knew rival club members were getting drunk, cutting the phone lines and then surrounding the place. “We had a team that knew what we were doing. We didn’t even need to talk about it,” he said. “You had a job, he had a job; my job was I was the guy that came in with the ball-peen hammers and did the beatings. We were very militant when it came to that. And we were very effective like that.”
The Feds Get Involved
On a Wednesday afternoon in Chicago, the rival club began the turf war’s next chapter with a ferocious explosion that would rock the Windy City and cause turbulence as far as away Washington D.C.
“The third-largest bomb in U.S. history at the time, behind Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, was set off in front of our clubhouse,” he said. Members of the rival club had put 100 pounds of C4 into a car and detonated it, launching Chancey’s club’s front door all the way out through the back of the building and scattering debris for more than a mile. Thankfully, the explosives hadn’t been shaped correctly and the majority of the blast went straight down, carving an eight-foot hole in the earth. “It became a war zone in Chicago for a couple of years,” he said. Chancey found himself at a disadvantage for the first time. “What were we gonna do? Put a firecracker under their car? We couldn’t even change the batteries in our pagers.”
In retaliation, his club found a former Navy SEAL who was experienced in explosives and set off a bomb of their own. Guys started getting shot off of their motorcycles, to the point where Chancey refused to let any of his girlfriends ride on his bike. As the violence intensified, so did the scrutiny. Attorney General Janet Reno decided enough was enough and soon Chancey was finding federal agents camped outside his house making no effort to conceal their cameras.
“It seems like forever, but looking back it was really just from ’94–97,” he said. “After ’97 we all sat down and said, ‘It’s time to put aside our differences. No one’s winning here. The government is locking us all up or we’re putting tombstones on our arms over some dumb crap.”