By the 1970s, Leroy Bolden had achieved heroic stature in New Haven, Connecticut's Hill neighborhood. After founding the racially integrated Flaming Knights MC (motorcycle club) in 1968, the man organized toy drives and holiday parties for local families, and threw charity picnics for muscular dystrophy. He became a lodestar for neighborhood kids, with the New Haven Register going so far as to dub him a "Robin Hood on a motorcycle."
Even cops respected him.
But in the 80s, Bolden's penchant for partying pulled him toward cocaine, and before long, the streetwise entrepreneur joined the ranks of the city's top drug traffickers. As he rose, King Dragon—as Bolden was known—burned through that stockpile of civic goodwill quickly. In 1988, New Haven cops splintered his door, followed weeks later by the FBI; coke, guns, cash, and a vintage sports car were confiscated.
By that time, chronic cocaine use had eaten a hole through both Bolden's nasal membrane—and his reputation. He died in prison in 1994, a skeleton of his former self.
Since then, Bolden's Flaming Knights have soldiered on without him, establishing chapters across the country. And despite their founder's tragic fall, the Knights remember their Dragon fondly: a man with natural charisma, a fierce will to party, and an uncommonly open hand at a time of incredible social upheaval in America's cities, where many did battle with the same drug that claimed him.
Above all else, Bolden made sure his club delivered tangible benefits to their community. According to his son Roy "Little Dragon" Bolden, the man would set up Christmas trees in empty lots, run the lights to the nearest house, and pay the electricity costs for the months the tree was up. Charles "Big Chaz" Bradley—a founding member of the Flaming Knights—recalls how the group bought and x-rayed $300 worth of Halloween candy to pass out to kids during one of the many razor-blade tampering scares of the era.
Anthony Dawson, current vice president of the New Haven NAACP and chairman of the New Haven Police Commission, remembers not just the Flaming Knights' charity but also their savoir-faire. "They were the buffer zone back [in the late 60s and 70s]," Dawson tells VICE. "The Knights were a deterrent to crime in the black community." And according to local news articles from 1988, police once relied on Bolden and the Knights to help keep things clean in the Hill.
"We were conciliators," Bradley says. "We stopped gang wars by talking to the leaders. We could stop fights in playgrounds because we rolled up with the image of being able to stop it anyway."
While they helped keep peace on the streets, Bolden and the Knights did raise a little hell from time to time. One incident saw Bolden and co. tussle with the Huns MC in the nearby town of Seymour. When the rival group's bartender reached for a shotgun, Bradley recalls pointing his handgun at the man and inveighing, "Look man, I don't care what they're doing back there, but I came to drink and you came to pour... Let's keep doing what we're doing."
Bolden wasn't the only member of his family who straddled the saint-sinner divide. His mother, Josephine, known as "Mom" to the Flaming Knights, was both a generous woman of faith and a well-known bootlegger in the Hill. Back then, when liquor stores shut down at 8 PM, Josephine's kitchen at 110 Hurlburt Street opened for business.
Despite a reputation for kindness, Josephine was not to be taken lightly. One night in 1969, her grandson Roy recalls a disagreement escalating in grandma's kitchen-speakeasy and another woman charging her with a knife. He says his grandmother quickly produced a gun and opened fire.
"When you live in neighborhoods like ours, you don't become numb to situations like this, but they become norm," Ron says.
Things got worse as coke gained a stronger foothold in the area. Sometime between 1984 and 85, Bolden started putting money in the game—trafficking cocaine and other drugs into New Haven in bulk. The winnings came fast.
Although Bolden could have tried to turn his motorcycle network into a full-scale drug cartel, for the most part, the Flaming Knights remained uninvolved. "There were some Knights who grew up in the hood—they were in the business," Roy says, insisting many held legal jobs and had nothing to do with what he calls the "Bolden Organization."
Even without the full engagement of the Knights, their Dragon did well. In 1987, a New Jersey state trooper pulled over Bolden's $60,000 limousine for speeding, and inside the officer found 163 packets of heroin, six grams of cocaine, and more than $44,000. At the time of his arrest in 1988, Lieutenant Rafael Garcia, commander of the New Haven street crime unit, told the Register that Bolden had grown to become one of the city's top ten coke dealers. It's unclear how high he ranked as a user.
Bolden eventually got a ten-year prison term, and, while inside, he suffered from intense withdrawal. Visiting him toward the end of his life, a longtime friend told the local paper, "He was one hundred and ten pounds. He'd had strokes. He had no nasal membranes left. He couldn't talk."
He was eventually moved to a hospital and died midway through his sentence.
"He had the demons," says Anthony "Blaze" Bolden, Leroy's nephew who now serves as president of the Flaming Knights in New Haven. "It was a blow to see this dude everyone looked up to fall to that mess."
"Watching Leroy deteriorate was heartbreaking," adds Bradley. "To me, he was like a fallen king."
Fallen though he may be, Bolden's legacy is strong here. Riders still make pilgrimages to his grave, and Roy has even seen some kneel down before the empty lot where 110 Hurlburt Street once stood. The mythology of the King Dragon remains, and when Roy tries to temper romanticized accounts of his father, he finds Knights often don't want to hear it.
Roy doesn't make excuses for his father's choices, but he regrets that some of the same destructive patterns persist on his city's streets today. "It starts out fun—it starts out OK," he says. "Then it turns into something like a monster."
Daniel Shkolnik is an associate editor at the Daily Nutmeg in New Haven, Connecticut.