The saga of the "Portland Riders," a youth gang accused of assaulting pedestrians and downtown cyclists, has captured the imagination of a city. With a taste for "wilding," the youths--clad in red and often wearing hockey masks--have been described as a "street family." Now, it appears that the young thugs had a well-known father figure.

WW has learned that Ibrahim Mubarak, co-founder and former leader of the homeless encampment Dignity Village ("The Duke of Dignity Village," WW, Sept. 18, 2002), has ties to the group. Though police have no evidence that he was involved with the group's criminal activities, he was, at the very least, the youths' spiritual leader and advisor.

"They followed him around a little bit," says Sgt. Vince Elmore, who tracked the group in Southeast Precinct. "Whenever we would show up to deal with these folks, he would show up."

Police have arrested five youths aged 16 to 20 who are accused of robbing and assaulting six people in Old Town and downtown last week, including stabbing one man and puncturing his lung. A sixth member of the group, who has not been arrested, is a 17-year-old boy Mubarak calls his son. (It's not clear whether they're related by blood.)

Mubarak, now camping on Southeast Water Avenue, says he tried to steer the boys in the right direction, and he and his common-law wife were even trying to get them enrolled at Central Catholic High School. "I don't want people saying I'm the leader," he says. "I told them, 'Do right, or get away from me.' We had them doing volunteer work. I don't know what happened--they just went 'bam' all of a sudden. I don't know if they were trying to impress women or what. I knew they were fighting rival gangs, but I didn't know they were just beating people up."

Police and sources in the homeless community are not so sure. Some say Mubarak wore red when he was with the red-clad boys--what police think were gang colors--and used to "hold court" with them at St. Francis Dining Hall. That ended when, alarmed by rumors in the homeless community, meal providers asked Mubarak and the youths to leave.

Now a Muslim, Mubarak was born Keith Jackson and grew up in the notorious Chicago street gang called the Black Gangster Disciples. Mubarak parted ways with Dignity Village last year. Since late 2002, he has had several encounters with police, mostly for domestic violence against his wife. He was arrested in April for dealing cocaine; the case is pending.

Still, he continues to portray himself as someone who lives among the homeless in an effort to better aid them. Ironically, the "Riders" are believed by police and low-income advocates to have been victimizing homeless people. "They figured that these people would not file a police report because they're homeless," says Elmore.

Meanwhile, WW has learned the case is expanding. On Tuesday, a county grand jury heard testimony from 24-year-old Andrew Blubaugh, who was attacked, without warning, by a group of red-clad youths as he crossed the Steel Bridge on his bicycle. He told WW he lay on the ground, screaming as the youths kicked him savagely, and believes he would have been seriously injured had he not protected his face and head. "It was terrifying," he says.