His calling card simply read, "You have just met Dave". The president of the feared Head Hunters needed no introduction.

A giant of the criminal world, Dave Smith died this week after suffering the effects of a stroke for several years.

To some, the 53-year-old was an icon, a mentor, a friend, a brother.

To others, he was a powerful and feared underworld figure who beat a murder charge, then took charge of the notorious motorcycle gang.

Those who know him say all are true.

Patched members of the West Auckland-based chapter of the Head Hunters - of which Smith was a former president and member for 30 years - were among mourners at his funeral at Piki Te Aroha marae in Northland.

"Smitty, thanks for all the good times and wonderful memories. Forever remembered for the way you were. RIP. With love and respect. From all your brothers out west," the Head Hunters wrote in the Herald death notices.

Another read: "To me you were always a man of great strength and impeccable character. A salt of the earth."

Even the motorcycle gang Hells Angels paid tribute to a "staunch good man" who "would be sadly missed".

But there was a dark side to Smith, as he made a name for himself on the way to the top of the criminal hierarchy.

As one police source cynically noted, a number of people have disappeared after crossing the gang under the stewardship of Smith.

Wounding with intent, assault, cannabis possession and receiving stolen goods are some of the relatively minor convictions which belied his fearsome reputation.

In August 1983, Smith and fellow Head Hunter Jason Ruka were charged with murdering Highway 61 rival Steven Bliss, who was stabbed nine times in the stomach at a party in Kingsland.

Smith went on the run but the charge against the pair was dropped when witnesses recanted evidence despite their identity kept secret.

One eyewitness told police he saw the fatal stabbing, then at court said he saw nothing. At the inquest into the death of the 28-year-old, his father Raymond Bliss told the coroner that witnesses were scared.

"When the witnesses came in, they looked around and saw the two JPs, they saw the defence and they looked at the back and saw the Head Hunters," the Herald reported Mr Bliss saying in December 1983.

"I feel that my son did not have a fair go."

Two years later, Smith took over as president when Wayne Doyle was sent to jail. Doyle and Graham "Choc" Te Awa were convicted of the murder of King Cobra Siaso Evalu, who was beaten to death in a Ponsonby street by a group of Head Hunters. Over that time, the Head Hunters grew into one of the most notorious and wealthy criminal organisations in the country - particularly when the methamphetamine trade took hold in the late 1990s.

"Dave was one of the powers behind the Head Hunters, no doubt about that," said Cam Stokes, a former head of the police motorcycle gang unit in Auckland.

"He was a very, very powerful and feared figure in the underworld."

While Smith was a "real menace in his younger days", Stokes said he mellowed as he matured.

"He was a lot more level-headed and reasonable when I was dealing with him," said Stokes.

"He was always straight up and down with me."

On one occasion, the detective recalled catching wind that the Head Hunters planned to have a New Year's Eve party in Northland.

Concerned about the possibility of 30 patched members on motorcycles riding through a small town and terrorising the locals, Mr Stokes called Smith.

He confirmed the gang's plans - but said the motley crew of career criminals would travel on a bus and not wear their patches.

"And I thought what a load of nonsense, they're obviously going to be riding up and wearing their patches," said Stokes.

"But sure enough, they turned up on a bus not wearing their patches. Just like he said."

Smith stayed at the helm of the West Chapter even after Doyle was released from prison in 1995. Doyle left to establish the East Chapter, based in Marua Rd, Ellerslie.

But in recent years, Smith was a shadow of his former self after suffering a stroke.

He stepped down as president in July this year, replaced by David Dunn, who has convictions for methamphetamine and rape.

Now that Smith's influence is gone completely, there are fears that the West Chapter will cut loose - something the police are well aware of.

By Jared Savage | Email Jared