A palm-size contraption that moves and whirs like an angry hummingbird threads its way through the metal rafters of a downtown garage on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Then, guided remotely by an expert hand, it swoops behind a spectator who is watching the action through first-person-viewer goggles and grazes the tips of his hair.
It’s a drone, but one built for fun, not for warfare or snooping. It belongs to a duo of Houston entrepreneurs who have a dream of starting an indoor “drone park” in Waco that would give people of all abilities a taste of drone racing and flying.
Nick Madincea and Marjorie Ferrone want to offer short-term training and flying sessions on an hourly or yearly membership basis.
Participants would suit up with video goggles allowing them to see what the drone sees while traveling at speeds of 20 mph or more, and without having to deal with the raft of legal restrictions involved with outdoor drone use.
Madincea said he is not aware of any other indoor facilities that offer such an experience to the public. Customers would start by learning to fly the tiny drones by remote control but could advance to larger racing drones, which can travel the speed of a car.
“The coolest thing about this is that a drone is the most agile vehicle in the world,” Madincea said. “Before drones came along, if you wanted that feeling of being able to pilot or drive the most agile vehicle on earth, you had to cough up millions for a Formula One car. Now you can have that experience for less than $100.”
Ferrone said the partners are on the cusp of a new recreational technology that will be more satisfying than video games.
“I’ve played a lot of video games,” Ferrone said. “But when you’re playing a video game, you crash and get killed catastrophically, then it starts over. You can be isolated in a dark room playing for hours and hours. This is an entertainment experience where you’re dealing with real physical objects, and when you crash you have to spend hours fixing it. And it takes that gaming aspect and puts it in a social setting.”
The partners call themselves Drone Parks Worldwide, and they have the ambition to match, if not yet the financing. Madincea and Ferrone envision an international chain of drone parks, with Waco as the headquarters. What the partners don’t have yet is investors to cover the six-figure startup cost.
The duo is planning to set up a Kickstarter campaign to get the business off the ground. In the meantime, they have been traveling around Texas, presenting their idea at festivals and looking for backers. Madincea made a presentation at the August meeting of the 1 Million Cups entrepreneur gathering in downtown Waco, and he was struck by the welcome he got.
“After that event, I called Marjorie and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened,’ ” he said. “She said Nick, I think you’re going a little crazy. That’s small-town Texas.”
But Madincea persisted, and Ferrone came to share his enthusiasm for Waco’s business culture and tourism potential.
Ferrone drew a parallel with how the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, John Roebling, supplied cables for the Waco Suspension Bridge before scaling up his designs.
“We want this to be the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge,” she said.
The partners were also attracted to Waco’s real estate, which was more affordable than Houston’s.
They have zoned in on a large old garage at 924 Austin Ave. that originally housed the Waco Ford dealership in the 1920s and most recently served as a mechanic shop. They have been in discussions with Peter Ellis, the downtown developer who has a contract to buy the building from the Donald B. Lynn Family Real Estate Investments. The building is cavernous, with 24,000 square feet of space and 30-foot ceilings.
“We think there are some huge advantages to that facility,” Madincea said. “From the customer end, that building has so much character, and that deepens the experience. We don’t want to go to some place that was built 10 years ago. That facility is also very drone-friendly.”
Ellis said the drone park idea has potential to be the beginning of something big if it can get funded.
“I applaud them for doing something out of the box that’s family-friendly and wholesome,” he said.
Nathan Embry, a real estate agent who met the partners through the 1 Million Cups event, said they have an exciting idea that could be a draw for Waco.
“That drone stuff is starting to happen, and a lot of people are trying to get their license,” Embry said. “It seems to be a growing industry and to get in at the ground level makes a lot of sense.”
He agreed the Austin Avenue building is an ideal location, though he suggested the partners should look around at less expensive spaces.
Robert Denton, who is involved with the building’s seller, said the market rent for that building would likely be $1 per square foot even without significant improvements, for a yearly rent of $288,000.
Madincea said he has been working with the Small Business Development Center on a business plan, based on about 300 members paying $60 to $80 per month. He said the business would also welcome drop-in customers paying $60 for the first hour and $40 per hour after that.
He said he expects he’ll have long-term customers.
“It’s quite addictive,” he said.
Madincea, 20, said he got interested in drones a few years ago after years as a teenage pilot-in-training. Ferrone got up to speed on drones while attending the Naval Academy, and the two learned of their mutual interest at a school reunion.
Madincea said he initially had a difficult time figuring out how to shop for a drone and how to fly it legally.
Recreational drone sales have soared in the last few years, with some sources estimating more than 2 million machines change hands every year.
But the rules of drone use have been murky. The Federal Aviation Administration only last year permitted the widespread commercial use of drones, and then only with the use of trained pilots, at altitudes below 400 feet, and at least five miles from an airport.
The FAA has an exception for recreational users of drones at low altitudes but requires users to register in a national database and forbids flying them over people.
Madincea said he thinks people want to avoid those hassles and have a place where they can come learn how to fly safely in a controlled environment with their friends. He said the thrill is even greater than playing virtual reality games.
“Flying a drone is real. VR is computer-generated,” he said. “It’s the difference between playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and leading the police on a car chase. Not as dangerous, though.”
Dallas attorney Clint Broden alleges in a motion in the case of his client, Twin Peaks biker Matthew Clendennen, that McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna is under federal investigation for selective prosecution for political gain.
Broden filed motions Friday morning questioning Reyna’s credibility as a prosecutor in the Twin Peaks shootout cases, saying the district attorney made decisions on which defendants to prosecute based on his political interests.
“On Oct. 18, 2017, the defense received what appears to be very credible information indicating that Reyna has been, and may continue to be, under investigation by the Austin division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas,” the motion states.
“The information received by the defense also indicates that at least one aspect of the federal investigation goes directly to Reyna’s credibility and his making decisions whether to prosecute or not prosecute individuals based upon what he perceives to be his political interest.”
FBI Special Agent Michelle Lee said the bureau could neither confirm nor deny an investigation.
However, a local attorney who formerly worked as an assistant district attorney under Reyna said the FBI is conducting a “multi-level” investigation into alleged misconduct by Reyna. The attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they have a client who was questioned about Reyna by federal agents.
Reyna, who has been prosecuting the first Twin Peaks shootout case along with prosecutor Michael Jarrett, declined to comment when asked by the Tribune-Herald about the motion Friday.
Friday’s filing and investigation reports come on the heels of several motions in which Broden claims Clendennen is being denied his right to a fair and speedy trial.
Clendennen, a former member of the Scimitars motorcycle group, was one of 177 bikers arrested in the May 17, 2015, shootout at the former Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco between rival biker groups — the Bandidos and Cossacks — that left nine dead and more than a dozen injured. He is currently scheduled to be the second Twin Peaks biker to be tried, with a trial date set for next month.
Broden has tried to disqualify Reyna and has filed subsequent motions to request the court order sanctions against the state for continual delays and force the state to turn over “reasonable” evidence and witness lists before the Nov. 6 trial date.
Reyna has allegedly consulted with criminal defense counsel in connection to the investigation, Broden states in the motion.
“Most importantly, it has been indicated that one or more currently serving assistant district attorneys has/have met with federal authorities for the purpose of providing information that would indicate Reyna does, in fact, make decisions whether to prosecute or not prosecute individuals based on what he perceives to be his political interest,” the motion continues.
Broden stated that his defense team was informed within the past month of the FBI probe into Reyna’s duties. Additionally, he pointed to a quote by Reyna’s former first assistant, Greg Davis, that appeared in a 2014 Tribune-Herald article as seeming to support his claim that Reyna selectively prosecutes cases.
“It is reported that Davis states publicly, when referring to Mr. Reyna, ‘I wanted no part of a two-tiered justice system in which a favored few receive special preferential treatment. It’s wrong and contrary to the basic belief that I’ve always held as a prosecutor that a person’s connections and status in the community should not determine how they’re treated in the criminal justice system,’” the motion states.
Davis declined Friday to comment on the possible FBI investigation, and reiterated his previous statement to the Tribune-Herald.
“I’m not at liberty to comment on Mr. Broden’s allegations regarding a possible investigation,” Davis said in an email. “As I stated before, I’m opposed a two-tiered justice system in which some defendants receive preferential treatment because of their relationship with the prosecutor, wealth, or status in the community. That type of favoritism has no place in prosecution or the criminal justice system.”
In a separate motion, Broden has also requested a court of inquiry to determine if Reyna or Waco police Detective Manuel Chavez lied under oath during a hearing last year in preparation for Twin Peaks cases.
Reyna testified to getting “a lot of input” from Chavez — the lead detective at the Twin Peaks scene on May 17, 2015 — in telephone conversations before Chavez signed the identical, “fill-in-the-name” arrest warrant affidavits for 177 motorcyclists after the shootout.
Chavez, however, directly contradicted Reyna’s testimony, stating under oath that he never spoke to Reyna that night before signing the affidavits.
Meanwhile, Austin attorney Millie Thompson, who represents biker Thomas Paul Landers, a founding member of the Escondido motorcycle group who was also arrested following the Twin Peaks shootout, filed a motion to quash Landers’ indictment Friday, alleging similar prosecutorial misconduct by Reyna.
Broden also on Friday filed a supplement to a motion asking the court to order the state to show cause as to why the state has not complied with discovery motions. Broden requested the court impose fines on the prosecutors for disregarding court orders before his client’s trial.
The state “simply ‘blew off’ the court’s orders,” Broden states in the supplemented motion regarding providing the discovery documents. He states prosecutors provided his client with a witness list of about 401 names and exhibit lists on Thursday, but the lists are not considered “realistic,” Broden said in the motion.
“Frankly, the state’s purported witness and exhibit lists are completely useless, completely contrary to the purposes behind the order that it provide witness and exhibit lists in the first place, and even more contemptuous than not having filed lists at all,” the motion states.
Broden states that he does not believe the state has a reasonable expectation of presenting evidence against Clendennen on Nov. 6 and will most likely push for further continuances.
“Indeed, from all appearances, the state does not appear ready for trial and it certainly seems that the state has no intention of going to trial on this case on Nov. 6, 2017,” the motion states, referring to Clendennen’s current trial date.
Staff writer Tommy Witherspoon contributed to this report.
Baylor University’s accrediting agency gave the school high marks for improvements regarding student safety and response to sexual violence, according to a report indicating Baylor’s warning status could be lifted in December.
A four-day October visit from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges showed Baylor “operated with integrity and has responded to all requests with clarity and truthfulness,” according to a special committee from the agency.
“I can’t speak on behalf of the Commission on Colleges, but we feel really good about the report we got from the visiting committee and the feedback they provided,” Baylor President Linda Livingstone said. “We trust that process and we look forward to the response of the commission in December.”
The agency’s report pointed to clear Title IX-related communications shared with students, a “competent and well-trained” Title IX staff and the verification of 105 improvements Baylor made in the wake of the sexual assault scandal, which enveloped the school for more than a year and a half beginning in August 2015 and still lingers through a host of lawsuits and investigations.
The improvements came courtesy of Pepper Hamilton LLP, the Philadelphia law firm hired by the university to investigate its response to sexual assault allegations and Title IX compliance. Pepper Hamilton’s investigation began in the fall of 2015 and concluded with an oral briefing to the school’s regents in May 2016, which led to the firings of Ken Starr as president, head football coach Art Briles, and ultimately the resignation of former Athletics Director Ian McCaw, who had been sanctioned following the investigation.
Baylor’s board of regents released a 13-page document following Pepper Hamilton’s inquiry, as well as the 105 recommendations for improvement. The board has not released the report in full, despite repeated calls for transparency from alumni, faculty, students and the media.
“We have been very self-reflective as an institution,” said Livingstone, who assumed Baylor’s presidency on June 1 following interim President David Garland’s yearlong term after Starr’s removal. “We have learned some very painful lessons as an institution, and so because of that, we are a much better and stronger institution than we were before.”
The agency reported more effective oversight of Baylor’s athletics department and more direct communication lines between senior administrators and compliance specialists.
“We’re continuing to engage with survivors and making sure we’re meeting those needs,” Board Chairman Joel Allison said. “We always have a concern for our people and for our students. As you saw, that’s one of the areas Dr. Livingstone and the board is really focused on, is being secure and demonstrating this is a safe place. While we still have lawsuits and investigations, we will continue to work cooperatively.
“Most importantly, we want to take care of our students and we want to work with survivors in any way that is possible, to work with them and reach out to them.”
Regents attended their second quarterly meeting under revised governance structures designed to increase board transparency and community trust in the board. Allison said engagement among regents has improved since the changes were made.
Livingstone continued her restructuring of senior administration. She has already announced several high-level changes, including the departures of longtime Baylor administrators Reagan Ramsower and Tommye Lou Davis.
The Division of Development and Constituent Engagement, which Davis oversaw, has been integrated into a new Office of Advancement. Baylor’s Division of Marketing and Communications created an Office of External Affairs to streamline communication between the university and local nonprofits, school districts and other community organizations.
The group of senior administrators, previously known as the Executive Council, has been restructured to include fewer administrators and is now called the President’s Council.
Livingstone also established a University Council to include the President’s Council with deans and vice provosts.
Ramsower’s former role, senior vice president and chief operating officer, will be restructured as a chief business officer, she said.
Allison said regents are optimistic about Livingstone’s academic strategic plan, which could be adopted in May. Livingstone has indicated her goals to make Baylor a tier-one research university, an aim which has also been central to the strategic plans adopted under other recent former Baylor presidents.
Regents approved the purchase of 103 acres behind the Willis Family Equestrian Center, south of La Salle Avenue on South University Parks Drive. About $1.2 million will fund relocation of IT and utility lines before the Interstate 35 widening project, according to the university. The money comes from the Texas Department of Transportation.
A founding member of a “mom and pop” motorcycle group testified Friday that before the Cossacks took over a biker coalition meeting at Twin Peaks and engaged in a deadly shootout with Bandidos, one ran over his wife’s foot, they circled her and spit in her face.
Mike Lynch, a self-employed plumbing contractor from Mart, said the Cossacks cause more trouble in the Waco area than the Bandidos ever have.
Lynch, an original member of the Los Pirados motorcycle club, testified Friday in the trial of Jacob Carrizal.
Carrizal, 35, the Bandidos Dallas chapter president, is the first of 154 bikers indicted in the May 17, 2015, shootout at Twin Peaks to stand trial. Nine bikers died and more than a dozen were injured in the clash between the Cossacks and the Bandidos, the dominant biker group in Texas.
Prosecutors have called 24 witnesses during the first eight days of testimony.
Carrizal, represented by Houston attorney Casie Gotro, is charged in 54th State District Court with directing the activities of a criminal street gang and two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity.
Lynch said his wife, Sandra, also a member of the Los Pirados, which he described as a “family-oriented club,” helped organize the meeting of the Coalition of Clubs and Independents at Twin Peaks. The group planned to hear from speakers and discuss safety laws and legislation regarding motorcycles.
Lynch, 64, said he has been riding motorcycles since he was 14. The Los Pirados are not a Bandidos support group by definition but wear “I support the Fat Mexican” shields on their vests out of respect for the Bandidos, he said.
Lynch said when the group was formed, they created a patch and showed it to Bandidos leaders, not to get their permission but to make sure they were not in conflict with other groups.
He said the COCI meeting in Waco was to have been the first here. Most of the others they have attended over the years have been in the Austin area, he said.
Lynch said there is not a Bandidos chapter in Waco, and the Cossacks were starting to exert their force here, laying claim to Waco as a Cossacks town, he said under questioning from prosecutor Michael Jarrett.
He said he knew the Cossacks and Bandidos were in conflict with each other, but said he had more concerns about the Cossacks than he did about the Bandidos.
On the morning of the meeting at Twin Peaks, Lynch said he saw a group of 60 or more Cossacks riding through Waco. He called his wife, who was setting up for the meeting, and asked if the Cossacks were at the meeting. She said they were coming in and taking over the patio area, and he told her to “stay out of their way,” he said.
Lynch arrived at Twin Peaks and saw the Bandidos ride into the parking lot. Minutes later, he heard a gunshot, followed by bursts of gunfire. He ran for cover and didn’t see much after that, until police were ordering his group to the ground and searching them for weapons, he said.
Lynch said he and his wife were arrested in the incident but were not indicted. He said he didn’t expect the violence because he has been to functions before with Bandidos and there were no incidents.
“I walked into that blind,” he said.
Through her cross-examination, Gotro tried to paint the Cossacks as the aggressors and has laid a defensive foundation that the Cossacks crashed the meeting, commandeered the patio area, laid a trap for the Bandidos and ambushed them when they arrived.
In a previous run-in with the Cossacks, Lynch said he and his wife and a few other Los Pirados members were at Twin Peaks and eight or nine Cossacks confronted them, trying to provoke a fight. Much like they did to his wife on the day of the shootout, Lynch said they surrounded him to try to intimidate him.
“I didn’t rise to the bait. I just walked away from them. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to be around them. I could see they were trouble,” he said.
Under redirect from Jarrett, Lynch said he doesn’t remember telling a Waco police detective two years ago that there were so many Bandidos in town that day to make a statement that Waco is not a Cossacks town.
In other testimony Friday, Brad Doan, the former Twin Peaks manager, testified about the chaotic day and helped prosecutor Amanda Dillon explain the action captured on several of the restaurant’s video surveillance cameras.
Doan said just before the shooting, Cossacks left the patio area and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the parking lot just outside the patio.
“I never saw anything like that except in the military,” he said.
Sensing trouble, Doan called 911 to request police assistance. As it was ringing, he said he heard the first pop from a gun. He then directed his employees into walk-in coolers for their safety.
Prosecution testimony resumes Monday morning.
From downtown development to the Twin Peaks trial and finding a future site for the Waco landfill, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton discussed the state of the city and county during a luncheon Friday at Ridgewood Country Club that about 100 people attended.
Securing a new location for the Waco landfill now on U.S. Highway 84, which has about seven years of life left, “is the most contentious thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” Deaver said, referring to organized opposition from residents living near the area pinpointed for landfill development.
“Wherever we decide to put it, people will not want it anywhere near where they live,” Deaver said. “But I can assure you, the city council will do what is best for the community as a whole. This has not been the most fun project to work on, but we’re getting there.”
He said the existing landfill is not the source of foul odors drawing complaints from area landowners.
“That is a sewage problem, and the city continues to try to track it down,” he said.
County Judge Scott Felton said Twin Peaks “is our landfill,” and laughter greeted his quip that “both stink and both are right in the middle of us.”
The first of what could become dozens of trials related to the bloody shootout in May 2015 started this week in the security-tightened McLennan County Courthouse.
Felton said the county has spent more than $500,000 in Twin Peaks-related expenses, which include the transport of bodies for autopsies, providing legal representation for indigent defendants, overtime pay and housing of prisoners in facilities not operated by the county.
The county has received $268,000 from the state of Texas to help offset Twin Peaks costs and will pursue more, Felton said.
Felton introduced county elected officials attending the luncheon but noted the absence of District Attorney Abel Reyna.
“I think Abel is busy right now,” Felton said to a roar from the crowd.
Felton said he has worked in downtown Waco 35 years, counting his time as county judge and former president of local Wells Fargo bank operations.
“I’ve seen more change in the past 10 years, really five years, than I’ve seen in all the other years combined,” he said.
Waco’s inner city has become a bustling magnet for developers converting longtime eyesores into retail and dining destinations, loft apartments, hotels and townhouses, Deaver said.
“An estimated 45,000 people attended the Silobration last weekend,” Deaver said of the annual event at Magnolia Market at the Silos. “Our hotel occupancy rate is 75.5 percent, second-highest in the state behind only Austin at 76 percent. I think if we round our number up, we’re equal to Austin.”
Waco played host to 2.6 million visitors last year, including 1.6 million attracted by Magnolia Market, Deaver said.
He said the Silo District Trolley ferried 210,000 passengers around downtown last year. A recorded script has been added to entertain riders, and ambassadors soon will ride along to talk up the town, Deaver said.
Deaver also addressed other Waco-area topics, including the hiring of Marcus Nelson as new superintendent of the Waco Independent School District, and Linda Livingstone as the first woman to serve as Baylor University’s president.
“The relationship between Waco and Baylor is as strong as it has ever been,” he said. “There are areas we work together on to achieve common goals, and Dr. Livingstone has embraced that approach.”
The Waco Humane Society Animal Shelter on Circle Road has seen major improvements and has maintained the no-kill status it achieved a year ago, Deaver said.
“We receive about 500 animals a month and we manage to adopt out about 95 percent of them, which is amazing,” Deaver said.
He said 42-year city employee Wiley Stem III, who recently was named to succeed Dale Fisseler as city manager, played a major role in facilitating the turnaround.
Deaver said Waco has passed an ordinance to accommodate the shooting of movies locally, making it a “film friendly city.”
“A rumor is circulating that a major motion picture is being filmed here this weekend,” Deaver said, declining to comment further.
Putting body cameras on Waco Police officers should take place early in 2018, a multimillion-dollar project that should give the public confidence the department is being transparent, he said.
Local highway projects on the drawing board include widening Interstate 35 between North Loop 340 and South 12th Street, a three-year project set to start in 2019, and construction of an overpass at Highway 84 and Speegleville Road, which may start early next year.
Deaver and Felton said the city and county are continuing discussions on a regional approach to developing sources of treated water.
“You can offer all the financial incentives and tax abatements possible to attract heavy-water-using industry, but you can’t get them without adequate water,” Felton said. “That has our attention.”