A few weeks ago, West resident Don Garretson took stock of McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna’s failure to convict Dallas Bandidos chieftain Jake Carrizal last fall; the likelihood of similar failures in prosecuting 154 motorcyclists indicted in the deadly 2015 Twin Peaks biker shootout; and, finally, more than a hundred potentially costly lawsuits alleging Reyna led in the slaughter of these bikers’ civil rights, upending lives, careers and family savings.
Then, in a letter to the Waco Tribune-Herald, Garretson let out what might be interpreted as a primordial taxpayer scream.
“What will be the source of these payouts?” he wrote. “These expenditures will not benefit the taxpayers, thus they should not have to pay for these costs in the form of increased fees and taxes.”
Garretson’s thoughts echo the frustrated multitude we’ve heard from in the nearly three years since members of rival motorcycle groups clashed at Twin Peaks restaurant in a Waco shopping center. And no wonder the mounting concern: Overtime bills for heightened courthouse security during the first and only Twin Peaks biker trial have sucked more than a half-million dollars from county coffers. Add more costs for transporting witnesses to Waco and providing them with lodgings. And yet the big trial proved to be a fumbling prosecutorial affair that left jurors bored and unconvinced and ended in a mistrial.
While law and order might have been the priority when Waco police sought to contain the violence between Bandidos, Cossacks and auxiliary biker groups that left nine dead and 20 injured on May 17, 2015, the specter of politics has increasingly dominated the saga. Bikers’ defense attorneys allege Reyna sought to use the Twin Peaks tragedy to leap-frog to loftier political posts. To bolster this claim, some attorneys have assembled sworn affidavits that establish a pattern of corruption — everything from Reyna’s quashing prosecution cases to benefit friends and campaign donors to drug use and illegal gambling.
Even a first-year law student could raise red flags regarding Reyna’s actions, beginning with his interfering with a busy Waco police murder investigation sorting out biker bystanders from likely biker culprits before the blood on the pavement could dry. Reyna instead refashioned the affair into an organized-crime caper, in effect jailing 177 motorcyclists on million-dollar bonds through an all-too-obliging justice of the peace (and one with no law degree). Some motorcyclists remained in county stir for weeks. Some still lack motorcycles or other vehicles because of civil seizure and forfeiture proceedings. Yet videos from the Jake Carrizal trial show most panicked bikers at Twin Peaks diving under tables and ducking into restrooms when the shooting erupted.
So does Reyna’s suddenly dismissing troublesome Twin Peaks cases right and left — and mere days before a contested Republican primary election hinging on his prosecutorial integrity and competence — set everything to rights? During a Feb. 8 press conference — the DA’s staff, as usual, declined to notify the Trib — Reyna described his latest move as an “effort to narrow in on those more culpable without expending your precious judicial resources on lower level gang members.”
And in a dig at those who allege he approached the Twin Peaks cases in a fit of unbridled political ambition, he returned fire: “I will not be deterred by the political opportunism of my opponents and their ilk. We will push back and, in the end, we will prevail. With God as my witness, justice will be served in this matter.”
Surely, this latest turn by the DA’s office is meant to reassure Garretson and bewildered taxpayers like him. Yet the move comes a couple of years too late for anyone to reasonably conclude Reyna is suddenly prioritizing justice for all. In fact, he clearly has been doing everything and anything he can to block damaging courtroom testimony from credible sources regarding his ulterior motives in the sprawling Twin Peaks imbroglio and earlier, unrelated cases.
Given that we at the Trib are not on Reyna’s speed dial or any dial — the headstrong, 45-year-old DA has ducked hundreds of questions from the Trib over several years — we can be forgiven for occasionally guessing what legal maneuver he’s going to pull next. This conjecture on our part was especially necessary when he desperately sought to prevent testimony from former prosecutors and law enforcement officials alleging political opportunism in other cases that, bikers’ defense attorneys maintain, support claims he did the same in his handling of already complicated Twin Peaks cases.
We watched dumbfounded as Reyna’s prosecutors sought to recuse venerable (and incredulous) District Judge Ralph Strother from presiding over a hearing promising devastating testimony against Reyna from his own former chief assistant district attorney, Greg Davis — and shortly before the primary election. We wondered how assistant DAs in Reyna’s harness could keep from choking on their words, given they previously and repeatedly fought against recusals of this same conservative judge demanded by defense lawyers in Twin Peaks cases.
Evidence of how threadbare this dodge was: When assistant DAs Michael Jarrett and Brody Burks asked Judge Strother to delay the initial hearing to recuse Reyna from prosecuting two Twin Peaks cases, they obviously were recognizing Strother’s authority in the matter. So when they immediately moved to recuse Strother himself after being refused on the previous motion, it raised an awkward question that defense attorneys pounced on: If Jarrett and Burks truly believed Strother should be recused, why then did they recognize his judicial relevance moments earlier? My conclusion: Assistant district attorneys were following marching orders from an increasingly desperate DA.
After a visiting judge correctly swatted aside the judicial recusal bid at a subsequent hearing (Strother’s recusal, not Reyna’s), we next guessed Reyna would conveniently recuse himself from cases where attorneys threatened to trot out Davis, retired police detective Sherry Kingrey and others with scorching testimony against Reyna. But the DA had another trick card up his sleeve: Begin dismissing Twin Peaks cases with great abandon, 13 of them with more possible, even as he insisted these “should not be considered an exoneration of the individual defendants or the gangs they belong to.”
Blaming the feds
Earlier in his re-election campaign Reyna branded the Trib a “fake news outlet” and a “ridiculous rag of a paper.” But when I finally cornered the DA at a Feb. 13 meet-and-greet League of Women Voters of Waco event where he more or less had to answer my questions, Reyna elaborated on earlier statements that the red-hot affidavits of his former prosecutor and others were politically motivated lies.
“All this stuff came up in 2014 when I ran for re-election,” Reyna insisted. “The one thing you need to focus on is: When are these acts alleged to have occurred? All of them 2013 and before, 2013 and before. They’ve taken, what, four examples out of the 40,000 cases that came through that office. Four examples like that and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, the corruption is rampant!’”
Reyna took a special shot at his former charge, veteran prosecutor Greg Davis: “The one screaming the loudest worked there for nine more months, nine more months, after he says he had this conversation with me [about Reyna’s allegedly scuttling prosecution cases for friends and donors]. And that conversation I had with him? I specifically asked him, ‘Are you saying I’m doing something wrong?’ And his response: ‘Absolutely not. Absolutely not.’ And so you look at that.” (Davis’ sworn recollection of Reyna’s reaction in this exchange: “Never get in my f---ing business again!”)
When I pressed Reyna on whether he would have done anything differently in his handling of cases involving the warring Bandidos and Cossacks motorcycle groups at Twin Peaks if he had it to do over, he referred to possibly relevant, possibly irrelevant, evidence that federal prosecutors might have on Twin Peaks biker groups but won’t share with Reyna till the feds prosecute Bandidos leadership on other, unrelated charges in San Antonio: “I don’t know if I would necessarily do something different. You may hope for different results. I guess one of the things I wish would have happened is that the federal authorities would have communicated with us. They still have not given us that evidence. We would have a heck of a lot different picture.”
Reyna has been fortunate in his political opponents in the 2018 election. The Democratic candidate, Seth Sutton, nationally famous for representing a 33-year-old woman who Waco police said concealed a loaded Smith & Wesson .22-caliber semiautomatic handgun inside her vagina during a 2015 arrest on drug charges, suspended his campaign in mid-February. And a political independent, Daniel Hare of Baylor Law School, while articulate, acknowledges he has not practiced law.
This leaves Reyna to contend with fellow Republican Barry Johnson, 61, an amiable, gregarious plaintiff’s attorney who grew up in Waco as the son of late District Judge Joe N. Johnson. But Barry Johnson has little experience practicing criminal law. Even so, during a no-holds-barred McLennan County Republican Club candidates forum, Johnson came out swinging, lambasting Reyna for allowing political ambitions not only to compromise his handling of cases important to political donors but also undermine justice in the Twin Peaks scandal.
Johnson promises if elected that the district attorney’s office will scrutinize Twin Peaks cases to determine, once and for all, who rates prosecution and who doesn’t. During the League of Women Voters event, he condemned Reyna’s last-minute dismissal of biker cases long simmering under prosecutorial threat: “Those same cases haven’t changed from three years ago when those people were arrested, when they were charged, when they were indicted.”
That said, Barry Johnson is no politician. When during a Christmas party his campaign manager introduced Johnson to the husband of a friend agreeable to placing an oversized Barry Johnson campaign sign in front of his business on Interstate 35, Johnson delivered the sign and posed for a photo with the business owner — not realizing the business owner of Legend Cycles is also former head of the local chapter of the Cossacks and among those indicted for organized crime in the Twin Peaks melee. Sure enough, an embarrassing photo of Johnson and Cossack leader John Wilson shaking hands ended up on a Reyna re-election mailer, obviously plucked from Wilson’s Facebook page and arriving in mailboxes three days before early voting began. Alongside the photo, Reyna claims Johnson’s campaign “is supported by biker gangs and funded by biker-gang defense lawyers.” Johnson denies it.
Wilson, 55, says Johnson is largely blameless in the snafu. In fact, Wilson offers some solid legal reasoning. First, he tells me that he never mentioned to Johnson that he was among those swept up in the Twin Peaks dragnet in 2015 because he felt it inappropriate to discuss the matter with someone who might be the next district attorney. Wilson also says Reyna misidentified him in the campaign mailer as “president of the Cossacks Outlaw MC at the time of the Twin Peaks shooting.” Wilson says he merely headed a seven-member local chapter, not the statewide group, and that the local chapter has since been disbanded. And while one might wonder if the Reyna campaign mailer portraying Wilson as a statewide motorcycle gang leader would leave Reyna more obligated to now prosecute him, Wilson believes the beleaguered DA is more politically shrewd than that.
Political campaign fodder
“I think he knew he would disqualify himself from being able to prosecute me, he would disqualify this county from being able to have an untainted jury pool, by sending this mailer out to potential jurors in this county,” Wilson told me. “And by broadcasting it over TV, he’s actually done that to surrounding counties as well. I think he looked at it and said, ‘You know what? We don’t have anything on this guy. This is a case we can’t win, so we’ll sacrifice this case, because we don’t have a case anyway, for the purpose of my political agenda and moving this campaign forward.’ I don’t think he would have done that with somebody he felt was culpable and that he had a good case against, because he needs a [courtroom] win.”
And as Wilson, who remains under indictment, told my colleague J.B. Smith back in 2016: “The fact is 177 people didn’t kill nine. Everybody was charged with every murder, every assault and charged for the people killed by law enforcement.” (Autopsy results in the Carrizal trial indicated four of the nine bikers died with police bullets in them.)
Incidentally, the Barry Johnson campaign sign out front disappeared. Wilson says he doesn’t blame the wind.
Reyna has had his own pratfalls, including being admonished by KWTX-TV for using its logo on yet another Reyna campaign mailer. The station fears residents will conclude KWTX endorses his re-election. He also ran into criticism for the artful commercial in which he strikes a courageous, selfless pose as one battling vicious Bandidos and Cossacks gangs, “not your mom-and-pop riding clubs that choose to go out for a Sunday ride.” He takes on-camera umbrage at the notion he would “put my family through the risk, through the danger, solely for some type of political opportunism or solely for some type of personal gain on my part” — and then displays his wife and 4-year-old child in what is a campaign commercial to effect his re-election. At one point, tears well up in Reyna’s eyes in outrage at being unfairly portrayed and vilified.
“All the tears in the world can’t prove he’s nothing but a fake,” charges Butch “Popeye” Moss, 70, president of Sons of Liberty Riders and a perennial Reyna critic. “A college-educated man tearfully tells us his family’s in danger, then turns around and posts a video of his family up close and personal for any criminal he sent to jail to see. What the hell is wrong with him? We’re not showing that video because it’s the right thing to do. There’s no way we want any harm to come to him or his family or any law enforcement officer.”
Further enlivening matters: abelreyna.com, a website Reyna didn’t get his hands on. The site is dedicated to highlighting what it claims is Reyna’s corruption. Visitors are invited to submit comments to email@example.com. And then there’s the Aging Rebel, a Bandidos blogger with attitude who during the Carrizal trial regularly vilified Reyna, Jarrett, District Judge Matt Johnson, the cops, assorted Cossacks and me. The Aging Rebel now envisions a movie of the Twin Peaks incident called “Biker Brawl.” He proposes casting for various individuals including Reyna “who, admit it, does look like Kathy Bates with a buzz cut, if Kathy Bates went on an eating binge for about a year.” He also proposes supposed Trump temptress Stormy Daniels as assistant DA Amanda Dillon “as few have ever seen her before.”
Matching Reyna’s Trumpian tactic of branding unfavorable news reports “fake news,” the Sons of Liberty Riders, whose website reflects strongly pro-Trump sentiments, placed a campaign ad in the Trib reflecting such rhetoric: “Drain the swamp in Waco and get out the vote. Rid yourselves of the rigged Waco justice system and unable Reyna in the primary.” The group rallies at 1 p.m. today at the county courthouse.
As early voting continues, the Twin Peaks saga only gets crazier. Former Cossack Cody Ledbetter, 28, who has been trying to get his day in court for nearly three years, finally nailed down an April trial date after the retrial of 36-year-old Dallas Bandidos chieftain and locomotive engineer Jake Carrizal was delayed. On the day pandemonium erupted at Twin Peaks, Ledbetter reportedly was on the restaurant patio with his arm in a sling. Ledbetter initially sought to disqualify Reyna from prosecuting his case after the DA’s office released videos from Ledbetter’s cellphone showing Ledbetter and his wife having sex. In possible violation of the Texas Penal Code, the videos were sent to more than 125 attorneys as part of the massive Twin Peaks discovery process.
Despite all these missteps and absurdities, Reyna appears to have successfully dodged the threat of anyone putting him on the stand or compelling him to face accusing voices from his past, at least before the primary election concludes on March 6.
Government we deserve
Brian Bouffard, one of the attorneys who forced Reyna’s hand on behalf of his client, former Cossack and two-tour Marine combat veteran Jorge Salinas, put it tersely during a press conference held at the very hour he and other attorneys had hoped to put Reyna in the witness box: “As you know and as anyone paying attention knows, there have been honorable and credible witnesses who have come forth, put their names under oath, been sworn to the truth and given affidavits about what they know has been going on for years in Abel Reyna’s office. And Abel Reyna calls them liars. He calls them fake news. Any of you who have reported their allegations, he has probably called you fake news. And shortly the voting citizens of McLennan County are going to make of that what they will. They and all of us will continue to make decisions at the ballot box that define us as citizens, for good or for ill, and we will continue to get the government that we deserve.”
DA candidate Daniel Hare, 39, the one person involved who likely will have less impact on all this than anyone, is ironically the most generous in sizing up all that has gone wrong involving the Twin Peaks muddle, and from the very start on May 17, 2015: “I think this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and everybody was in new territory, so I think there’s a lot of grace that should be extended to everybody who was out there that day when it comes to how they reacted and handled themselves. It’s just one of those crazy things. How do you prepare for something like that? Who knows how I would have handled it at the time?”
Businessman and biker John Wilson, who plans to amend his current suit or file a new one over trampled civil rights in the Twin Peaks tragedy and the campaign mailer he says maligns him, is understandably less generous, especially regarding Abel Reyna: “This man has disparaged me for the purpose of his political gain obviously — I mean, this [personal attack] was on a political campaign flyer. I am a local businessman, I pay my taxes, I have no criminal record other than the arrest at Twin Peaks, which I have not been found guilty of and no one has produced one shred of evidence to say I’m guilty of anything there. I have never drawn one day of unemployment in my life. I’ve got good credit, good ratings at my business, good reviews. I’m active in my local church and active in local ministries for the hungry and things like that. He has completely mischaracterized me for the purpose of advancing his political career.”
One thing’s sure: If politics influenced Reyna’s handling of the Twin Peaks chaos and bloodshed, politics now threatens to snatch the affair and much more from his grasp.