In my 40 years of gauging lawsuits, the May 8 suit filed on behalf of four Twin Peaks bikers who maintain they had nothing to do with the deadly May 17, 2015, melee ranks as a howler. It targets the usual suspects in Twin Peaks lawsuits, including Waco police spokesman Patrick Swanton and District Attorney Abel Reyna. But this one goes on and on, indicting Waco society, Baylor University and local history, warts and all — mostly warts.
The gist is that the city’s religious fundamentalism and stifling political conservatism, built up over many decades, naturally created an environment where local yokels couldn’t appreciate easy riders innocently rolling into Waco for a Sunday meeting to discuss state legislation affecting bikers. Given prevailing social mores about alcohol use, outsiders and motorcyclists, the suit says, “something like the Twin Peaks tragedy was likely to happen sooner or later.”
As an example, the suit cites Baylor’s “strict Southern Baptist tradition” and even its prohibition against dancing (well, till 1996 when Baptists at the university had an epiphany over the matter) and how this mindset spread to a majority of townfolks so “they are arguably behind the times of the rest of the communities in Texas and around the country and again reflective of a non-tolerant culture which permeates Waco to this day.”
Beaumont attorney Brent Coon seems to be processing everything in his Twin Peaks lawsuit through the filter of David Lynch’s surrealistic TV show “Twin Peaks” (which, ironically, begins its third season tonight — 26 years after going off the air). Everything from the deadly, FBI-coordinated siege of the Branch Davidian cultist compound east of Waco in 1993 to racist lynchings early in the last century are part of the toxic environment that on May 17, 2015, left nine dead, 20 or more injured and American justice in the crossfire.
In one passage, the suit seems to suggest the Waco Police Department vilified in the Twin Peaks shootings has long been behind the curve, is incapable of grasping today’s broader biker culture and, coincidentally, “had a rather large motorcycle division but did away with it altogether in the 1950s shortly after movies came out like ‘The Wild Ones’ starring Marlon Brando, which portrayed young ‘gang members’ that rode motorcycles.”
By contrast, the quartet of bikers pressing this suit — part of the Grim Guardians club — are revealed to be stellar sorts. For instance, Jim Harris, now 29, is championed as a counselor for abused and neglected children and as a volunteer clown with “Patch Adams,” the physician, social activist and clown famous for leading troupes worldwide to entertain patients and children. Alas, Harris’ recent trip to Mexico City for this noble endeavor went awry because of his Waco misadventure: “Sadly, this time he was taken aside by the Mexican authorities and interrogated for hours at the airport regarding his arrest in Waco, then put on the next flight to the United States, which happened to export him all the way to Seattle, where he then had to plan and pay for a hotel and then [begin] the long sojourn home [to Austin] at his own expense.”
The Big Wait
So unfolds another lawsuit, brimming with complaints, grievances, defenses and working-stiff pleas — a footnote in a saga seemingly without end. Two years after a restaurant parking lot shootout involving police and bikers — some of the latter associated with warring factions, the Bandidos and the Cossacks — the storyline has settled into a legal logjam that defies easy understanding.
In broadest terms, the accumulating civil-rights lawsuits filed by outraged bikers more or less hinge on bikers’ criminal trials. Those in turn are likely to be held up by possibly relevant, possibly irrelevant, evidence federal prosecutors have but won’t share with local authorities till the feds prosecute Bandidos leadership on racketeering charges in a trial set in San Antonio.
And the latter was recently delayed several months into early 2018.
If some lawsuits by bikers indicted and unindicted and their attorneys seem overwrought, consider highly questionable moves in the local criminal justice system. We saw 177 bikers — some claim they weren’t even at the shootout but arrived late — held in county lockup on “cookie-cutter” arrest warrant affidavits and jaw-dropping, million-dollar bonds, the latter slapped on almost every biker arrested “to send a message,” Justice of the Peace W.H. “Pete” Peterson said at the time. Worse, the criminal justice system moved at a snail’s pace in expediting bond reductions and release of those behind bars.
Certainly, any bikers involved in what many claim was only a Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents meeting on legislation affecting motorcycle safety now have good reason to reconsider what “colors” or motorcycle club insignia they wear. If bikers wore vests or sported tattoos linking them to the Bandidos, Cossacks or even auxiliary clubs, it was enough to earn them a stretch in jail. State law allowed the police to arrest at the crime scene anyone sporting insignia linked to gangs deemed as criminal.
Even so, enough assaults on the Bill of Rights justify fair hearings of biker civil-rights lawsuits. Among founding amendments that took a beating: the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth amendments. The Eighth, which supposedly protects Americans from excessive bail, dominated conversation in 2015. Now the Sixth, which demands speedy trials, looms over thoughtful handling of all these cases. And courts are inclined to be lenient in cases of the bewildering complexity and scope of the Twin Peaks altercation.
Still, frustration over justice delayed grows.
“Got into an interesting conversation with a nephew of mine,” 74-year-old biker Mel Robins of McKinney told a bikers rally at McLennan County Courthouse last weekend. “He’s studying for his law degree and we were talking about fair and speedy trials. And he looked at me and said, ‘Uncle Mel, we’ve talked about that in class and the problem is what’s a fair and speedy trial to you may be way different in how it’s interpreted by the judicial system.’ So what he’s telling me is there isn’t a damned thing we can do to speed it up except stay pissed off as hell, keep coming, keep protesting and keep letting them know we don’t think it’s right.”
Others share the sentiment, including U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who is showing impatience with prosecutors delaying suits filed by bikers arrested, under investigation but still not indicted. And only Friday state District Judge Ralph Strother — presiding over intense bickering between prosecutors and a biker’s attorney — decided that enough was enough and set a criminal trial for Sept. 11, adding: “This is not a kindergarten playground. Everybody back off.”
Robins, a member of the Sons of Liberty Riders Motorcycle Club, which has helped organize “waves” of protests since the shootings, says riders remain skeptical of Waco police. But the greater villain to them is District Attorney Abel Reyna, who pulled rank on police while they were cutting loose innocent bikers, abruptly turning their complicated capital murder investigation into an even more complicated organized crime caper. In the process, Reyna sent most bikers to jail. Some believe he pursued the charges with an eye toward civil forfeiture and seizure of riders’ bikes.
“Mel seems to think that Abel Reyna has painted himself into a corner,” Butch “Popeye” Moss, 69, president of Sons of Liberty Riders, said. “He is going to have to do these trials whether he wants to or not, just to save face. He’s going to have to go forward.”
American paradigm shift
Reyna, who regularly refuses to speak to the Trib, may yet prove himself a visionary, crime-busting district attorney if he and his team can convince juries the 155 people ultimately indicted (of the 192 at one time or another jailed in the affair) were acting as criminal street-gang members that day rather than participants in a brawl ignited because, as one rendition goes, someone ran over someone else’s foot in the parking lot.
If Reyna and his team fail, defense attorneys’ oft-quoted maxim about the ease of indictments will be confirmed: Ham sandwiches everywhere will be vindicated.
Biker apologists also continue to blame Waco police for not “flooding” the Twin Peaks restaurant parking lot with officers to discourage violence that day when police obviously suspected trouble loomed. Yet during a June 2015 press briefing, then-Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman maintained that police presence in parking lots adjacent to the Twin Peaks restaurant, complete with six marked police units, should have been more than enough to prevent gunfire.
Yet it obviously didn’t deter some in the Twin Peaks crowd with its uneasy mix of Cossacks and Bandidos.
While Stroman’s successor, Ryan Holt, declines to comment much on the incident, during a January 2017 Trib interview he made clear that what police saw unfold before them that day was chaos driven by bikers bent on violence.
“What I can tell you is that our officers saved a lot of lives that morning,” he told me. “You had a lawlessness that manifested itself into a shootout in a crowded shopping center in a mid-sized city in America and the police saved a lot of lives that day. I think it was Sam Houston who said, ‘We’re going to do the right thing and suffer the consequences,’ and it applies to that day.”
Chief Holt also noted how intelligence and preparation played key roles in police success in a situation few could have previously imagined. In that sense, the Twin Peaks incident made history: “Never before in America — and I received phone calls from law enforcement leaders all over this country, both immediately after [Twin Peaks] and following that — there had never been two organized groups who were willing to have a shootout in a public place and put as many lives in danger as happened at Twin Peaks. So it was a paradigm shift for law enforcement in America.”
Many bikers, their family members and friends offer strikingly different perspectives, including Judy Bergman, whose husband George was caught up in the Twin Peaks chaos. It was a point she emphasized during the recent bikers rally in Waco: “I pray that justice is served and that these 192 people who have been arrested — some have been indicted, some haven’t — don’t ever have to go through this and be on the other end of a phone conversation that I got from my husband that day, telling me he loves me and he may never come home again, that he’s in the middle of a police shootout. That’s something nobody wants to live and hear.”
Old news & laid-back bikers
Yet her husband’s case demonstrates the complexity involved. While George Bergman, now 50, maintains he had just arrived at the scene when violence broke out, he also happened to be a member of the Desgraciados, a Bandidos support group. And the Bandidos are deemed by the Texas Department of Public Safety as a gang engaged in organized criminal activity.
All of this gives weight to a shrewd observation attorney Adam Reposa offered Trib courthouse reporter Tommy Witherspoon and me in 2015 when Reposa represented some of the bikers: After jury trials are done and judgment is passed, law schools and criminal justice seminars will be dissecting legal protocols in Waco’s Twin Peaks cases for many decades.
Yet such complexities are fast fading from public attention, as Robins noted at last weekend’s biker rally, which attracted no more than 50 people, including children: “I think what you see here today is a strong testimony of why the hell this country is in the shape it is because there aren’t too many people who are willing to step up, say how it is and keep fighting. Given that, I think there is progress being made.”
That’s a reference to the parade of biker lawsuits filed before the statute of limitations ran out Wednesday, second anniversary of the shootout. Such suits include that of a retired 32-year veteran of the San Antonio Police Department whose father was a San Antonio police officer for 27 years. When Martin Lewis, now 64, was booked into jail, he was in possession of his and his father’s police retirement badges.
Only commencement of criminal or civil trials is likely to reverse flagging public interest.
“It’s old news,” Robins told me, explaining dwindling interest among formerly outraged bikers, even as fellow bikers suffer a toll in livelihoods, family and emotional well-being. As he noted, “bikers are laid back and that’s a little bit of a problem.”
Meanwhile, “Popeye” Moss continued railing about injustice beneath the old pecan trees outside the courthouse.
“Not everybody was there for some type of criminal activity, much less a fight in the damn parking lot,” he said as his microphone shorted out because of overheating. “And guess what? That’s what it was. A fight in the parking lot. If somebody’s guilty of those crimes, get ’em. Put their butts in jail. But not everybody was a part of that.”