For months, District Attorney Abel Reyna and his staff made clear they were champing at the bit to try strapping, 35-year-old Dallas Bandidos chieftain and locomotive engineer Jake Carrizal before any of the other bikers rounded up after the deadly 2015 shootout at Waco’s Twin Peaks restaurant and watering hole. Consequently, many of us in the peanut gallery leaned closer to better understand, perchance appreciate, Reyna’s strategy of legally pursuing 154 bikers on identical organized crime charges, as opposed to the more discriminating capital murder charges Waco police originally contemplated.
So much for that idea. The Nov. 10 mistrial only confirmed the whispered doubts of legal eagles in and out of the McLennan County Courthouse. Instead of prosecutorial genius and skill, the public witnessed a strange element of disorganization astonishing for a team that had many months to prepare for a high-profile trial of national significance. The fireworks mainly involved eruptions by diminutive, peppery defense counsel Casie Gotro over one piece of evidence after another that prosecutors by law should have provided her long before but didn’t.
But for those expressing amazement a mistrial wasn’t declared earlier because of repeated failures by prosecutors to furnish discovery evidence promptly, they got one anyway courtesy of a deadlocked jury. Jurors were unconvinced of Reyna’s organized crime scheme, rendered more convoluted and more bewildering in a superseding indictment of Carrizal in June. And afterward as Carrizal walked to the courthouse parking lot glowing and still a free man, disturbing new questions arose about Reyna, including his allegedly dropping criminal cases to benefit moneyed political donors and friends. The sworn claim of cronyism and corruption came the very same day from one of Reyna’s former prosecutors, who bolstered suggestions that political ambition guided Reyna’s actions immediately after the Twin Peaks incident, confounding police carefully sorting through an already chaotic, blood-splattered, weapon-strewn crime scene.
If ever Reyna needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat, the Carrizal trial involving no less than the president of the Dallas Bandidos was it. It was supposed to be a slam dunk. At least three factors likely contributed to the DA’s expensive failure:
- Legal scholars could debate forever the wisdom of pursuing organized crime charges against Carrizal and other bikers involved in the Twin Peaks shootout between rival gangs that left nine dead, 20 injured and 177 in jail on dubious million-dollar bonds. But the question of possibly innovative use of the state’s organized crime statute pales alongside whether it was practical and prudent in a case where jurors ultimately saw only a massive, free-for-all brawl that was anything but organized.
Unflappable First Assistant District Attorney Michael Jarrett dutifully stressed that the long-established Bandidos and defiant Cossacks involved in the clash (along with support groups) were outlaw street gangs in the eyes of the law — “three or more persons having a common identifying sign or symbol or an identifiable leadership who continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activities,” to quote the statute. Expert witnesses testified to such groups’ criminal activities throughout Texas and beyond, their strict hierarchy, unforgiving bylaws and rigidly idolatrous reverence for patches or “colors.” State testimony covered the Cossacks’ refusal to seek Bandidos’ permission to wear the curved, so-called “Texas bottom rocker” on vests and other apparel, fueling tensions between the two motorcycle groups to the point of occasional violence.
But suggesting the Bandidos traveled from the Metroplex to Waco for a live-or-die showdown with the Cossacks in a shopping center at the intersection of busy Interstate 35 and State Highway 6 on May 17, 2015 — and just as Sunday church services let out — must have seemed a stretch to some jurors. Even the testimony of some police officers — congregated near Twin Peaks that day because of information the rival motorcycle gangs might clash at a generally innocuous Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents meeting on motorcycle safety — indicated they expected nothing of the scope of what erupted. Maybe a fistfight at most. They expected their own presence to discourage altercations. Texas Department of Public Safety investigator Chris Frost, a prosecution witness, said that while law enforcement acted on information about Cossacks coming to the Texas COCI meeting uninvited, they expected any fighting to be limited to roadside encounters to and from Waco: “We did not believe there would be violence like there was at a strip mall on a Sunday afternoon.”
Defense counsel Casie Gotro stressed police reports on roadside skirmishes between factions of the two biker groups in preceding months (including near Lorena, where several Cossacks badly beat a Bandido), offering a rationale for why Bandidos came armed that day. This information was meant to refute such testimony as that of Douglas Pearson, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives motorcycle gang task force member who interpreted Bandidos’ text messages about traveling to Waco armed and leaving their women at home as strong indications the Twin Peaks violence was a planned confrontation. Problem: One really could read differing interpretations into some pretty cryptic biker text messages.
Even the prosecution’s highlighting the abundance of weapons confiscated after the fight — 154 firearms and more than 400 other weapons — must have fallen flat with some jurors in this stretch of Texas. After all, Texas’ strong gun culture — including the idea of going armed for self-protection — has been accented by state leaders. Add testimony that a multitude of Cossacks arrived early at Twin Peaks that day, that some wore bullet-proof vests and that Carrizal himself carried only a small, two-shot derringer and the alternate theory of a Cossack trap set for unwitting Bandidos arriving at Twin Peaks gains credence. Jarrett’s closing arguments didn’t help, including his insistence jurors not consider the idea of self-defense in connection with the organized crime charges. His comparison of outlaw gangs with outlaw country music likely fell flat, too. And, finally, the prosecution’s failure to neatly connect the dots amid ponderous loads of evidence rendered almost incidental the testimony of a Twin Peaks employee who claimed to see someone of Carrizal’s description fire the first shot with a “long, Dirty Harry-type pistol.”
Jarrett did offer a rousing finish in closing arguments: “By your verdict, you’ll send a message. Texas does not belong to the Bandidos. Texas is not a Bandido state, McLennan County is not a Bandido county and Waco is sure as heck not a Bandido town. It’s our town.” But Gotro also got to the heart of the matter, noting that “the broader and more general the state makes its prosecution, the fewer difficult questions they’ve got to answer.”
- Although jurors weren’t privy to all of Casie Gotro’s repeated objections to prosecution evidence not forwarded to her in time for study and analysis, they surely picked up on this recurring problem. The 23-day trial was delayed several times because either the judge needed time to study the latest evidence not forwarded to Gotro or else Gotro needed time to consider how the evidence helped or hindered her case and how it might change her defense strategy and questioning of witnesses. Often invoked by Gotro before and during the trial: the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland ruling, which holds prosecution suppression of evidence violates the Due Process Clause of the almighty Fourteenth Amendment. One suspects Gotro long balked at pressing for dismissal of the charges only because she was so confident she could win an acquittal outright.
Yet by trial’s end, even other agencies seemed to be getting in on the act, adding a level of absurdity to the proceedings for which even the prosecutors couldn’t be fully blamed. For example, the trial was halted for two days after the city of Waco revealed it had recordings involving the Twin Peaks case that had not been given to the prosecution or the defense. And during the break, the Texas Department of Public Safety notified 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson that it, too, had materials not previously disclosed, including evidence generated by Texas Rangers assisting in the investigation. And about this time, Reyna’s office notified the court of a statement taken in the DA’s office and one provided by the FBI that also had not been turned over to the defense.
Angrily protesting to the judge late in the trial, Gotro insisted that evidence she was only then gaining access to would have “materially changed my cross-examination of every witness that has testified, save for the first young woman who was a waitress at Twin Peaks — no, she was a cook at Twin Peaks. I mean, I don’t know how this isn’t Brady and it is certainly willful.” When Jarrett sought to explain that a particular statement withheld was an obvious lie not worth using or entering into evidence, Gotro exploded again, citing a case in which the state’s highest criminal appeals court reversed the conviction of a former Alief Hastings High School football coach who spent nearly a decade behind bars for killing his wife; the high court found prosecutors had withheld significant evidence from defense attorneys. Gotro, part of the appeals process in that case, insisted that just because a statement didn’t support the prosecution case against Jake Carrizal didn’t mean it didn’t support his defense.
“If it is contrary to the state’s theory of prosecution and, let’s face it, this has been a circumstantial case at best, they are duty-bound to give that information to the defense,” she said. “They don’t get to just say it’s false.” After the judge denied Gotro’s request for dismissal of charges for “prosecutorial misconduct” and declared a recess, Jarrett and Gotro continued wrangling till the latter stormed out of the courtroom, charging the prosecution with being “criminal and unethical.”
One veteran attorney remarked to me that, in criminal matters, problems of prompt delivery of all evidence can and do arise. But the level of this incompetency shouldn’t have happened so often during a pivotal case that prosecutors not only longed to try but had months to prepare.
- Whatever else Jake Carrizal might or might not be, he was the worst possible subject for prosecutors intent on painting him as a leader (Dallas Bandidos vice president at the time) of an outlaw motorcycle gang bent on conspiring to commit murder and mayhem at Twin Peaks. He was likable. A tall, imposing figure with a long but neatly trimmed beard, outfitted in glasses, navy sports jacket and pressed jeans, Carrizal proved polite, articulate, confident, even quick-witted when Gotro surprised many by calling him to the stand. Trib courthouse reporter Tommy Witherspoon said Carrizal was possibly the most engaging defendant he has seen in 35 years of covering trials. And while there were moments when, under Jarrett’s cross-examination, I wondered why Gotro didn’t object to questions that seemed more badgering than relevant, I later realized why: Carrizal was perfectly capable of calmly withstanding Jarrett’s legal assault — and in doing so only made the Dallas Bandidos seem more benign and misunderstood than expert witnesses testified.
During his testimony, Carrizal was self-deprecating at just the right moments and good-humored when appropriate. Yet he displayed deep emotion when telling of the shootout’s grim aftermath. He told of being besieged by a “sea of Cossacks” in the parking lot moments after arriving on his motorcycle with fellow Bandidos. He told of being brought to the ground while fighting for his life. He told of pulling out and firing his two-shot derringer at a Cossack leveling a weapon at him. He told of crawling to safety in the brief confrontation and realizing in horror that a Bandido “brother” was dead. He told of calling out desperately for his father, a Dallas Bandido who went by the handle “Shovel” (for a sort of engine formerly used in Harley-Davidson motorcycles): “I was hollering for him. I was calling him ‘Dad.’ I was yelling for ‘Dad’ and he wasn’t answering. So I started yelling out ‘Shovel.’ I started yelling for ‘Shovel.’” It was during this section of testimony Carrizal broke down, removing his spectacles and blotting tears.
Carrizal stressed the Dallas Bandidos was a club in no way involved in crime (“I wouldn’t be a Bandido if this was a gang”), that he tried to balance his life as a father of two, a professional with a 17-year career with the railroad and someone who enjoyed the strong camaraderie inherent in a club of motorcycle riders regularly hitting the open road (“I’ve never been in any trouble prior to this”) and that he and other Bandido leadership discouraged “dumb s--t” that other clubs might pursue (“There’s no room to be knuckleheads. We’ve been a club this long because we are smart”). A striking example of how differently he sketched matters came when discussion fell on Bandido patches such as that warning “Expect No Mercy.” Pearson had testified it was reportedly earned by Bandidos for committing acts of violence on behalf of the gang. Carrizal’s explanation offered a different take: Because Bandidos are viewed by law enforcement and some members of society as criminals, the patch, Carrizal explained, simply warns Bandidos to “expect no mercy from anyone else.” Whether jurors believed Carrizal or not, they must have found him a compelling witness.
So where does all this leave matters after a trial that added nearly a half-million dollars in security costs to the McLennan County budget? For now, Carrizal is a qualified winner, though he could still face another trial. However, Waco police may have come out best of all. Exacting testimony from a ballistics expert scuttled once and for all the persistent biker refrain that cops massacred all bikers at Twin Peaks. Four of the nine dead bikers had police bullets in them, which means at least some bikers were doing some massacring of their own at Twin Peaks. Even Carrizal, whose father was shot during the brawl (by another biker) but survived, testified his own life was saved by Waco police that day. Ballistics testing confirms his apparent attacker, 39-year-old Jacob Lee Rhyne — a Cossack who went by the name “Jake” or “Rattle Can” — died with a police bullet in his groin along with bullet fragments too badly damaged to identify, possibly from Carrizal’s derringer. And testimony seemed to indicate, above all, Waco police were as astonished as anyone at the level of violence that day. Police officer Ben Rush said the plan was to use smoke and gas to disperse the crowd if fighting broke out. The main objective, he said, was to be seen. The aftermath amazed many law enforcement officers: “It was like a horror movie with bodies lying around and so much blood everywhere and so many weapons,” the veteran SWAT officer testified, adding: “I always try to play out every scenario in my head, but it wasn’t supposed to go like this. There was no pause button to hit so we could regroup.”
The Jake Carrizal mistrial now represents the weak prosecutorial link between the conviction of 62-year-old Fort Worth Bandidos president Howard Baker, sentenced in Fort Worth to 45 years for murder, engaging in organized crime and directing activities of a street gang in connection with the 2014 slaying of a rival gang member at a Fort Worth bar, and federal indictments in San Antonio of former national Bandidos president Jeffrey Pike and vice president John Portillo on racketeering charges, including murder. Several alleged Bandidos have signed plea deals in the latter case, involving the murder of a man who sought to form a chapter of the California-based Hells Angels in Bandidos-dominated Texas. That leaves McLennan County officials pondering the extremely expensive proposition of further court action involving 154 indicted Twin Peaks bikers — including, once more, Jake Carrizal. It also complicates matters for District Attorney Abel Reyna, who critics allege overplayed his hand by allowing political ambition to override a police investigation unlike any undertaken in the United States — and casting many bikers, attorneys and law enforcement personnel into a legal labyrinth as confounding as the nation’s resilient outlaw biker culture.