A judge, who said Friday he has been “troubled by the whole Twin Peaks matter from its inception,” put off the trials of bikers in his court until after the first of the year because he wants the new McLennan County district attorney to review how the remaining Twin Peaks cases will be handled.
Judge Ralph Strother, the morning after conducing a daylong pretrial hearing in Twin Peaks defendant Tom Modesto Mendez’s first-degree felony riot case, decided on his own to postpone Mendez’s trial, which was set to start Sept. 10.
Strother denied a motion Thursday by Mendez’s attorney to throw out the indictment after prosecutors agreed to amend language in the riot indictment that more closely tracks wording in the statute.
Both sides have been preparing for weeks for the Mendez case, and each side had scheduled witnesses, some from out of state, to be ready to go Sept. 10.
The sexual assault trial of former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman had been set for Sept. 10 as a backup to the Mendez case, but it, too, was pushed back Friday. Strother granted the delay in that case, which Oakman’s attorney requested a few hours after Mendez’s delay, saying a character witness who is out of state cannot be subpoenaed in time for Sept. 10.
It was Strother, even more than Mendez’s attorney, Jaime Peña, who questioned prosecutors Thursday about the riot indictment and expressed concerns that they, in effect, had turned what normally is a Class B misdemeanor into a crime that possibly subjects the defendants to life in prison.
Mendez’s trial would have been the second in the May 2015 Twin Peaks restaurant shootout that left nine dead and 20 wounded.
The judge made his decision Friday after a conference call in his office between prosecutors Robert Moody and Gabrielle Massey and Peña, of McAllen. Moody was visibly upset by the judge’s decision but declined comment afterward.
Peña said he was looking forward to going to trial to prove Mendez’s innocence, but he said thinks the judge made a “wise decision.”
“I think a fresh set of eyes re-evaluating how the state is pursuing these cases is warranted,” Peña said. “That is essentially what the judge is saying. He wants to push it into the new year and let the new DA look at this.”
Barry Johnson beat incumbent DA Abel Reyna by 20 percentage points in the March Republican primary and will run unopposed in November. Johnson, who takes office in January, said during the campaign that one of the first things he will do is assemble a team to review the remaining Twin Peaks cases.
Reyna has not attended any of the numerous hearings involving Twin Peaks defendants since he lost the primary.
The first Twin Peaks case was tried last year in Judge Matt Johnson’s 54th State District Court. That trial, involving Bandidos Dallas chapter president Jacob Carrizal, ended in a mistrial after the jury could not reach a verdict on three counts of engaging in organized criminal activity.
Since then, Reyna’s office has dismissed the majority of the 155 indicted cases and has re-indicted two dozen of the original defendants on first-degree felony riot charges.
Johnson has two Twin Peaks defendants, Jacob Reese, of Mount Pleasant, and Timothy Shayne Satterwhite, of Gordon, set for trial in his court Nov. 5.
Strother has no more bikers set for trial in his court this year.
The problem for the DA’s office is that, like Carrizal before him, prosecutors picked Mendez, Bandidos San Antonio chapter president, as the next case they wanted to try. Prosecutors have said they have video of Mendez firing a weapon and then taking off his black sweatshirt in an attempt to hide his identity.
In a transcript of the judge’s Friday morning chambers conference reviewed by the Tribune-Herald, Strother describes his uneasiness with the Twin Peaks cases but says he is comfortable with his ruling not to quash the indictment.
“I’m not so concerned about, as I said, about whether or not I made the right ruling, but there’s still, there’s everything that’s legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right,” Strother said. “We have a new district attorney coming in in January, and I am considering whether or not it would be better to have the new administration take a look at these matters. Whether it will change a thing or not, I cannot say. It may or it may not.”
Massey said she “strongly opposed” the judge’s decision to postpone the trial.
“Honestly, I think it’s a little inappropriate for the court to be making its own judgments on whether it is the charge or not,” Moody said. “I think that’s for a jury.”
After the judge’s surprise ruling, it appeared Oakman’s sexual assault trial, which has had a priority setting since mid-May, would start Sept. 10 in place of Mendez.
Instead, Oakman’s attorney, Alan Bennett, filed a motion a few hours later to postpone the trial because an important character witness for Oakman, former Baylor coach Brian Norwood, is out of state and could not be subpoenaed in time to be at the trial. Strother granted the motion and said Oakman’s trial would be set in December.
Norwood, who coached at Baylor from 2008 to 2014, recruited Oakman, who transferred to Baylor from Penn State University. Norwood is in his first year as co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State University.
Oakman, a former Baylor defensive end, was indicted on charges that he sexually assaulted a Baylor student at his apartment in April 2016, after his time on the football team had ended. He has said he dated the woman previously and that the sexual encounter was consensual.
Two other former Baylor defensive ends have been convicted on sexual assault charges amid the sexual assault scandal at Baylor in the last few years. Tevin Elliott was convicted in 2014 and Sam Ukwuachu in 2015.