The civil rights violation lawsuits filed by bikers arrested after the Twin Peaks shootout will remain in Austin but must wait to proceed until after the criminal cases are disposed of, a federal judge in Austin ruled.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, in separate orders filed Wednesday, denied a motion from McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna and other civil suit defendants to transfer the civil cases from Sparks’ Austin court to a federal judge in Waco.
Sparks also granted a defense motion to stay all proceedings in the 15 civil lawsuits until after the Twin Peaks criminal matters are resolved.
Fifteen bikers, arrested along with more than 160 others after the deadly May 17, 2015, shootout at Twin Peaks, have filed lawsuits in Sparks’ court claiming they were arrested unlawfully.
Eight of the 15 plaintiffs are not among the 154 bikers who have been indicted on identical engaging in organized criminal activity charges, and three of those eight allege in their lawsuits they hadn’t arrived in Waco yet when the shootout occurred.
Besides Reyna, the civil lawsuits name former Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman, Waco Detective Manuel Chavez and an unknown state trooper as defendants.
No trial dates have been set for the criminal cases.
In his ruling to stay the civil proceedings, Sparks noted that “the plaintiff’s alleged claims and criminal charge are so closely interrelated that resolving the civil claims may impugn any conviction. . . . Most importantly, plaintiff’s civil claims challenge the legality of his arrest, which may directly implicate or invalidate any conviction in his criminal case.”
Dallas attorney Don Tittle, who represents the 15 bikers in Sparks’ court, argued against staying the civil suits, saying a number of his clients are not facing pending indictments and it could take years before all the criminal cases are resolved.
“While we may have to wait a little longer for accountability than we had hoped, we respect the judge’s decision to put these cases on hold for now,” Tittle said. “My goal was to establish venue in Austin for the civil cases, and we did just that. Once the criminal cases are resolved, justice is going to come for Mr. Reyna and company in the form of an Austin federal court jury. The court recognized that Twin Peaks is not a ‘Waco issue,’ but one affecting communities throughout Texas where detained or arrested bikers reside.”
Sparks suggested at the hearing that Reyna has a conflict of interest in prosecuting the cases because the civil lawsuits have created for him a financial interest in the outcomes of the criminal cases.
Calling the scenario a “Catch-22” situation, the judge wondered aloud how the criminal cases could proceed until Reyna is replaced by a special prosecutor.
“That’s the reason I called this little powwow,” Sparks said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “Here, we’ve got lawsuits wherein the chief of police, policemen and the district attorney are sued, which would normally mean that I can’t do anything in this case until the criminal case is over. And I noticed in the paper where they’re seeking to disqualify the district attorney, but that won’t eliminate the problem.
“So the criminal case won’t be able to proceed because the defendants have a personal interest. I can’t proceed because of the criminal case. So if y’all have any novel way of trying to break up this logjam, I’ll be glad to listen to you, but I don’t see anything until the — somebody comes in outside of Waco to prosecute these cases.”
Neither Reyna nor Tom Brandt, the attorney who represented him at the hearing, returned phone calls from the Tribune-Herald seeking comment. Reyna testified at a hearing last month in which two bikers sought to disqualify him from the Twin Peaks cases that he speaks to all Waco media outlets, “with the exception of the Tribune-Herald.”
Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court, who presided over the disqualification hearing, has not ruled on the issue. Johnson is waiting to review legal arguments from both sides before issuing his order.
At the June hearing in Austin, Waco attorney Charles Olson, who represents Stroman and Chavez, argued that the law is clear that criminal cases take precedence over civil cases.
“It’s been a year, and y’all don’t even know who is going to prosecute these cases, which is inexcusable,” Sparks said.
Brandt told the judge that all of the “150-something” cases Reyna’s office presented to the grand jury were indicted.
“Makes one wonder why they indicted 150 people,” the judge said. “I don’t need a comment on that. It’s just so far from all of the experiences I’ve had. It’s just staggering to think of the problems.”
The motions to disqualify Reyna pending in Johnson’s court were filed by Dallas attorney Clint Broden on behalf of bikers Matthew Clendennen and Burton George Bergman and by Houston attorney Abigail Anastasio, who represents biker Ray Nelson. They allege Reyna also should be disqualified because he crossed the line between prosecutor and police officer.
Broden’s motion alleges that Reyna “interjected himself and his staff” shortly after the shootout and “countermanded the decision by the (Waco police) upper chain of command in an act of political opportunism.”
Testimony from the hearing last month showed that Waco police officials had already interviewed, identified and photographed a busload of bikers detained that afternoon and decided to send them home when Reyna and two of his top assistants arrived at the Waco Convention Center, where bikers were being held.
After that, almost every biker was jailed on identical charges under $1 million bonds after Reyna gave orders to arrest anyone with ties to rival biker groups the Bandidos or Cossacks, the motions allege.
Reyna and Stroman testified at the hearing that the mass arrests were Stroman’s ultimate decision, after conferring with his assistant chiefs and Reyna.