McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna told former Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman that he could stand in front of a jury and prosecute 177 bikers arrested after the Twin Peaks shootout, but it was ultimately Stroman’s decision to arrest them all, Stroman and Reyna testified Monday.
Reyna, Stroman and other Waco police officials testified at a hearing in Waco’s 54th State District Court in which bikers Ray Nelson, a Cossack, and Matthew Clendennen, a Scimitar, sought to disqualify Reyna from prosecuting their cases.
Clint Broden, who represents Clendennen; and Abigail Anastasio, who represents Nelson, allege Reyna has a conflict because he, Stroman and others are being sued by 15 bikers in Austin federal court and he has a financial stake in getting convictions in the cases.
They also want Reyna replaced because they claim Reyna, not Stroman, called the shots the evening of May 17, 2015, that resulted in the mass arrests of bikers after the Twin Peaks shootout that left nine dead and more than 20 injured.
They allege Reyna stepped from his role as prosecutor and became more of a police officer, possibly becoming a witness and losing his prosecutorial immunity from civil rights lawsuits at the same time.
Judge Matt Johnson did not make a ruling after the daylong hearing. He instructed attorneys on both sides to file briefs on the issue and to resolve questions about Reyna’s potential financial exposure to the civil lawsuits.
The judge could set another hearing in September or make a ruling based on the briefs and testimony he heard Monday.
Reyna testified for about 45 minutes, telling Johnson that he realized when he got to the chaotic scene that there was a “huge, gaping hole” in the communication between officers at the crime scene and those who were identifying and interviewing bikers who had been bused to the Waco Convention Center for processing.
Reyna said he remained at Twin Peaks for five or six hours before going to the convention center with his assistants. Reyna said he was told a busload of bikers had already been processed and released before he got there.
Once Reyna got to the convention center, the release of bikers ended, Waco police officials testified Monday.
Reyna said it was Stroman who made the call that there was sufficient probable cause to arrest the bikers en masse, but it was Reyna and his assistants who decided to charge them all with engaging in organized criminal activity.
Stroman said he was out of the state when the Twin Peaks shooting occurred, but he kept up with what was happening by phone.
Stroman said one of his assistant chiefs, Robert Lanning, told him that Reyna wanted to arrest everybody, but then scaled it back to those with ties to rival groups, the Bandidos and Cossacks, or their support groups.
He said he was hearing talk of a capital murder investigation and didn’t hear about the engaging charges and $1 million bonds for each one until he returned to Waco.
Stroman said that in nearly eight years as chief, he can’t recall Reyna going to another crime scene. After making the decision to arrest the bikers, Stroman said he asked Reyna and his assistants to help draft affidavits to support the arrests.
Reyna said his assistants wrote the affidavits based on information they gathered from the large array of law enforcement officers there that day. One allegation included the erroneous claim that the Cossacks were listed on state databases as a criminal street gang.
Waco police Detective Manuel Chavez, who swore out the biker complaints, said the DA’s office prepared the affidavits and he reviewed them before seeking the warrants.
He said he did not attempt to verify the information in the affidavits and said he doesn’t know if bikers fired at police, as alleged in the complaint.
“If you can’t trust the DA’s office to give you the factual information for the warrant, then who can you trust?” Anastasio asked.
Chavez hesitated a moment, then said he trusts his fellow officers to give him correct information.
Chavez, recalled as a witness after Reyna’s testimony, told the attorneys that he never spoke with Reyna that night. That contradicted Reyna’s long narrative about how he pulled Chavez aside and instructed him to read each word of the affidavit carefully and to verify any part that he questioned because it was going to be Chavez who had to stand in front of a judge to swear it was all true.
Reyna testified he was not concerned about the federal civil rights suits because he did the right thing and will continue to do the right thing.
He said he doesn’t think he is liable personally for any potential judgments against him or for his legal fees, testifying that the Texas Association of Counties risk pool will pick up the first $500,000 and, presumably, county taxpayers would pick up anything more than that.
Lanning, who was acting chief that day in Stroman’s absence, characterized the shootout and its aftermath as “organized pandemonium.” He said it was the department’s initial intent to identify and interview the bikers and then to release them for further investigation unless they had pending charges.
Later, he said, those plans changed on the recommendation from Reyna that all bikers wearing “colors” be taken to jail. Later, that changed again to all bikers with ties to the Bandidos or Cossacks, Lanning said.
None of the top high-ranking police officials on the scene that night wanted to arrest all the bikers, Lanning said.
Lanning said he told Stroman that if all the bikers were going to be arrested, it needed to be the chief’s call because he thought a decision of that magnitude was above his pay grade and would have far-reaching and long-lasting implications.
“Part of my decision was made on the fact that this was unprecedented, nothing like this had ever happened before,” Lanning said. “I don’t think I fundamentally disagreed with the charge, or I would have said so. What was so unprecedented was the sheer number of those arrested.”