Nine bikers lay dead or dying, their bodies sprawled on the grounds at Twin Peaks amid pools of blood and an arsenal of weapons.
Officers from multiple local and state jurisdictions converged on the chaotic scene one year ago, trying to process what had transpired, tending to more than 20 who were injured and attempting to restore order to what previously had been a quiet Sunday in Waco.
Busloads of bikers, most of whom had brought weapons of some sort with them to the May 17, 2015, regional meeting of the Texas Coalition of Clubs and Independents, were taken to the Waco Convention Center, where they were identified and interviewed by police.
Sgt. J.R. Price, head of the Waco Police Department’s Special Crimes Unit, was directing what he thought at the time was a capital murder investigation. But that’s when McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna arrived with two of his top assistants, Michael Jarrett and Mark Parker.
More than 60 bikers already had been processed, interviewed, photographed and sent home when Reyna put a halt to the interviews and called a meeting in one of the conference rooms. He also put a halt to anyone going anywhere but to jail.
Waco PD’s ongoing investigation soon shifted its focus from capital murder charges to engaging in organized criminal activity charges, based on identical arrest affidavits prepared by Reyna’s office. Price told Reyna that he wasn’t so sure about the new charges, reminding Reyna that his detectives already were in the middle of a capital murder investigation.
He questioned Reyna about what criteria he planned to use to support such a charge. Reyna said the Texas Department of Public Safety had classified biker groups Bandidos and Cossacks as criminal street gangs.
The DA ordered any members of those two groups or members of their support groups to be arrested on engaging in organized criminal activity charges.
Price notes in reports that he was aware of ongoing dust-ups across the state between Bandidos and Cossacks prior to the May 17 Twin Peaks shootout and says the DPS shared its intelligence with the department about the feud between the biker groups.
Reyna explained to Price that his justification for the charges was that both groups were designated by DPS intelligence as criminal street gangs, despite the Cossacks not being listed as one prior to the Twin Peaks incident.
Since the Twin Peaks shootout — a McLennan County law enforcement episode rivaled only by the 1993 Branch Davidian incident in terms of its scope, complexity and death toll — 154 bikers have been indicted on first-degree felony charges that allege they were acting as members of a criminal street gang that day.
In all, 192 people were jailed in the May 17 incident, including 15 who later were named in sealed indictments because most were wounded and had not been arrested yet.
In the year since the shootout, attorneys for bikers have demanded examining hearings to challenge probable cause, filed motions alleging their rights to speedy trials have been violated, challenged a gag order entered into the case involving one Hewitt biker only, appealed bond amounts, negotiated lower bonds, and have filed at least one aborted claim to move one biker’s case from McLennan County.
Police and prosecutors have declined public comment since the gag order was issued, but attorneys for bikers have railed against law enforcement and prosecutors in McLennan County and the criminal justice system overall.
They claim authorities, including Reyna and Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, the department spokesman, conspired to poison any potential jury pool with misinformation and exaggerations about bikers and the biker community.
“Obviously, May 17 was a tragic event that occurred in our community. The wheels of justice may not turn as fast as some people may like them to, but this is not a TV movie. This is reality,” Swanton said. “The unfortunate part of this is it takes a while for things to occur. That is the nature of the justice system.
“Having said that, as it does move forward, I think people will see that we have a police force in Waco that they should be very proud of. They have a criminal justice system they should be very proud of. The actions of our officers that day protected innocent civilians, and had they not taken the appropriate action that they did, the death toll could have been much worse and innocent civilians could have lost their lives.”
Swanton declined to answer specific questions about the Twin Peaks incident, citing the gag order.
Bikers have challenged being labeled “gangs” and say the vast majority arrested are not so-called “1 percenters,” or members of a criminal street gang, but hard working, law-abiding motorcycle enthusiasts who came to Waco that day to hear a legislative update about bikers’ rights.
At various hearings during the past year, prosecutors have painted all vest-wearing bikers as members of the Cossacks or Bandidos or one of their support groups who came to Waco armed to the teeth in a show of strength and solidarity with one particular side or the other.
Still reviewing evidence
While indictments are pending, prosecutors have said in hearings that they will not be ready to go to trial for possibly many months down the road because state and federal agencies still are reviewing DNA, cellphone evidence, ballistics and other forensic evidence gathered at the massive crime scene.
Reyna and Jarrett, Reyna’s first assistant district attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story, continuing Reyna’s two-year refusal to speak to the Tribune-Herald.
An attorney from Houston is set to file a motion Tuesday seeking to disqualify Reyna and his office from prosecuting the cases, saying his role the day of the shootout potentially could make him a witness in the case.
Reyna also has not spoken about the logistics of adding 154 new cases to the dockets of Waco’s two primary felony courts, nor has he consulted in detail with the judges about how they would like the bikers’ cases to progress through the system.
No trial dates have been set and the district attorney’s office has requested no civil hearings in the forfeiture of 27 vehicles seized from those reportedly involved in the shootout. Prosecutors filed notices in June that they intend to forfeit 17 motorcycles, eight pickup trucks and two SUVs, alleging the vehicles are contraband used in the commission of crimes.
The district attorney’s office also has not presented evidence to a grand jury concerning the actions of the three Waco police officers who fired a total of 12 rounds at Twin Peaks that day.
Through the end of April, McLennan County has spent $64,609 on fees submitted in Twin Peaks’ cases by court-appointed attorneys. McLennan County also spent $25,522 in defense of a federal lawsuit filed by one of the bikers that was withdrawn but since refiled.
Another lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Travis County by Diego Obledo, the father of six children who said he lost his job as a real estate analyst for USAA in San Antonio as a result of his arrest and indictment.
The lawsuit names as defendants Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman, Reyna and police Officer Manuel Chavez, who served the identical arrest warrant affidavits, branded “cookie-cutter” by defense attorneys.
“We have received these lawsuits and we are actively litigating them,” said Waco City Attorney Jennifer Richie, declining additional comment.
According to the lawsuit, Obledo is a former member of the Texas Guard who was not wearing a vest or jacket and had nothing to identify him as a member of a motorcycle club because he was not a member of any club.
The suit says Obledo is a member of the Christian Motorcycle Association and was carrying the New Testament in his pocket. He came to Waco with friends who are in the Valerosos Motorcycle Club, the suit says.
The 34-page lawsuit alleges a variety of constitutional violations, including the right against unlawful arrest and unlawful search and seizure.
The lawsuit alleges that video evidence “clearly shows that the vast majority of those present, including plaintiff, appeared surprised and confused upon hearing the initial gunfire, and further, clearly shows the vast majority of those present, including plaintiff, running away from the disturbance, not toward it. The video evidence clearly and unambiguously proves the complete lack of involvement in the disturbance of the vast majority present, including plaintiff,” the lawsuit, filed by Dallas attorney Don Tittle, alleges.
Obledo’s lawsuit is the seventh federal suit filed in federal court in Travis County over the Twin Peaks incident, with more to follow, Tittle said.
“Diego Objedo was not a member of a motorcycle club,” Tittle said. “He was not even a prospect of a motorcycle club. This theory of guilt by association is suspect at best. When you have a guy who is not a member of any motorcycle club, this truly is a gross violation of the guy’s rights. Not to mention he lost an $80,000-a-year job over this.”
Waiving their rights
Many of the bikers have complained that their cases are languishing in the criminal justice system despite their attempts to go to trial immediately, even to the point of waiving their rights to full discovery in the case.
But the reality is that cases set in coming weeks on the trial dockets of the county’s two criminal courts are from 2013 and 2014. It is not unusual for cases to take more than a year to reach trial.
Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the expectation of some bikers and their attorneys to have already gone to trial is “unrealistic.”
“It was a pretty unusual set of circumstances,” he said. “With so many people and so much action, I think it is unrealistic to think you could get those cases to trial in a year. That is pretty unrealistic. We have seen a lot of less-complicated cases take a lot more time to get to trial. I am not surprised that the state needs more time to put it together.”
Kepple, a former prosecutor with 30 years’ experience, would not speculate about how he would have handled the situation had he been in the shoes of McLennan County officials, saying he can’t recall one that is remotely similar.
“I am not going to second-guess, largely because this is an extraordinary set of circumstances,” he said. “Trying to figure out how to handle this, everybody can say they would have done this, that or the other. But the reality is, from what I can tell, there was only a couple of people in the box that could make the call and it was an extraordinary situation. The last time I checked, no one else got killed the next day. Peace was maintained in what could have been a very dangerous circumstance.”
But that hasn’t kept defense attorneys, particularly Paul Looney, of Houston, from going on the offensive. He has sought early dismissals of the charges and pushed to be the first to go to trial with his client.
Looney said he thinks Reyna merely is “baby-sitting” the cases for federal authorities in San Antonio while they continue building cases against the Bandidos and Cossacks and name them in superseding indictments.
“They physically can’t try all of those folks in Waco, but I don’t think they intend to,” Looney said. “I think they are waiting for the feds to have a superseding indictment and then hand them all over. It is common sense. State prosecutors have baby-sat people for the last 30 years waiting for the feds to get their indictments together.
“That would explain why they don’t care how many they arrested and explains why the only time they panic is when someone says, ‘Give me a trial setting.’ It explains why they are not asking for additional prosecutors, why they are not asking for additional judges, even when there is free money from the state to pay for it. It would explain all the bizarre stuff they have been doing. They indicted them to keep them in the system so they would know where to find them at any given moment.”
A federal grand jury in San Antonio indicted three national leaders of the Bandidos in January, charging them with racketeering and waging a deadly “war” on the Cossacks.
The indictment alleges three Bandido leaders sanctioned a three-year fight that included violent clashes with rival gangs and distribution of methamphetamine.