In the two years since James “Patrick” Harris was arrested after the Twin Peaks shootout in Waco, he lost the lease on his apartment, was rejected for a job with a state health and human services agency and was kicked out of Mexico while on the way to work with sick children and Dr. Patch Adams.
All because he rode to Waco with a few friends as members of the Grim Guardian motorcycle group on May 17, 2015, he said.
Judy Bergman said her husband, George, hardly rides his motorcycle anymore. It used to be his passion. Now he rides occasionally with his son.
She said her husband, who owns his own trucking company in the Dallas area, has to be careful when he drives because police officers who initially pull him over for a defective taillight come back to his cab with their hands on their guns and order him out of his truck after checking records and finding his arrest at Twin Peaks.
He once delivered goods to Army bases and other areas with high security. Not anymore, she said.
A lot has happened in the two years since nine bikers died and 20 others were injured during a meeting of the Texas Coalition of Clubs & Independents at the former restaurant known for its cold beer and scantily clad waitresses. The restaurant never reopened, and the building is up for sale.
The McLennan County District Attorney’s Office sought and obtained indictments on 155 of the almost 200 bikers arrested in the wake of the shootout; federal civil rights suits have been filed on behalf of more than 100 bikers, including one seeking $1 billion in damages; there were efforts to disqualify District Attorney Abel Reyna from the criminal cases; millions of documents have been released to defense attorneys through the discovery process; and bikers have rallied on the courthouse steps to decry their treatment at the hands of Waco and McLennan County officials.
Pretty much the only thing that hasn’t happened is a trial, criminal or civil. And with multiple complicating factors at play, the prospect of trials anytime soon is still in limbo.
While most everyone, including 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother, agrees that the incident presented officials with a unique situation, there are varying opinions about how best to move forward.
‘A life of its own’
“It is an unprecedented set of circumstances, one that I have never seen or been involved in my legal career as a lawyer or judge,” Strother said. “I am trying to look at it as I am supposed to, from every point of view. I appreciate the dilemma that everyone involved in this is in.
“It is a very unique set of circumstances and situations that, because of the complexity of it, has taken on a life of its own. I wish I had a better answer about how to resolve it, but eventually this, too, shall pass. But it is probably not gong to be as quickly as everyone would like.”
The criminal trials have been held up, in part, by the sheer volume of evidence that had to be analyzed, including social media and cellphone messages and images, DNA, ballistics, videos, photos and more. Despite the quick indictments, the DA’s office simply wasn’t ready to go to trial because of the mounds of evidence waiting to be tested and analyzed.
A federal investigation that led to the indictments of national Bandidos leaders also has complicated matters. Federal authorities have told Reyna a portion of their evidence in the case involves defendants arrested at Twin Peaks. Under the Michael Morton Act, Reyna is bound to turn over all evidence to defense attorneys before trial, and federal authorities have said they won’t share their evidence with Reyna until after the trial in San Antonio is over. That trial recently was postponed from August to early 2018.
Still, there are attorneys for Twin Peaks defendants who have been clamoring for speedy trials since not long after their clients were freed from jail. They say they don’t need to wait to see the federal evidence because their clients did nothing more than attend the COC&I meeting and dive for cover when the shooting started.
Trial dates are set, but officials think there is a strong possibility they will be postponed on motions from the defense or prosecution.
Since the beginning, Dallas attorney Clint Broden pushed the hardest for speedy justice for his clients, Matthew Clendennen, George Bergman and Richard Luther. Broden is also co-counsel with Dallas attorney Don Tittle for 40 of the 98 bikers Tittle represents in federal civil rights lawsuits.
“Lost in the constant delays sought by the state is the tragic death of nine Texas citizens,” Broden said. “Yet, to this day, the Waco Police Department has refused to tell the public how many of those nine killed were killed by law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, the Sword of Damocles hangs over the heads of those indicted and, even two years later, these motorcyclists and their families are being denied justice and are unable to move on with their lives because there is absolutely no end in sight as a result of the state’s delaying tactics.
“Also, during the past two years and likely into the next decade, McLennan County citizens are being asked to absorb the staggering financial burden of the ill-conceived actions by their elected district attorney.”
Reyna, who testified at an early Twin Peaks hearing that he speaks to all media outlets except the Tribune-Herald, did not return phone messages left at his office.
Tittle said two years is a long time for innocent people to have criminal charges hanging over their heads. Jobs have been lost, reputations have been smeared, and families have been placed under undue hardships, he said.
“Of all the shocking things associated with this fiasco, I’d have to say that the general lack of concern and outrage from the media and the public is the most disappointing thing of all,” Tittle said. “These are not just technicalities we’re talking about. These are real people’s lives, and no one seems to give a damn. Not speaking up just because one isn’t like ‘these people’ is not an excuse. Trust me, they’re just like all of us.
“As was famously said many years ago, the danger in not speaking up is that when they come for you, there may not be anyone left to speak. Hopefully, the fact that we’re at the two-year anniversary without a single trial scheduled, and justice nowhere in sight, will jolt a few people into actually taking action.”
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, who is named as a defendant in many of the federal civil rights lawsuits, released a statement about the two-year anniversary.
“As events unfolded on 5-17-2015 and several days/weeks following, we relayed to our public the most accurate and available account of the occurrences at Twin Peaks,” Swanton wrote. “Our investigators, along with other local, state and federal officials, have worked tirelessly to prepare the cases for criminal proceedings. At this point, there is nothing additional we can release.”
Haunted by arrest
As for Harris, the 29-year-old Austin resident has not been indicted in the Twin Peaks case, but his arrest continues to haunt him. Harris recently graduated from St. Edward’s University in Austin with a master’s degree in counseling but fears any background checks will prevent him from being licensed as a professional counselor.
It was a background check that resulted in his landlord telling him he no longer is welcome there at the end of his lease and the reason he was given for not getting a job at the Department of Health and Human Services in Austin.
Harris is also one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed over Twin Peaks arrests that seeks $1 billion in damages.
But he said the most disappointing event was being forcibly removed from Mexico a few months ago while he was en route to work with Hunter "Patch" Adams, the doctor portrayed in a movie by Robin Williams who dresses as a clown and makes children laugh.
Harris met Adams at the famed physician’s Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia a few years ago and had planned to help in a clinic Adams was conducting for impoverished children in Mexico City. Harris was supposed to change planes in Guadalajara, but when officials there swiped his passport, red flags from his Twin Peaks arrest popped up.
“The officer looked at me and told me to follow him,” Harris said. “They took me to an interrogation room, left me there about an hour and came back in and asked me if I had ever been in trouble with the law. I have not been indicted and told them that, but they wanted to know about Waco and why I was there.”
After two hours of questioning, they told Harris he could not stay in Mexico. Military officers escorted him through the airport and put him on the first available flight to the United States, which happened to be going to Seattle, Harris said. He was stuck in Seattle for two days before he could make it back to Austin.
“That was among the most frustrating things. I had already paid $2,000 for my lodging and meals and everything, and I was really looking forward to the experience,” he said. “Not only was I not able to go but I lost all that money, and it was all over being arrested in Waco. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the whole ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing is fine, but until the charges are dropped, I am still in limbo. This has followed me around for two years.”
Harris was born in Houston. Both his parents were police officers, and so was his stepfather. His great-uncle was the first Hispanic police officer in Houston, and his uncle’s brother was the first Hispanic firefighter in Houston, Harris said.
The Grim Guardians work with foster children and abused kids and include among its members youth ministers, police officers, city of Austin employees and other professionals, Harris said. He and three of his riding buddies had just pulled into the Twin Peaks parking lot when the shooting started. They dove for cover behind cars, he said.
“My anger has calmed down a lot,” he said. “What Reyna and others have done to us by painting all of us with these negative images, we have an indelible mark on our records right now. Even if we win the lawsuit and they drop the charges, anyone who Googles my name, as a therapist, I can never go into private practice or open my own business.
“We live in a time where we hear about Black Lives Matter. That has portrayed police officers in an unfavorable light, but we know there are good officers and bad officers. People should have the same objective approach to bikers. No group should be painted with the same broad brush.”