By the evening of May 17, 2015, the bodies of nine dead bikers had been cleared from the parking lot of the Twin Peaks restaurant, and the Waco Police Department was working America’s deadliest episode of biker violence as a murder case.
Police worked overtime at the crime scene processing evidence and collecting guns, knives, brass knuckles and a tomahawk, some of the weapons stashed in toilets, flower beds and restaurant kitchen cabinets.
Across town at the Waco Convention Center that Sunday evening, more police were taking photos and fingerprints from bikers who had been bused from the restaurant with their wrists bound in plastic ties.
Supervised by Detective J.R. Price, a 40-year veteran police investigator, police gathered photos and contact information from the bikers. They had just released a whole busload of bikers, planning to summon them later as witnesses.
That was when District Attorney Abel Reyna walked in with his assistants and an audacious new game plan. Anyone associated with either rival motorcycle group, the Cossacks or the Bandidos, would be arrested as members of “criminal street gangs,” Reyna said.
No more bikers would be released, and many of the 177 arrested that night would spend the next several weeks jailed on million-dollar bonds.
It was a risky legal strategy, one that had never been tried on this scale: Throw a wide net around a complicated crime scene and charge everyone involved with engaging in organized criminal activity.
The failure of that strategy has become clear three years later, as prosecutors dismiss most of the cases, the district attorney prepares to exit and 130 bikers line up to sue McLennan County, alleging civil rights violations.
Reyna, 45, did not respond to requests for comments for this story and has declined to speak to the Tribune-Herald for a number of years, with few exceptions.
Bikers in limbo
In the last three years, the 192 bikers arrested in the Twin Peaks shootout have lived under a cloud. Some have languished in jail, lost jobs, lost vehicles or lost spouses. In some cases, ex-wives used their arrests to seek modifications in child custody or visitation orders. Most were under strict bond conditions that restricted their travel and freedom to associate with their friends.
“It has cost me business,” said John Wilson, a Waco Cossacks member at the time of the shootout whose case was dismissed this month. “I had my name slandered. It has put stress on my marriage. It has been hard on my wife. It caused her a lot of anxiety and problems she shouldn’t have had to deal with. You go to bed every night with a cloud hanging over your head, not knowing what the outcome is going to be. I don’t know how you put it on a scale and weigh it, but it is pretty heavy.”
The Twin Peaks debacle may also have ended a promising political career for Reyna, who defeated a 24-year incumbent in 2011. He will leave office in January after an overwhelming defeat in the March primary in which his opponent accused him of corruption and prosecutorial overreach.
Since the electoral defeat, Reyna’s office has dismissed cases en masse and has re-indicted the remaining defendants on a variety of charges including riot, murder and tampering with evidence, superseding the original organized crime charges.
The remaining defendants include Jacob Carrizal, the Bandidos Dallas chapter president who was tried in November. The jury could reach no verdict on the charges of engaging in organized criminal activity, and Carrizal was freed on bond after the mistrial. Carrizal, 36, is set for a new trial Sept. 10 on a first-degree felony riot charge.
Meanwhile, the raft of civil lawsuits stemming from the Twin Peaks cases leaves the city and county in potential financial jeopardy.
Among the plaintiffs is Wilson, who was president of the six-member Waco Cossacks chapter at the time. The charges against his son, Jacob, were also dismissed earlier this month.
Wilson and his son own and operate the Legend Cycles shop on Interstate 35. He said it was a young, growing business and they were in the process of moving to a new location when Twin Peaks happened. Since then, there has been a dramatic decrease in business, he said.
”I just offer prayers for everybody touched by it, from any side of it,” he said. “It was a terrible thing for anybody involved in it to go through, and I just pray that everybody can go on with their lives and be made whole again and that those who didn’t do anything wrong will be fully exonerated.”
Wilson said he and his son were on the patio before the shootout. He stepped outside on the sidewalk and ducked behind a row of motorcycles when the fight erupted.
”I took cover behind those motorcycles I was standing behind, and the firing continued and there were people falling around me,” Wilson said. “As soon as there was a little slack in the fire, I ran through the gate to the patio and into the main dining room. I was looking out the window when the cops came in.”
Law enforcement officers visited Wilson at his shop in late March or early April 2015 to discuss the rift between the Cossacks and Bandidos. The officers warned him that the Bandidos were coming to get him, but at that time, the motorcycle coalition meeting had not been planned at Twin Peaks.
”They apparently knew the Bandidos were coming to Twin Peaks, but they didn’t call me before and ask us not to be there or I wouldn’t have gone,” Wilson said. “And I would have passed the word along to the others, and there probably wouldn’t have been anybody there. But that didn’t happen.”
Seven of those killed were Cossacks, one was a Bandido and the ninth was unaffiliated.
The span of three years has not brought clear answers to the basic questions of the Twin Peaks shootout: Why did it happen? Why did it happen at a crowded suburban shopping center in Waco while patrons were enjoying a leisurely Sunday lunch?
Why didn’t law enforcement officers, who arrived ahead of time and set up a surveillance camera in the parking lot, alert Bandidos there were 100 Cossacks on the patio area and suggest they not stop there? Why didn’t they ask the Cossacks to move along to avoid a potential conflict?
Prosecutors said during the Carrizal trial that the dispute between the biker groups stemmed from a beef over territory and the Cossacks’ right to wear the word “Texas” on a “bottom rocker” patch on their vests. Bandidos claim Texas as their territory, and other groups must seek their permission to wear the Texas rocker, prosecutors and state witnesses said.
The Cossacks, a smaller group that started in East Texas, reportedly claimed Waco as “their town,” prosecutors said.
Carrizal and other defense witnesses disputed the notion that anyone has to seek permission from Bandidos’ leadership to wear the Texas rockers or to ride in Texas, saying the Bandidos are moving away from their past reputation as an outlaw biker gang.
Defense attorneys in the Twin Peaks cases agree that Reyna’s office overstepped its bounds in calling for the mass arrest and indicting 155 bikers on identical charges before conducting an investigation to determine who was responsible for what.
Fort Worth attorney Brian Bouffard represented Jorge Salinas, a decorated Marine combat veteran from Bell County whose Twin Peaks case has now been dismissed.
Bouffard said the only other comparison he can make to the Twin Peaks case is the 2006 sexual assault and kidnapping case involving three Duke University lacrosse team members. Former Durham County, North Carolina District Attorney Michael Nifong was disbarred for ethical violations in the case and jailed briefly for contempt of court, while the players were exonerated.
“The Twin Peaks case is like a corrupt politician looked at the Duke lacrosse case and said, ‘Hold my beer. I think I can outdo Mike Nifong in the horrible-human-being-with-government-authority department,’ ” Bouffard said. “It is three years later and they are just now presumably charging things appropriately, and only because we pushed back, and because Reyna lost the election because we pushed back.”
Bouffard said he thinks Reyna was “truly blinded” by political ambition and thought the case would make him a rising star in the state GOP.
“I think Reyna would still have this thing going for eight years if he hadn’t lost the election,” Bouffard said.
Reyna did not start dismissing the Twin Peaks cases until defense attorneys pushed to get him on the witness stand to testify about his involvement in how the cases evolved. They alleged Reyna crossed the line between prosecutor and police officer at the crime scene that night. They have said Reyna should have been disqualified for that action and because the civil lawsuits give him a financial interest in seeing that bikers go to prison.
The attorneys also wanted to call Reyna’s past and current assistants who had made a variety of accusations against him in sworn affidavits. Among those accusations are that he dismissed criminal cases for his friends and campaign donors, was under investigation by the FBI and was delivered cocaine by the client of a local attorney, who was present when he told his story to FBI agents.
Reyna even went to the unusual step of trying to recuse Judge Ralph Strother on the morning of a hearing at which Reyna had been subpoenaed.
After Reyna received a letter last year from the U.S. attorney in San Antonio saying that some of the evidence compiled by federal prosecutors in the trial of two top Bandidos leaders may be relevant to the Twin Peaks cases, Reyna asked for additional delays until the federal prosecutors shared their information with his office.
The U.S. attorney said they would not share the information until after the trial in San Antonio, which is only now coming to a close after almost three months.
Reyna’s attorney in the civil suit also argued that a stay in the civil proceedings should remain until after federal authorities share the information with Reyna’s office.
Dallas attorney Don Tittle, who represents about 100 of the 130 bikers who have filed civil rights lawsuits, questioned the tactic.
“In approximately two months, the judge will determine whether it is appropriate to lift the stay,” Tittle said. “At the last hearing, on Reyna’s behalf, his counsel made a statement in open court that that information was crucial to these cases. But then, they go and dismiss more than 100 of the cases without ever receiving anything from San Antonio. So it turns out, they never needed that information. It had nothing to do with their reasons for the postponement.”
During the Carrizal trial, defense attorney Casie Gotro routinely asked for delays in the proceedings by accusing the state trial team, of which Reyna was a part, of withholding evidence to which she was entitled.
Late in the trial, she offered a secretly recorded conversation she had with Assistant Attorney General Christopher Lindsey, who served as a legal liaison between the Department of Public Safety and local prosecutors.
Lindsey told Gotro on the recording that Reyna’s office was not “assuming their responsibilities” when it came to Twin Peaks discovery and that the office was “double dealing” and “hiding things.”
Lindsey said a Texas Ranger involved in the investigation told Lindsey that he and Reyna got into “a bit of an argument” because the Ranger thought certain items were subject to discovery and Reyna, who disagreed, told him to “hang onto” the evidence.
“At the end of our conversation, I told him, ‘You need to stop talking to Abel. You need to stop talking to (former prosecutor Michael) Jarrett. They are not on our side,’ ” Lindsey said on the recording. “… You can’t trust your own local prosecutor? Not in this case. Nope. Not even a little bit.”
Lindsey told Gotro that soon after he was assigned to the Carrizal case, “it became immediately apparent” that her accusation that Reyna was withholding evidence was true.
“Abel is going to start pointing the finger at my guys,” Lindsey said of the Rangers and DPS officials involved in the investigation. “We know full well, and I don’t want to be in a situation that when this thing craters, and it will, we get caught in the blast zone.”
Reyna’s political career could not survive the three years’ worth of attacks from Twin Peaks lawyers and a mistrial in the Twin Peaks case that he personally chose to try first. To make matters worse, he was scolded by a visiting judge the day before the primary election for using the images of then-indicted bikers in his campaign advertising.
Reyna was defeated by Republican challenger Barry Johnson, 60 percent to 40 percent.
The 155 indicted cases dumped at once into the criminal justice system put a strain on court operations and on county resources. Judge Matt Johnson and Judge Ralph Strother, the county’s two felony court judges, tried to deal with the Twin Peaks cases while maintaining their regular dockets.
“I can’t comment on any specific pending cases, but I will say, generally, the Twin Peaks saga has been the most unusual experience I’ve had in nearly 20 years on the bench,” Strother said.
Johnson declined comment because he still has 14 pending Twin Peaks cases in his court. Strother has 10.
Yet, last week, after Strother signed dismissals for 42 bikers, he said, “I was very happy to sign the dismissals.”
Waco police officials, including Chief Ryan Holt and Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, who became well-known in the aftermath of the shootout for his regular briefings to the media, referred questions about the Twin Peaks anniversary to the city legal department.
Waco City Attorney Jennifer Richie also declined comment because the city and past and current city employees are defendants in the federal civil rights lawsuits pending in Austin. She said the city will defend itself in court, not in the media.
Speculation about the financial hit McLennan County could endure as a result of the May 17, 2015, Twin Peaks biker melee has ranged from minim…
AUSTIN — Attorneys hoping to proceed with civil rights lawsuits on behalf of bikers arrested after the 2015 Twin Peaks shootout left court dis…
Tittle thinks the mass dismissal of Twin Peaks cases proves what he and others have said all along — that officials should have investigated the cases before rushing into arrests or indictments.
“They took no time in assessing these from an individual standpoint, and, all of a sudden, they spend a few minutes per individual case and they realize how completely uninvolved the vast majority of these individuals really were,” Tittle said.
Tittle said that while there has been “an awful lot of attention on the wrongdoing of Mr. Reyna, let’s not forget the police chief (Brent Stroman) joined arms with Reyna from day one and has claimed equal responsibility” for making the decision for the mass arrests.
“I suspect that from the city’s standpoint, that is going to be a critical error in judgment,” Tittle said. “He claimed in a very unconvincing manner that it was his call. But the paperwork generated from that day’s investigation makes it very clear that Reyna was driving the bus. But at the end of the day, Stroman linked arms with Reyna. He said it at the time and he has sworn to it since, and that has the ramifications that it has.”
Dallas attorney Clint Broden jumped to the forefront initially with aggressive motions seeking a speedy trial for one of his clients, Matthew Clendennen. A special prosecutor dismissed Clendennen’s case, saying there was not probable cause to arrest him.
“This has been an absolute debacle,” Broden said. “I have never seen anything like this in my life. I have never seen a case where they wind up dismissing 90 percent of the indictments they filed. This is unprecedented in the annals of jurisprudence. It all started with a bang and ended in a whimper, but in the overall scheme of things, it should serve as an object lesson to prosecutors and law enforcement everywhere.”