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The Wild Bunch

Two years after a deadly Waco shoot-out, the local district attorney is trying to take down the Bandidos and Cossacks biker clubs. It won’t be easy.

By April 2017Comments

A Bandido sporting the Texas “bottom rocker” patch, in San Antonio on September 2, 2006.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

It started off as a Texas version of the Sharks versus the Jets. In 2013, the Bandidos, the oldest, biggest, and most-feared outlaw motorcycle club in the state, learned that members of the Cossacks, a rapidly growing rival club, had begun wearing patches on the backs of their vests that read “Texas” in capital letters. For decades, the Bandidos had decreed that the Texas “bottom rocker” patch belonged only to them. If another club wanted to wear the patch, it would have to receive permission from the Bandidos and pay them dues. But the Cossacks contended that the Bandidos had no right to tell them what to do.

For two years, the clubs skirmished. Outside a steakhouse in Abilene, ten Bandidos and their associates assaulted and stabbed at least four Cossacks. In the town of Lorena, a group of Cossacks forced a Bandido off Interstate 35 and beat him with chains and metal pipes. At a gas station near the town of Gordon, an estimated twenty Bandidos confronted a Cossack, and when he refused to give them his vest with its Texas patch, he was beaten and struck in the head with a claw hammer.

In May 2015, word got out that Bandidos and Cossacks from around the state would be coming to Waco for the quarterly meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents, a bikers’ organization. The meeting was being held at, of all places, a Twin Peaks, one of those Hooters-like “breastaurants” where waitresses dress in midriff-baring and cleavage-revealing outfits.

On May 17, the day of the meeting, at least sixty Cossacks (along with members of a couple of other clubs that had aligned with them) showed up early at Twin Peaks and took over most of the seats on the patio. Several Waco policemen and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, who had learned that a potential confrontation was brewing, also arrived, and positioned themselves in a grassy area overlooking the restaurant.

Close to high noon, a line of Bandidos thundered toward Twin Peaks on their Harley-Davidsons. One of the Bandidos’ bikes either struck or nearly struck a prospective member of the Cossacks in the parking lot. Cossacks bounded over the patio railings, and the Bandidos were ready for them. It looked like something straight out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. Wielding clubs, brass knuckles, baseball bats, knives, and handguns, the bikers beat, stabbed, and shot one another. Three officers grabbed their rifles and opened fire, bringing down as many as four bikers. Inside Twin Peaks, there was complete pandemonium. Waitresses, bikers, and other customers dove for cover. Several people hid in the bathrooms.

The battle lasted no longer than a minute or two. When it was over, nine bikers lay dead in the parking lot. Eighteen others were injured. “In thirty-four years of law enforcement, this is the most violent crime scene I have ever been involved in,” Waco police Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton told members of the news media. “There is blood everywhere.”

The police detained 239 people and had them taken in buses to the Waco Convention Center, which had been turned into a temporary holding facility. Reporters assumed that detectives would be arresting only those bikers who were directly involved in the fight: maybe a couple dozen of the survivors. But at the recommendation of McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna, 177 bikers—all of them Bandidos, Cossacks, or men believed to be supporters of one of the two clubs—were arrested and charged with the exact same offense: “engaging in organized criminal activity,” a first-degree felony punishable by sentences ranging from fifteen years to life. A justice of the peace set identical bonds for the bikers—$1 million each—and they were hauled off to the county jail. It was one of the largest mass arrests over a single criminal incident in American history.

Over the next few months, the bonds were reduced. Twenty-two bikers had their charges dropped because of a lack of evidence connecting them to the Bandidos or Cossacks. Still, 155 bikers were eventually indicted by a grand jury. This month, nearly two years after the Twin Peaks melee, the first of the cases is scheduled to go to trial. (According to court filings, Reyna plans to try a Bandido, whose name has not yet been publicly revealed.) That trial, presumably, will be followed by another one, and then another and another, on and on—enough cases to fill up the dockets of two of Waco’s state district courts for at least two years.

Bikers parade down Texas Highway Loop 340 during an All for 1 rally in Waco on June 7, 2015.

Photograph by Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP

 

A decade ago, when I first wrote about the Bandidos (“The Gang’s All Here,” April 2007), law enforcement officials told me that the Houston-based club, which was started in 1966, was not all that different from a Mafia family. They believed that the Bandidos ran guns and drugs, extorted money from the owners of roadhouses and strip joints, and assaulted and occasionally murdered those who crossed them. Periodically, Bandidos were convicted of crimes, but the cops could never bring down the club. It continued to prosper, reaching 1,100 members (nearly half of them in Texas) by the time of the Twin Peaks fight.

The Cossacks, who got their start in 1969, in East Texas, mostly stayed under the public radar. But over the past decade, as they began to grow, drawing in younger, more aggressive members, they too attracted the attention of law enforcement. Like the Bandidos, however, the club itself didn’t suffer. Prior to the Twin Peaks fight, the Cossacks reportedly were three hundred to four hundred members strong, and they were actively seeking new recruits.

Enter Reyna. A member of a well-regarded Waco family—his father was the McLennan County district attorney in the late eighties and later a judge on the Tenth Court of Appeals—the 44-year-old Republican was elected district attorney in 2010, beating a longtime Democratic incumbent. Burly and affable, he’s known for his ability to connect with jurors. One reporter who covers the courthouse told me that he recently watched Reyna spend less than twenty minutes at a trial studying a list of sixty or so potential jurors. Then, during the voir dire examination, he called every person on that list by name, chatting pleasantly with them about their lives without once looking at his notes.

At the same time, Reyna is also known to be unyielding at trial, demanding harsh sentences even for first-time offenders. And in the aftermath of the Twin Peaks shooting, he made it clear he had little sympathy for any of the bikers who happened to be at the restaurant. In fact, Reyna had an opportunity to do something no other district attorney in Texas had ever done: seriously cripple the Bandidos and Cossacks in one fell swoop.

Reyna turned to the state’s organized-criminal-activity statute, which had originally been passed by the Legislature to make it easier for police and prosecutors to go after what the statute described as a “criminal street gang,” like the Crips or the Bloods. (The statute defines a criminal street gang as “three or more persons having a common identifying sign or symbol or an identifiable leadership who continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activities.”) Reyna claimed that both the Bandidos and Cossacks were criminal street gangs and that they had come to Twin Peaks to commit or to conspire to commit organized criminal activity, namely murder and assault. According to Reyna, even those Bandidos and Cossacks (and their respective supporters) who didn’t directly participate in the fight were in violation of the statute because they were there to support their gang. As Michael Jarrett, Reyna’s first assistant district attorney, explained in one court hearing: “The act of engaging in organized crime was committed when these people showed up in our fair county with the intent to show themselves as a show of force, both the Cossacks and their ilk and the Bandidos and their ilk.”

Reyna isn’t talking to the news media. But defense attorneys—nearly one hundred have been retained or appointed by the court—are in an uproar. They claim Reyna is going after their clients with no evidence whatsoever that they did anything wrong. “The district attorney seems to have an egomaniacal need to do something big so he can get his fifteen minutes of fame,” said Paul Looney, a well-regarded Houston attorney who represents one of the indicted bikers. “He wants to do something no one has ever done on a scale that has not been accomplished, and in the process, he’s tortured the law and he’s tortured the facts. The only thing he has accomplished is chaos.”

What most infuriates the defense attorneys are Reyna’s attempts to label the motorcycle clubs as criminal street gangs. Yes, the attorneys acknowledge, a few of the members had, on their own, committed crimes. But the majority of the men were law-abiding citizens who had no criminal records and who simply liked to go on long weekend rides with their fellow members.

What’s more, the attorneys argue, the Bandidos and Cossacks (and their respective supporters) didn’t go to Twin Peaks as part of some prearranged plan to fight their rivals. They were there only to socialize and to hear speakers discuss such topics as motorcycle-safety initiatives. The brief fight in the parking lot, the attorneys contend, was the result of an unexpected confrontation among a few hotheaded Bandidos and Cossacks that spiraled out of control. “The rest of the bikers were not even near the parking lot,” said Looney. “When they heard gunshots, they ran the other way. They were scared. How Reyna can claim that those bikers were conspiring to commit murder or assault is beyond my comprehension.”

Defense attorneys have filed at least twenty federal civil rights lawsuits against Reyna and then–Waco police chief Brent Stroman (who retired last year), charging that they and their surrogates didn’t even try to establish probable cause when they arrested the bikers. Instead, the lawsuits allege, the officials relied on generic affidavits, filled out by one police detective, that provided no specific evidence about what crime was supposedly committed by each biker. A lawsuit filed by Clint Broden and Don Tittle, Dallas attorneys who represent more than twenty of the bikers, claims that Reyna and Stroman “theorized that a conspiracy of epic proportion between dozens of people had taken place, and willfully ignored the total absence of facts to support their ‘theory.’ ” When I asked Broden if he believes Reyna knew he had gone too far when he orchestrated the mass arrests of the bikers, he replied, “I can’t get into Reyna’s head, but many mistakes were made.”

Broden and other attorneys have also filed motions in state district court seeking to disqualify Reyna and two of his top assistants from prosecuting the Twin Peaks cases. (They believe the prosecutors are potential witnesses in the trials because of the way they inserted themselves into the investigation after the shoot-out.) In a brief comment Reyna made to Texas Lawyer, he dismissed the attempts to remove him as “shenanigans.” And according to those who are close to him, he’s itching to get the trials started. He seems convinced that he will win his first couple of trials, which he believes will inspire the other indicted bikers to make plea deals.

A McLennan County deputy stands guard near a group of bikers after the Twin Peaks shoot-out in Waco on May 17, 2015.

Photograph by Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP

 

If such a scenario happens, Reyna will become one of Texas’s most celebrated prosecutors: the district attorney who took on the outlaw bikers. But if he loses, a lot of people will be calling him a fool. “A complete fool,” said Looney. “There’s nothing else to be said.”

As for the residents of Waco, they seem ready for the whole legal mess to go away. “Tying up our courtrooms for so long over some bikers?” one Waco man said to me. “A lot of people I know are saying, ‘No, thank you.’ ”

Some citizens have told reporters that they would like to see Twin Peaks demolished to help erase the memories of what happened. Although the restaurant closed after the shooting, the building is still standing, with No Trespassing signs posted out front. On weekends, curious visitors to Waco sometimes pull off I-35 and drive past, craning their necks to get a better look. Occasionally, a friend or family member of one of the bikers who died shows up and leaves behind a makeshift memorial: a bouquet of flowers, a card with a photograph, a wooden cross, chains or other trinkets. The memorials are regularly carted away by police officers or security guards from the nearby shopping center (apparently they are under orders to keep the building from being turned into a sort of sacred biker shrine). But the mourners always return, shaking their heads and wiping tears from their eyes.

Since the Twin Peaks fight, the Bandidos and Cossacks have been laying low, avoiding any confrontations, waiting to see what happens in court. In January 2016 the Bandidos suffered another serious blow when the club’s lead officers, including longtime president Jeff Pike, were indicted by a federal grand jury in San Antonio for allegedly sanctioning the commission of numerous crimes by their members, including extortion, drug trafficking, and assault and murder, in order to protect and enhance “the organization’s power, territory, reputation, and profits.” (None of the officers were charged in the Twin Peaks cases.) Early last month, four more Bandidos were arrested for the 2006 killing of a rival biker in Austin.

But anyone who thinks that any of this will bring down the Bandidos should think again. A former Texas Department of Public Safety official who investigated motorcycle clubs for fifteen years told me that another group of Bandidos has already stepped up to lead the club. “And they are just as badass as the previous officers,” he said. “Listen, the Bandidos aren’t going away. And neither are the Cossacks. Outsiders don’t understand: these bikers are more loyal to their clubs than they are to their own families. Outsiders also don’t understand that these guys have very long memories.”

When I asked him what exactly he meant, he said, “None of them are ever going to forget about Twin Peaks. For them, there is still unresolved business from that day. And no matter what law enforcement tries to do, and no matter who gets sent off to prison, the Bandidos and Cossacks will go at it again. Somewhere down the road, they’ll fight again. That’s just the biker way.”

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  • PearlsGal

    You know, the charge ‘Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity’ sounds sexy, dirty, and exciting, doesn’t it? One should look at McLennan County’s court dockets every week. Nearly 3/4 of the people in their ‘fair county’ are charged with that on a weekly basis. I have been collecting their docket calls since May 2015. Charges are largely EOCA, messing with kids, or possession of meth. Real nice folks.

  • SolidStateTactical

    This article is simply fake news. Not much substance and a lot of rhetoric and straight up falsities. Does Skip think at this point in his career that he can just wing it? Do some actual fact-checking and investigative journalism, because this is just plain foolish profiling and innuendo.

    • Pearljcelestine

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    • leviguy1947

      What exactly is fake within the article? It isn’t enough to make a general accusation of inaccuracy if you want to be taken seriously.

      • Redwolf Conchoman

        What is FAKE?! Pretty much EVERYTHING this douche wrote is FAKE!

    • frankcallender

      I think you are fake or a digital clone, a holograph, or you are the DA in disguise.

  • Bmac

    Half assed story by a dead in the water bloated writer. Get your facts straight before writing this type garbage that actually taints any possible juror who may get assigned to this court debacle. You probably don’t want to be swinging from Reyna’s nuts any harder once the inept actions and violations to judicial procedures comes to light.

  • ACT_Cowboy

    Would question just what innaccuracies exist in the article. Am a Wacoan and have followed the case very closely. For my 2 cents it’s a very well reported piece about the incident and fail to see innuendo or foolishness. Any commentors got any backup for their allegations or are they just “Outlaw Biker” friendly?

    • Mike Smith

      Sure, your own news paper and your Sargent Swanton’s video statements on YouTube.

      • ACT_Cowboy

        I have, at current count, saved 737 pages (Word for Windows – no spacing Arial 11 point font) with regard to EVERYTHING and all sources surrounding the initial incident, legal proceedings, etc. You Sir are full of what some people call B.S. with regard to an understanding of the incident. (That covers your second comment) As to the first – Atrocity on Wikipedia fails to mention the Twin Peaks shootout where at least 5 deaths were NOT at the hands of LEO’s but does list a German heavy metal band, cruelty, crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Bandidos, since the 60’s (and I was around when they were founded) have ALWAYS been a OUTLAW M.C. Club, just like the Hell’s Angels. Sonny Barger was in charge back then if I remember correctly. Wikipedia does have 4 paragraphs about their (Bandidos) “criminal involvement”. I’m too damn old for some dumb a$$ to try and blow smoke up my butt. Try it with someone else. If you want to respond do so with fact not inuendo.

        • Mike Smith

          Truly, reading is not your forte. Up for discussion is the veracity of the article that describes: “Close to high noon, a line of Bandidos thundered toward Twin Peaks on
          their Harley-Davidsons. One of the Bandidos’ bikes either struck or
          nearly struck a prospective member of the Cossacks in the parking lot.
          Cossacks bounded over the patio railings, and the Bandidos were ready
          for them. It looked like something straight out of a Sam Peckinpah
          movie. Wielding clubs, brass knuckles, baseball bats, knives, and
          handguns, the bikers beat, stabbed, and shot one another. Three officers
          grabbed their rifles and opened fire, bringing down as many as four
          bikers. Inside Twin Peaks, there was complete pandemonium. Waitresses,
          bikers, and other customers dove for cover. Several people hid in the
          bathrooms.” And it says: “Several Waco policemen and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers,
          who had learned that a potential confrontation was brewing, also
          arrived, and positioned themselves in a grassy area overlooking the
          restaurant.” High Noon on the Grassy Knoll. How poetic.

          But you are just about as smart as you want to be so I will not delay you with anymore facts. Have a nice life in your world. You can rest assured that the rest of us will keep this one up as well as is possible.

          • ACT_Cowboy

            If reading is not my forte, please explain what is inaccurate with regard to your quotes. Journalistic license was taken by Texas Monthly in its presentation, but not in its reporting. The event did take place almost at Noon. as the Bandidos entered the parking lot. One of the Bandidos’ bikes either struck or nearly struck a prospective member of the Cossacks in the parking lot. A melee, complete with firearms did ensue. All the weapons described were also used in the fight. Three officers did fire their M-16’s (on semi-auto) and account for probably four of the 9 deaths (the others were from members of the two GANGS involved.. Bikers did beat & stab each other, witness approx. 20 non life threatening injuries. Uninvolved folks Did run for cover (as wella s some of the Bikers in the bathrooms (and kitchen for that matter. Those are the FACTS. Care to dispute them or are you just an OUTLAW BIKER or wanabee?

    • Mike Smith

      Oh and try the Wikipedia for atrocity and for the Bandidos MC.
      “High Noon,” my butt.

    • Redwolf Conchoman

      You admitting that you are from Wacko is proof that you have facts skewed!

      • ACT_Cowboy

        Show me where my facts are “skewed” and I’ll kiss your exhaust pipe. BUT, if you can’t how bout you kiss mine?

        • Redwolf Conchoman

          I already showed you. You admit you are from WACKO, inbred capital of Texas.
          So, FOESAD. Bet you are related to SWINETON the LIAR aren’t you.
          And wanting to “Kiss my exhaust pipe”, well are you funny that way TOO! Holy sh!t!
          Glad I don’t live there!
          Done with you, you goof!

          • ACT_Cowboy

            All you managed to show me and anyone else reading this thread is your ignorance and lack of ability to deal with facts, not unsubstantiated B.S. opinions. Sorry, but I’m not inbred, my family’s from MS, MO, WI & TN and I’m no relation to Swinton, don’t even know him, Personally am glad you don’t live here, too. And finally, not of a mood to FOESAD; but you can if you want to.

  • AReader

    Interesting article. To learn more check out http://www.agingrebel.com/15146 and http://www.agingrebel.com/15087

    I myself wonder why people who never got out of their cars (not even riding motorcycles) and not wearing biker patches are being charged as gang members…

  • Murphy

    If it seems peculiar that a prosecutor with access to miles of video depiction of folks shooting at one another chose instead to seek indictments for the conspiracy offense of Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity, then you should check out the background of the ongoing feud between AR-15 (Abel Reyna, take the 15 years) and the Waco P.D. http://downdirtyword.blogspot.com/2013/03/warrants-fines-led-to-car-theft-7.html The Legendary Jim Parks

  • Mike Smith

    Not a single thing that you said about that atrocity is true. You should have some shame for writing something that belongs in the National Enquirer.

  • wacojames

    Total garbage.

  • Bethany Brandon

    Y’all DO understand that you’re reading a magazine FEATURE article — not a news story-? This is not intended to be a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ rundown of what allegedly happened; it’s more like a conversation you have later with your friends, where you’re listening to the one guy who knows the latest. In this context, the thundering line of Bandidos rolling toward Twin Peaks is just great storytelling. I love Skip Hollandsworth’s writing (damn, he’s good) and more than that, I trust him.

    • Johnathan

      Yeah, he’s good. And the media has no ethical obligation to avoid throwing out conjecture and falsehoods that could jeopardize the integrity of the trials of over 150 Americans who face 15 years to life, most for simply being at this location (admitted by WPD, but justified by stating they all were there for a meeting over turf and drug sales, yet disproven when the meeting agenda and purpose was released by the hosting organization). I’d bet if a member of YOUR family was there, ol Skip wouldn’t seem so trustworthy.

      • Bethany Brandon

        I see no evidence of conjecture or falsehoods in Skip’s story. What are you talking about? Specifically.

  • Redwolf Conchoman

    WOW, do you suck, Hollandsworth! Are you on Reyna’s pay-sheet?! “Never let the facts get in the way of
    a good story”, huh, Skippy?!

    • Henry Ridgeway

      All you morons complain that Hollandsworth got the facts wrong, but never point out the specific error. Instead of tattoos and motorcycles, you should have spent your money on education.

      • Redwolf Conchoman

        Pretty much everything in his article is non-fact. Well, except for the fact that motorcycles are
        ridden. AND just how much did you spend on education, MORON?! I have a BFA. What’s in
        YOUR WALLET?! Done with you. I refuse to have a BATTLE OF WITS with an unarmed opponent.

  • Nine dead bikers.
    A good start.

  • johngalts_brother

    The article conveniently leaves out the autopsy reports of who was killed by cops bullets vs biker bullets. Even if you hate biker gangs (I do, I worked with them during Wyoming oil booms-assholes, all of them) you should never allow a prosecutor to do group prosecution because once the prosecutor finishes with the gangs he or other prosecutors will now think it is a usable tool to go after groups that don’t like government behavior. We lose our freedoms in increments.

  • Jose Alverez

    Yes, both the Bandidoes as well as the Cossacks are well known here as motorcycle safety enthusiasts as well as flower arrangers. As for Looney, aptly named, I hear his daughters both date a guy from each club. Looney even kept order as the girls pulled trains.
    As to the alleged shootings, it was just a squirt gun tiff that ended up with Super Soakers being used, ruining tablecloths.
    See? No problem!

  • frankcallender

    If you ask me I would have to say that the DA should be charged, tried and convicted for all the collateral damage he caused the families of the innocent bikers that got charged and given a million dollar bond. Not only the families but any creditor who was owed money by any of the bikers who were not involved in any REAL crime and lost it because they were arrested and held unjustly. If justice is served, the least that should happen is Mr. Reyna should be expelled from Texas and never allowed to do anything in law enforcement for the rest of his life. If it was left entirely to me, I would have him picking cotton fro the rest of his life in one of those Texas prisons he has helped to overfill since he has been in office. What a complete and totally out of control megalomaniac.

  • Faux Gibbler

    Abel Reyna is an IDIOT.