In late May, two weeks after the furious gun battle at the Twin Peaks in Waco between the members of the Bandidos and the Cossacks, I drove to the Williams Funeral Home in Garland, a suburb of Dallas, where a service was being held for forty-year-old Manuel “Candyman” Rodriguez, the sole Bandido to die in the shoot-out. Bandidos had arrived from all over the country. They greeted one another in their traditional way, with bear hugs and kisses on the lips. On nearby streets, police officers stood watch by their squad cars, perhaps checking to see if any Cossacks were headed to the funeral home to resume the feud. “Oh, hell, no Cossack is going to show up,” Jeff Pike, the Bandidos’ 59-year-old president, told me with a shrug. “They aren’t that stupid.” Standing next to Pike was one of the Bandidos’ sergeants at arms, a thin smile on his face.
Most motorcycle clubs are perfectly harmless, filled with bikers who go on leisurely weekend rides. But a few clubs around the country proudly call themselves One Percenters, a phrase taken from a former president of the American Motorcyclist Association, who declared in 1947, after a fight had broken out at a biker rally between members of two California clubs (the Boozefighters and the Pissed Off Bastards), that 99 percent of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens and 1 percent were “outlaws.” And according to law enforcement officials who specialize in biker crime, the Bandidos are among the most fearsome One Percenters in the land, Texas’s version of the James Gang, a group of unrepentant renegades who ride motorcycles instead of horses and who love to thumb their noses (or, to be more accurate, extend their middle fingers) at what they call “polite society.”
On the Bandidos’ vests, which they call their “colors,” are patches that read “Expect No Mercy” and “God Forgives, Bandidos Don’t.” When they go on their rides, many of them carry chains, knives, brass knuckles, and heavy black flashlights, which can be used as clubs. They wear steel-toed boots, which can be devastating to someone who is kicked in a fight, and they keep pistols in their saddlebags or tucked into their pants. “You don’t mess with the Bandidos,” one law enforcement official told me. “You cross them, and they can turn into very violent, very dangerous men.”
Since the club was formed, in 1966, Bandidos have been getting arrested for all sorts of crimes: dealing drugs, running prostitution rings, stealing motorcycles, extorting money, committing assaults and murders. The founder of the club, Donald Chambers, a Houston shipyard worker, was sent to prison in 1972 for murdering two drug dealers in El Paso after he forced them to dig their own graves. His successor, Ronald Hodge, was convicted in federal court of conspiring with other Bandidos to bomb homes and automobiles belonging to members of the Banshees, an upstart Dallas motorcycle club that was trying to move in on the Bandidos’ territory. Hodge was succeeded by Craig “Jaws” Johnston, who, along with other Bandidos, landed in federal prison on charges that they had conspired to manufacture and sell as much as a thousand pounds of methamphetamine. In 2005 Johnston’s successor, George Wegers, was indicted and later convicted, along with 27 other Bandidos, on federal racketeering charges after engaging in “intimidation, extortion, violence, and threats of violence against rival motorcycle clubs” to maintain “power, territory, and profits.”
In 2006 I met Pike, who had taken over for Wegers, for a Texas Monthly story I was writing on the Bandidos (“The Gang’s All Here,” April 2007). A wiry man with a crewcut, Pike lived just outside Houston. To my astonishment, he was completely congenial, telling me funny anecdotes about his days as an altar boy before he discovered motorcycles. He chuckled when I said that I had heard that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives was investigating him and his fellow national officers. He said that he didn’t commit crimes, and he added that most Bandidos, except for a few bad apples, didn’t commit crimes either. “Why can’t the feds just accept the fact that we’re a bunch of old bikers who love to get together and have some fun?” said Pike. “We’re not out there shooting people, for God’s sake.”
Other Bandidos I met turned out to be as good-natured as Pike. Yes, they looked intimidating in their colors. Many of them were as burly as professional wrestlers, with biceps the size of baseballs. Some had long hair, scraggly goatees, and tattoos covering their arms. But they cheerfully described themselves to me as basic blue-collar guys who had nine-to-five jobs working as roughnecks, mechanics, welders, and carpenters. They talked about the freedom they felt getting on their Harleys and hitting the open road—“just getting away from everything before we go back to work,” one of them said.
“But why is it so important for you to put on that vest with all those patches and ride with other guys wearing similar vests?” I asked one Bandido from San Antonio who answered to the nickname “F.O.” (for “F— Off”). “It seems a little silly.”
There was silence. F.O. glared at me, his smile fading, and I felt something go cold in my stomach. I realized I had crossed a line that I didn’t even know was there.
“You know, we have a saying we use with you citizens,” he finally said. “If you have to ask what we’re all about, then you’ll never be one of us.” He pointed to a patch on his vest that read “BFFB” (for “Bandidos Forever, Forever Bandidos”). “Nothing is more important than our club—nothing. If you mess with one of us, then you mess with all of us.”
Under Pike’s leadership, the Bandidos appeared to tone down their activities, and police investigations into the club led nowhere. But in 2013, the Bandidos began having some run-ins with the Cossacks, a small club, reportedly with no more than 150 members, their chapters located mostly in small towns stretching from west of Dallas to Longview (the Bandidos, by comparison, have more than 1,100 members across the country and in Central and South America, with 400 or so in Texas). According to law enforcement sources, a new generation of Cossack leaders was wanting to make a mark on Texas’s outlaw biker landscape, which meant proving they could stand up to the Bandidos. There had been a few skirmishes between members of the two clubs: a knife fight outside a bar in Abilene, a shooting inside a bar in Fort Worth, a beating in Longview and another near Mineral Wells. Then, on May 1 of this year, sixteen days before the gun battle in Waco, a confidential Texas Department of Public Safety bulletin informed its officers that the Cossacks had started wearing a patch that read “Texas” on the bottom of their vests without the approval of the Bandidos. The bulletin noted, “Traditionally, the Bandidos have been the dominant motorcycle club in Texas, and no other club is allowed to wear the Texas bar without their consent.” Although Pike and other Bandidos leaders later denied they were upset about the patches, a showdown seemed inevitable.
On May 17, a group of Bandidos—at least twenty, by some estimates—thundered into Waco on their Harleys and headed for Twin Peaks, a restaurant just off Interstate 35 staffed by pretty young waitresses wearing skimpy tops. That afternoon, a quarterly meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents, Region 1—an organization that focuses on bikers’ rights and safety issues—was scheduled to take place on the patio. Among those who showed up were members of Waco-area “mom-and-pop” clubs, a sobriety biker club, and a club from Austin made up of men who ride classic Harley-Davidsons. A group of Cossacks was also in the parking lot, waiting for the Bandidos.
The Cossacks had not been invited to the meeting, and it is not clear why they had come to Twin Peaks. According to one explanation I heard, a Bandido senior officer (not Pike) had laid a trap for the Cossacks. He had invited them to Waco, saying he wanted to meet to iron out their differences, when all along his plan was to have a team of Bandidos ambush the Cossacks. Another story maintains that the Cossacks were there to let the Bandidos know that Waco was now part of their territory because they had opened a new chapter in the city.
Nor is it clear who started the fight. A Bandido on his Harley allegedly ran over a Cossack’s foot. A Cossack allegedly threw a punch at a Bandido. The fight suddenly escalated. A few bikers pulled out pistols and started shooting. Police officers, watching from another part of the parking lot, drew their weapons and fired off several rounds. (A police spokesman later said the officers thought the bikers were shooting at them.) When it was all over, seven Cossacks and one Bandido had been killed. A biker who supported the Bandidos but wasn’t a member had also been killed.
Among the dozens of media organizations that rushed to Waco to cover the story was the Washington Post. It described the fight as “one of the worst eruptions of biker-gang violence in U.S. history.” A CNN anchor asked me during a television interview why “a bunch of old bikers [the Bandidos]” would want to prove their manhood by fighting “a bunch of young bikers [the Cossacks]?” I found myself talking like F.O., trying to explain that these men have a loyalty to their clubs that surpasses just about everything else in their lives. The anchor shook her head, bewildered.
As soon as the gun battle was over, the cops collared all the Cossacks and Bandidos they could find. (They have yet to say exactly how many members of the two clubs were arrested; Pike told me that 22 of his men were jailed.) All of the other bikers who were at Twin Peaks, including the members of the mom-and-pop clubs, who had nothing to do with the shootings, were also arrested, charged with engaging in organized criminal activity. In all, more than 170 bikers were taken to the county jail, each of them slapped with a $1 million bond.
If the goal of the officers was to bring down—or even slow down—the Bandidos, they utterly failed. At Candyman’s funeral, in Garland, I watched the Bandidos give one another confident, gleaming looks. “What the f— were they thinking, coming after us?” one older Bandido told me. “As far as I’m concerned, the Cossacks are just a bunch of punks who’ve watched too much Sons of Anarchy.”
For his part, Pike told me he knew nothing about what had taken place in Waco. He had been laid up in bed, recovering from colon surgery. “Hell, no, I didn’t order any hit,” he said. “We don’t do shit like that. And we sure as hell wouldn’t do something like that in front of cops. My guys only defended themselves.”
I asked Pike if the rumors were true that the Bandidos wanted to take revenge on the Cossacks for daring to confront them. He shook his head. “We don’t care about the Cossacks. If they want to wear a Texas patch, we don’t care. We just want to be left alone.”
In the distance, a police helicopter began circling the funeral home. Pike and the other Bandidos ignored it. “You leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”