A Predictable Coda to the Waco Biker Gunfight

Local authorities behaved badly from the start. Anyone could see that.

A police officer at the site of the Waco biker shoot-out
Mike Stone / Reuters

Almost four years after a gunfight among rival motorcycle gangs left nine bikers dead at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, this story of wild misconduct and ineptitude in the criminal-justice system came to a predictable conclusion on Tuesday.

Roughly 200 bikers were arrested on May 17, 2015, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald; 155 were charged with engaging in organized criminal activity; many were held on $1 million bond. But prosecutors announced yesterday that they were dismissing all remaining cases. In the end, just one biker was brought to trial.

He was not convicted.

The former district attorney for McLennan County, Abel Reyna, bears much of the blame. The official narrative laid responsibility for the massacre wholly on the bikers, but the Associated Press later found that police at the scene shot at least four of the nine who died.

The Appeal has a good summary of what happened next:

Police arrested … some who were hiding in the bathroom during the fight and three bikers who arrived after the shooting was over. A federal lawsuit later alleged that Reyna had ordered the mass arrests and prepared a “cookie-cutter” affidavit regardless of the evidence against individual bikers. A justice of the peace set bail at $1 million for every single arrestee “to send a message,” in his words.

Many were stuck in jail for weeks without a lawyer.

Reyna’s office ultimately pursued charges against more than 150 bikers under the argument that even individuals who weren’t involved in the fight were guilty by their attendance alone. More than 100 bikers have since sued Waco for wrongful arrest. Their cases could cost the city more than a billion dollars. Prosecutors were caught repeatedly withholding evidence during the first and, thus far, only biker trial. A Texas Ranger relayed that Reyna had specifically instructed him to keep evidence away from the defense team.

The matter stank of misconduct from the start.

“Why is Waco, Texas, fighting to suppress multiple videos of the shoot-out that killed nine bikers at the Twin Peaks restaurant on May 17?” I asked in July 2015. “Why are some attorneys in the case now prohibited from talking to the press? And why haven’t Waco officials revealed how many of the nine victims were killed by bullets from police officers’ guns?” That December, I marveled that so many indictments were secured despite leaked surveillance footage that “seems to depict many bikers who look surprised that bullets are flying and unprepared for a gunfight, not as if they were conspiring to murder a bunch of their rivals.”

In 2016, with authorities in Waco still exploiting a gag order to suppress discussion of what really happened in the gunfight, I noted that video footage suggested the existence of dozens of people “who fled trouble as expeditiously as possible” only to spend a whole year “in serious legal jeopardy, at great cost to their livelihoods and relationships.”

All of my critiques were rooted in publicly available information.

That information was also, of course, available to local and state authorities in Texas and to federal authorities at the Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights. Some charges against some bikers were dropped. Eventually, special prosecutors were appointed. Yet it took several years and a campaign to oust a district attorney before the ordeal ended for all the people who were overcharged.

Some arguably got off lightly.

Several of the bikers present could have been convicted of lesser offenses, including weapons possession, according to current McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson, who inherited the case when he took office at the start of this year.

“Following the indictments, the prior district attorney had the time and opportunity to review and assess the admissible evidence to determine the full range of charges that could be brought against each individual who participated in the Twin Peaks brawl, and to charge only those offenses where the admissible evidence would support a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said in a statement quoted by the Waco Tribune-Herald. “In my opinion, had this action been taken in a timely manner, it would have, and should have, resulted in numerous convictions and prison sentences against many of those who participated in the Twin Peaks brawl. Over the next three years the prior district attorney failed to take that action, for reasons that I do not know to this day.”

The statute of limitations for those lesser offenses has now expired.

In all likelihood, most voters in McClellan County didn’t think much about the district-attorney race that Abel Reyna ultimately won. But that race mattered. He needlessly charged scores of people with crimes he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt. And this decision put taxpayers at risk of paying out hundreds of millions in settlements to bikers arguably victimized by state injustices.

Is your local district attorney competent, trustworthy, and committed to respecting civil rights? Pay attention before voting in the next election.