Waco Blunders Through Its 'Biker Shootout' Investigation

At least four of the victims appear to have been shot by police—and the criminal charges some bikers face are highly dubious.

Mike Stone / Reuters

The criminal-justice system in Waco, Texas, continues to boggle the mind. Last month, a grand jury in McClellan County held a marathon session to consider whether District Attorney Abel Reyna had presented enough evidence to justify indictments in the shootout at a May gathering of bikers where nine people were killed. In the wake of those killings, 177 bikers were arrested. Many proclaimed their innocence, and local authorities faced criticism for jailing so many individuals using fill-in-the-blank paperwork that didn’t differentiate among the jailed.

Still, the November grand jury session returned 106 indictments at the end of one day, some against unknown figures who hadn’t previously been arrested. And the citizen jurors would reconvene at a later date to consider the fate of 80 additional bikers. This, despite the fact that leaked surveillance footage certainly 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:

That more than 100 indictments were issued anyway wasn’t really surprising. Yes, local authorities had misbehaved repeatedly during their investigation––and yes,  grand juries theoretically do offer innocents protection from being tried based on flimsy evidence. But in practice, it is scandalously easy to secure an indictment.

Even so, one detail from Waco is extraordinary. On November 16, a blog called The Aging Rebel, written by a biker who has been following the case, noticed that “the indictments charge at least some of the defendants with murder and assault rather than just the original charge of engaging in organized criminal activity. The indictments name ten murdered persons. Those victims’ names are: Richard Matthew Jordan II; Jesus Delgado Rodriguez; Charles Wayne Russell; Daniel Raymond Boyett; Wayne Lee Campbell; Jacob Lee Rhyne; Richard Vincent Kirschner, Jr.; Manuel Isaac Rodriguez; Matthew Mark Smith; and William Anderson. Anderson’s name had not been previously associated with the other murder victims.”

Indeed, the inclusion of that 10th name was very weird.

Authorities in Waco had consistently referred to nine dead from the outset. Who was this 10th dead man, William Anderson? The bikers and their attorneys were confused, but were barred from speaking out to the press thanks to a dubious gag order.

It took until four days ago for the Waco Tribune to notice: “While authorities have said for months that nine bikers died in the May 17 Twin Peaks shootout, indictments in the cases attribute a 10th death to the melee.” The newspaper asked the cops about the mystery man, but they said they were only aware of nine deaths. The district attorney’s office didn’t return phone calls. Prosecutors wouldn’t comment. 

The truth finally reached the public in a classic “Friday news dump”:

District Attorney Abel Reyna acknowledged Friday that a clerical error resulted in a 10th dead biker's name to be included among some of the indictments returned against 106 bikers in the Twin Peaks shooting.  Only nine bikers were killed in the shootout on May 17th…

Reyna released a statement on the error Friday:

"The inclusion of the '10th dead biker' in some of the Twin Peaks indictments was a clerical error on our part that can and will be corrected at a later date closer to trial.  The additional name has absolutely no effect on the charges or the viability of those indictments. I regret this minor error has shifted focus away from the violent and dangerous crimes that occurred in the heart of our community on May 17, 2015."

These people are entrusted with charging murders in a state with the death penalty. Their due diligence is sufficiently inadequate that individuals totally innocent of murdering William Anderson––and known to be innocent of that by everyone––still find themselves on the wrong end of an indictment for that crime. And an indignant district attorney calls that “a minor error”!

Dubious behavior by the Waco authorities hardly ends there. From the start, they’ve actively suppressed evidence, making it impossible for the public to know how many of the nine dead bikers were shot by other bikers and how many were shot by police. In September, I noted an Associated Press report that the gunfire that day “included rounds fired by police that hit bikers, though it isn't clear whether those rifle shots caused any of the fatalities.”

Earlier this month, the AP got even more specific information:

FORT WORTH — Four of the nine people killed in a melee between rival biker gangs outside a Texas restaurant were struck by the same caliber of rifle round fired by Waco police, according to evidence obtained by The Associated Press that provides the most insight yet into whether authorities were responsible for any of the deaths and injuries. The latest trove of potential grand jury evidence reviewed by the AP depicts a chaotic, bloody scene in which police swarmed into the shootout — which also left about 20 wounded and nearly 200 people arrested — between rival biker gangs on May 17 outside the Twin Peaks restaurant.

Hours of audio and footage and hundreds of documents including ballistics reports show that four of the dead and at least one of the wounded were struck with bullets from .223-caliber rifles — the only type of weapon fired by police that day.

Two of the four dead had wounds from only that kind of rifle; the other two were shot by other kinds of guns as well. The ballistics reports show that the rest of the people killed were shot by a variety of other guns.

One presumes that the armed bikers were carrying handguns, not rifles. So it seems very likely that between two and four of the dead bikers were killed by the police. Hopefully, the cops killed bikers who were armed and actively shooting others, not innocents. Yet if there were nine bikers killed, the cops killed between two and four of them, and the bikers they shot were themselves in the act of shooting when stopped by law enforcement, the gulf between the number of murders and the number of people charged seems even wider. (I also wonder if, when the AP reports that .223-caliber rifles were “the only type of weapon fired by police that day,” that includes ATF agents and all other law-enforcement officials responding to the scene.)

In cities around the country, pressure from media outlets and protesters has forced police departments to acknowledge reports of wrongdoing that would otherwise have been suppressed. The killings of Laquan MacDonald and Noel Aguilar are two recent examples. With nine dead, the likelihood that some died by police bullets, a concerted campaign to suppress evidence, many official screw-ups, and more than 100 people facing charges, the fact that the aftermath of the Waco shootout hasn’t garnered more press attention or spurred more protests is a hugely unfortunate mistake.