Tom Dart in Houston
A district attorney has dropped all the remaining charges in the high-profile mass shooting, leaving questions for authorities
Such was the mayhem of the gunfight that erupted between biker gangs at a Texas restaurant four years ago, that it may never be entirely clear how the clash that left nine people dead and 20 injured actually unfurled.
But the public now knows exactly how the criminal investigations into the bloody shootout ended: after 177 arrests and 155 indictments, there was one trial and no convictions.
Barry Johnson, the new district attorney in McLennan county, announced this week that he was dropping charges against the remaining 24 defendants because he does not believe that prosecutors can win their cases against them.
Johnson has not ruled out bringing murder charges if new evidence emerges, but for now, it appears unlikely that anyone will ever be held accountable for their roles in a mass shooting that made headlines across the world – leaving serious questions for authorities.
A couple of hundred bikers, mostly members of the rival Bandidos and Cossacks gangs, had gathered on a sunny Sunday lunchtime in May 2015 at the Waco branch of Twin Peaks, a “breastaurant” chain with a theme best described as Hooters at high altitude.
They came for the scheduled meeting of a bikers’ rights group; topics such as road safety were on the agenda. A dispute over parking escalated after a Bandido allegedly ran over a Cossack’s foot and a brawl degenerated into a gunfight.
“I curled up in a fetal position with three other people. I looked up and saw Richie [a Cossack] hit the ground, saw him bleeding from the head, started seeing people dying and falling all around me,” said Richard Luther, then a Cossack.
“We decided we needed to move so we crawled military style on our stomachs up the patio stairs, through the patio and into the restaurant where we lay on the ground in the restaurant till the police came in. Really at that point I didn’t know who was shooting.”
Leaked CCTV footage showed customers and servers dashing for cover and men in leather jackets crouching behind tables with guns drawn. Anticipating tension, police were already nearby and arrived within seconds.
Little evidence has been made public, but details obtained by the Associated Press suggested that four of the bikers were struck with bullets from .223-caliber rifles – the only type of weapon used by Waco police that day.
Police and the district attorney’s office declined to comment on those details at the time, but defended the officers’ use of force.
Waco police said in the aftermath that they recovered hundreds of weapons, including handguns, an AK-47 rifle, brass knuckles, bats, chains and knives. A spokesman said a firearm was found hidden in a bag of tortilla chips and a knife in a bag of flour.
The violence lasted no more than a couple of minutes, but so many suspects were detained that they were taken to the city’s spacious convention centre for processing. The 177 arrested were held on identical warrants and accused of engaging in organised criminal activity, which carries a potential sentence of life in prison.
A justice of the peace, “Pete” Peterson, set bonds at $1m each. “I think it is important to send a message,” he told the Waco Tribune-Herald. Many could not afford to pay and languished in jail for weeks until their bonds were lowered. Luther said he spent 33 days behind bars, racking up $1,000 in phone bills by speaking with his wife twice a day.
The 62-year-old had worked for a roofing company before the shootout. “When I finally got out of jail I called the owner, he said, ‘Can’t have gang members working for me.’ So I lost my job, as a lot of people did. I couldn’t do anything – nobody wanted us around,” he said.
“It was a scary time. A lot of people lost their homes, lost their family.”
Jake Carrizal, a Bandidos chapter president from Dallas, was the only suspect whose case reached court. A Waco police officer wept on the stand as he recalled the bloody scene. “It wasn’t supposed to go like that,” he said. “It just looked like a horror movie.”
When the jury failed to reach unanimous verdicts on the three counts against Carrizal after six weeks, the case ended in a mistrial in November 2017.
In an unrelated trial in San Antonio last year, the Bandidos’ national president and vice-president were sentenced to life in prison for crimes including racketeering, drug trafficking and conspiracy to murder.
But bikers and their attorneys have long contested the narrative that emerged after the shooting, which suggested all who gathered at Twin Peaks that day in May were members of warring criminal gangs with murder in mind. They argue that police swept up many who were trying to escape the violence.
“I think the situation probably just overwhelmed a small county and its resources. Just forensically, in terms of collection of evidence, it’s kind of a nightmare, with so many people around, to know where to start,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center. “The way in which this case started created a lot of problems down the line.”
About 130 civil rights lawsuits are pending against Waco authorities. One of those has been brought by Diego Obledo, who contends that he was not armed that day, and was arrested for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Rather than investigating the incident and relying on actual facts to establish probable cause, defendants 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’,” Obledo’s suit says.
According to his lawsuit, the father of six was a real estate analyst whose only affiliation was to the Christian Motorcycle Association and he was running away from trouble with a copy of the New Testament in his vest pocket. Like the others, Obledo was accused of engaging in organised criminal activity.
“In the United States … we investigate first and then we charge, we don’t charge first and then investigate. This was done completely ass-backwards,” said Clint Broden, an attorney who represented five bikers in their criminal cases.
“If the original district attorney just charged those who really were criminally responsible I think we would have had some prosecutions and likely convictions, but because he made such a mess of it, this is the end result.”
The district attorney at the time, Abel Reyna, was ousted by Johnson in a Republican primary election last year after the challenger ran a campaign questioning Reyna’s handling of the shootout. Reyna issued a statement saying: “I absolutely disagree with the overall result.”
Johnson took office in January. He said that it might have been possible earlier to secure convictions on charges such as attempted murder, aggravated assault and weapons offenses, but the statute of limitations has expired.
Carrizal’s trial cost about $1.5m in legal and policing costs, Johnson said. He concluded the best option was to dismiss the last cases – against 24 people who had been re-indicted by Reyna on riot charges – and “just put that dark part of Waco, Texas, history in our past”.
“For us that are living, it is vindication, it’s like the weight of the world’s been lifted off our shoulders,” said Luther, who is among those suing Waco authorities. He said that various expenses arising from the shootout, including legal fees and therapy for PTSD, amount to more than $40,000. “The cost is more than just in money though, it’s spirit and health,” he said. He has sold his motorcycle.
Source: The Guarding