WACO, Texas — It was portrayed in the national press as a gang war, a bloodbath, a melee, and a shootout when two hundred bikers violently brawled at the Twin Peaks restaurant on the edge of a shopping center in Waco in May of 2015.
Nine were killed, 20 injured. One hundred seventy-seven were arrested in what some called “fill in the blank” warrants by McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna. The mass arrests led to one hundred fifty-five indictments.
Now all charges are dismissed.
Despite the headlines that flashed across phone screens nationwide nearly four years ago, few reporters ever came to Waco to follow up. Electronic media followed it sporadically, checking in with those charged awaiting their cases to come up.
One journalist stayed on the case every day. And without the soft spoken, jovial, but dogged Tommy Witherspoon, the world wouldn’t know how the bloodbath-melee-shootout dissolved into mist.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Witherspoon, who’s worked at the Tribune-Herald for decades.
Lest you think there’s nothing much in Waco to see, remember that it was near Waco that 76 Branch Dividians died in 1993, and that it was just up the road in West where fifteen people died in a fertilizer plant explosion in 2013.
Witherspoon’s amazement comes from the devolution of what might have seemed like slam-dunk cases into legal swamp gas.
It began when the county’s first case against Jake Carrizal, president of the Dalls Bandidos bikers’ club, ended in a mistrial. On days when the courtroom was empty of other spectators, Witherspoon sat in his customary front row seat with his laptop, tweeting out play-by-play accounts to a nationwide audience of four thousand. Among other things, they learned that of the nine people killed at Twin Peaks, four had been shot by police.
Under criticism from defense attorneys for what were called “dragnet” indictments, which swept up many bikers at the scene regardless of their role, DA Reyna gradually dropped charges against most of the defendants.
“At a time when law enforcement was feeding the narrative of criminal gangs descending on Waco for a shootout at high noon….Tommy’s reporting reflected the possibility that there was another side to the story,” says defense attorney Don Tittle, who still represents 122 defendants who are suing the county over civil rights violations. “He (Witherspoon) always raised questions in his stories that seemed to counter the ongoing narrative.”
As time passed, Reyna’s office was unable to even bring dozens of the biker cases to court. The accused sat in legal limbo, many with motorcycles impounded. By the spring of last year, with a DA election looming, just two dozen cases remained. Challenger Barry Johnson built his campaign against Reyna on Reyna’s inaction on the Twin Peaks cases.
The Central Texas Marketplace is home to a Cabela’s, a Kohl’s and a handful of family dining establishments, including the former Twin Peaks. It’s as solid a representation of middle-class American commerce as can be found. Interstate 35 pulses a few hundred yards away. That nine people were killed here at brunch time on a Sunday is difficult to process.
Equally inexplicable is that only now, almost fours years after the fact, all the cases have evaporated.
In declaring the cases would be dismissed, current DA Barry Johnson said that numerous convictions and prison sentences would have resulted had the previous DA Reyna taken action in a timely manner after the shootings. “Over the next three years, the prior District Attorney failed to take that action, for reasons that I do not know to this day,” Johnson said.
“I absolutely disagree with the overall result as well as several statements and accusations within Mr. Johnson’s press release,” Abel Reyna said in a written statement. “However, it is solely his decision on how to proceed with any case in the District Attorney’s Office.” Reyna did not reply to a written question about Tommy Witherspoon’s coverage of the case.
Although the criminal aspect of Twin Peaks is over, more than a hundred of those arrested have civil cases against the county for violating their rights to a fair and speedy trial, among other things. WFAA-
TV and others reported how the unresolved cases affected their lives. Some lost their jobs because of the toxic link to biker violence. Their cases could not go forward until the criminal proceedings were finished.
“I’m still wondering where everybody else is,” chuckles Witherspoon in the Tribune-Herald newsroom. He’s talking about the rest of the media. His exclusive story about the Twin Peaks dismissal was run by the Associated Press nationwide, without mention of his name as is customary. The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, and The Atlantic, ran stories quoting the WTH.
The Tribune-Herald’s mostly empty newsroom is an ocean of carpet with an island of cubicles huddled in the middle. On this day they’re occupied by only four reporters besides Witherspoon. “We’re two bodies down, but we got the money to add one next week.” The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors named the Tribune-Herald the newspaper of the year in 2018, and there seems to be a feeling of family among the survivors.
In one corner of his cubicle is a gaggle of photographs of young men and women, ‘Tommy’s lost boys and girls,’ he calls them. They’re former Tribune-Herald reporters who’ve moved on to other jobs or left journalism altogether. Of those who remain, two besides Witherspoon are veterans with decades of experience between them. They toil on because of a love for their craft and a sense of journalistic responsibility.
“We just keep plugging away,” says the author of TSpoonfeed. He hopes he’s written the last chapter on Twin Peaks. But he suspects he has not.