Images of bikers sitting on curbs waiting to be processed might have captivated the nation after the shootout at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas this May, but evidence in the resulting criminal case is a closely-guarded secret.
Of the 177 men arrested in May, 106 were indicted by a grand jury. Now, in a very unusual move that appears to violate Texas state law, McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna has tried to keep evidence from reaching the public by making defendants’ attorneys sign an agreement not to share it with the media.
Citing the Michael Morton Act, which requires swift access to evidence without such conditions, lawyers of nine bikers arrested in the raid attended a press conference yesterday to say they will contest Reyna’s ‘discovery waiver’ in court.
It has been a busy week for the defense teams. On Wednesday, attorneys representing six of the defendants filed civil rights lawsuits against Waco and McLennan County officials in federal court.
The lawsuits allege that Reyna, Stroman and Chavez conspired to see that 177 bikers were arrested on identical engaging in organized criminal activity charges with little evidence other than the fact that they all were bikers, were wearing vests indicating which group they are associated with and had gathered for a biker coalition meeting when the shootout erupted, killing nine and wounding 20.
“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,’ ” the lawsuit alleges.
To be sure, violent criminal motorcycle gangs are a real phenomenon. But prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence that the meeting at Twin Peaks restaurant was anything more than a regular meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents to discuss legislation impacting motorcyclists, as surviving participants have always maintained.
Some of the bikers who were killed, such as Jesus “Jessie” Delgado Rodriguez, were hardly violent people. One of the slain men, Wayne Lee Campbell, had been convicted of DUI and assault, while Manuel Isaac Rodriguez had served probation for carrying a weapon into a bar.
But there simply isn’t any gang activity, drug running, or racketeering in their criminal records. In fact, so far the only public evidence that such a conspiracy existed is the word of law enforcement in McLennan County.
According to explanations police made after the incident, a gunfight broke out inside the restaurant, forcing officers to respond. Yet security video from inside the building contradicts that narrative, instead showing the crowd fleeing into the patio area from the parking lot where the shootout occurred.
If they in fact knew beforehand of violent criminals among the clubs, Waco and McLennan County agencies have not explained why they waited until a large, mixed crowd had gathered around those persons before they moved to arrest anyone.
Police maintain that rival gangs began the fight, and their weapons did not do most of the shooting, but wgile autopsies have been released, the ballistic reports have not, so it’s not even clear whose bullets killed nine men and wounded eighteen.
Authorities also declared they had recovered a thousand weapons from the crime scene, but later revised that number down to 151 firearms.
The prosecution has been as strange as the shootout or the investigation. District Attorney Reyna first demanded million-dollar bail for the defendants, but then moved to add further conditions as soon as the first detainee, a factory worker named Jeff Battey, actually managed to collect the required amount for a bondsman.
Since then, Reyna has selectively agreed to reduced bail for some of the bikers, but only with stringent conditions attached. He also slapped Matthew Clendennen, the first arrested biker to file a civil suit against the county, with a gag order to prevent his public criticism from influencing the jury pool.
Despite overwhelming the already-full county lockup and courts with scores of suspects, Reyna has adamantly kept the prosecution effort confined to his 27-lawyer office, refusing help from the state attorney general.
Reyna’s actions raise troubling questions. Why impose high bail and draconian gag orders on suspects with no criminal records? If the evidence against them is truly solid, why make it so hard for defendants’ counsel to even see it?
By reputation, McLennan County is another Ferguson, Missouri — a place where low-level crimes have become a profit center for a tax-strapped government. Given Texas’s cop-friendly civil asset forfeiture laws, some observers have wondered whether law enforcement decisions were unduly influenced by the value of all the motorcycles they confiscated after the shootout.
One Harley-Davidson dealer, who spoke to BU on condition of anonymity, says the approximate value of those bikes probably exceeds five million dollars. And whereas keeping the suspects in jail costs taxpayers upwards of $8,000 a day, assets seized in drug-related cases directly benefit law enforcement without recompense to the citizens of McLennan County.
According to the Dallas Observer, Texas law enforcement agencies have collected nearly half a billion dollars through asset forfeitures in the last decade.
BU will stay on top of this story.
This story has been edited to clarify which forensic results have been made public.