The Waco Biker Shootout Left Nine Dead. Why Was No One Convicted?

How 177 arrests led to no convictions — a tangled, seven-year tale of prosecutorial hubris and tenacious defense.

If you ask Paul Looney, a Houston defense attorney, about the Twin Peaks biker case, he’ll tell you there’s one person who knows more about it than anyone else alive: his trial-preparation specialist, Roxanne Avery. An entire wall of her home office in Norman, Okla., is covered with wallet-size mug shots of the nearly 200 bikers arrested, as well as photographs of the nine men who died that day, seven years ago, after a violent brawl in a Waco parking lot. Each picture is layered with Post-it Notes and details about the subjects: ages, road names (Cheech, Chain, Drama, Sidetrack, Saint, Mad Dog, Pee Paw, Bubba, Bubba Earl, Bashful, Yogi, Reno, Creeper, Grumpy Dan), club affiliations, ranks, descriptions of injuries (“Bullet entered neck, partially exited”; “Paralyzed from the waist down”; “DEAD”) and any other pertinent information (“I met him March 2018”; “9mm Glock”; “U.S. Army — 2 tours Iraq”; “Convicted felon”; “Shot dog?”; “Did not see anything”; “Graduate Baylor University w/ English degree”). Point to a random photograph, and Avery will generally be able to squint and tell you something about the biker in question.

“There’s a rumor that he killed somebody,” she said one morning two years ago, tapping a face. “I don’t think it’s true. I know these guys.” She wore a large black onyx ring and brilliant cherry red lipstick; one of her Chihuahuas, Bonnie, padded by in a white dress with a red bow. Moving to a large computer monitor, Avery began to click through crime-scene photographs, many of them graphic close-ups of dead bodies. “So he’s got a gunshot wound that you see is in his face and his eye,” she noted, pausing at a particularly grisly image. “The other one entered through his back and exited out.”

In Avery’s home office.
In Avery’s home office.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times
In Avery’s home office.

Avery and her boss make a colorful duo. Looney speaks in a mellifluous Texas drawl, wears bolo ties and cowboy boots and pilots his own plane to court hearings outside Houston. “I’ve always been this close to being a criminal myself,” he told me. “I could have either become a Mafioso don or a criminal defense lawyer, but there was no place that I could apply my personality effectively except those two places.” Looney has appeared before courts in 41 states; he has done “a whole bunch of work” for drug cartels, he explained, and their people get arrested all over the country. Avery likes to make “Better Call Paul” jokes.

They met in 2002, when Avery needed a lawyer herself. After her husband, an OB-GYN, died of a heart attack, she hired other doctors and continued to own and operate his clinic — until a competitor reported her to local authorities for practicing medicine without a license. Her best friend put her in touch with Looney, who flew out and cleared up the matter. Avery began to work for him in 2013, writing news releases and sitting second chair at trial as his discovery expert. She was initially put off by the idea of defending people who might well be guilty. But she had always been drawn to true-crime stories — her grandparents’ farm in Kansas wasn’t far from the Clutters’, made infamous by “In Cold Blood,” and her mother used to tell her stories about how nobody in town liked Truman Capote — so the job wound up suiting her.

She was the one who told Looney about the Waco brawl in the first place. In May 2015, the bikers were gathering for a meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents, a coalition of motorcycle enthusiasts that lobbies the state government over things like helmet laws. These meetings were typically low-key affairs; the Waco event was planned for 1 p.m. on a Sunday, at a Hooters-style chain restaurant called Twin Peaks, where the waitresses wear lumberjack-plaid halter tops. But this meeting was preceded by rumblings of an escalating feud between two of the state’s biggest “outlaw” motorcycle clubs, the Cossacks and the Bandidos.

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The lawyer Paul Looney in Houston.
The lawyer Paul Looney in Houston.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times
The lawyer Paul Looney in Houston.

Moments after the Bandidos arrived at Twin Peaks, a fistfight broke out, followed by gunfire, then utter havoc. One Waco police officer described the aftermath as looking like something “out of a video game.” Bloodstained concrete. Guns, knives, brass knuckles and batons scattered across the scene. Nine dead, 20 wounded. “In 34 years of law enforcement,” a spokesperson for the Waco Police Department told reporters, it was “the most violent crime scene I have ever been involved in.” The police ended up arresting 177 bikers, an event described in this newspaper as “what appears to be the largest roundup and mass arrest of bikers in recent American history.”

The event quickly became a national story. Like the average news consumer, Looney first reacted to all this with astonishment: Sunday afternoon, gunfire everywhere, nine dead?

But as he followed the narrative over the next week, he became suspicious. The 177 arrests seemed awfully high, and all the bikers, regardless of the evidence against them, were slapped with identical felony charges and million-dollar bonds. “I just couldn’t believe it,” Looney told me. “It defied credibility.” While the D.A.’s office issued news releases and mug shots of the bikers were splashed across newspapers throughout the state, Looney said he “saw nobody stepping forward to counter the narrative,” one that was “completely damning” the accused. “And I just felt like somebody needed to get in there with a bunch of resources and change the narrative and get to the bottom of what’s happening.”

The following weekend, Houston experienced catastrophic flooding, which closed the courthouses and suddenly freed up Looney’s schedule. “So I gathered up Roxanne and told her: ‘Let’s go to Waco. We’ve got to find a client,’” Looney recalled. Avery, who remembers herself being the instigator of the trip, worked her phone over the course of the three-hour drive, eventually making contact with the mother of a man named William English, who was arrested in the roundup along with his wife, Morgan. William was 33, a laid-off welder and Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. His motorcycle club, the Distorted, had seven total members. His only previous arrest was for driving under the influence; Morgan had no criminal record. Because of bad weather, they drove to the C.O.C. meeting in a Nissan Sentra. They hadn’t even put their names on the restaurant wait-list yet when the shooting started.

Looney had gone to Waco before, including once, back in the 1990s, to represent a defendant in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound. “I wanted in on that trial so badly,” he recalls. But on the second day of that client’s incarceration, Looney filed a motion to suppress the evidence, and the U.S. attorney’s office concurred, and the client went free. “I got shut out early,” he says, still sounding rueful. With the bikers, he told Avery, he didn’t want to miss his chance.

Less than three months before the Waco brawl, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued an internal memo warning that the Bandidos were “displeased” with the Cossacks. On March 22, a man named Arthur Young stopped for gas in Gordon, Texas, wearing his Cossacks vest; while he was filling up his Harley-Davidson, he said, between 10 and 15 men in Bandidos vests and T-shirts pulled up and ordered him to remove it. When he refused, they beat him with fists and a claw hammer, leaving him with a head wound requiring 12 staples. The same day, a group of Cossacks forced a Bandido off I-35 and beat him with a chain, pipe and baton before stealing his motorcycle. Those incidents, the D.P.S. bulletin concluded, “confirm that tensions between the Bandidos and the Cossacks remain high in the area and can escalate at any time.”

One Cossack (he requested anonymity; call him W., his first initial) received his own warning about the meeting. He can rattle off the date he joined the club without hesitation, like one of his kids’ birthdays — and by the time of the meeting, he had become a sergeant-at-arms, in charge of security, which made his presence in Waco mandatory. W. called his team of enforcers “coolers,” a homage to “Road House,” the Patrick Swayze movie about bouncers. “We’re not bouncing heads,” he said. “We’re cooling them. Until you put us in a position where we can’t.” A source called him, the night before the meeting, to say that “something might kick up.”

On Sunday morning, a group gathered at the clubhouse of the Bandidos’ Dallas chapter. It included Jake Carrizal, the 33-year-old vice president of the chapter, a railroad engineer with copious tattoos and a long beard, the type of guy who wouldn’t look entirely out of place selling artisanal sourdough at a farmers’ market. Earlier, he sent a text: “Bring your tools, guys.” That morning, he slipped a Derringer two-shot into his back pocket holster, hidden by a vest with patches reading “Expect No Mercy” and “Malandro” (Spanish slang for “bad guy”), along with a pair of SS lightning bolts. (Outlaw motorcycle clubs are exclusively male and also tend to be segregated into Black and white groups, though the Bandidos have Latino members, such as Carrizal.) Later, asked about the vest in court, Carrizal insisted: “You’re using our patches and our culture literally against us. It’s not meant to be as literal as law enforcement is taking it.”

 Jake Carrizal, a leader of the Dallas Bandidos. A reporter in Waco called him “the most effective defendant I’ve ever seen take the stand in his own defense.”
Jake Carrizal, a leader of the Dallas Bandidos. A reporter in Waco called him “the most effective defendant I’ve ever seen take the stand in his own defense.” Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times
 Jake Carrizal, a leader of the Dallas Bandidos. A reporter in Waco called him “the most effective defendant I’ve ever seen take the stand in his own defense.”

The Waco Police Department did indeed seem to be taking the bikers both literally and seriously. Earlier in the month, Jeff Rogers, a detective with the gang-intelligence unit, sent out his own email warning colleagues that “if the Cossacks attempt to attend this meeting or show up at this location, the potential for violence is very high.” Shortly after Kelly Bowden, a 19-year-old bartender at Twin Peaks, arrived for her lunch shift, her manager told her that the cops had called corporate and tried to get them to cancel the meeting entirely. I guess they didn’t realize we’re a franchise store, the manager said.

The restaurant was located in a sprawling strip mall alongside big-box chains such as Bed Bath & Beyond. The Cossacks began arriving early, along with so-called support clubs, smaller groups affiliated with one or the other of the bigger gangs. There were also members of unaffiliated clubs, like the Christian Motorcyclists Association, interdenominational evangelizers among the biker community. The Vise Grips, from Austin, showed up on beautifully restored pre-1970s Harleys.

Jacquelin Ganske, a server, happened to be on the patio near some Cossacks when the Bandidos arrived, with Carrizal and his uncle, the president of the Dallas chapter, leading the pack. “I looked across and saw it was Dallas,” W. told me, “and I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, Dallas don’t normally do C.O.C.’ I went around to my sergeants-at-arms and said, ‘Guys, be alert, find your perimeter.’” When Ganske asked what was going on, someone told her to shut up.

The franchise operator had nixed the idea of having off-duty police patrol biker events. Instead, the police positioned uniformed officers — mostly members of the SWAT team — in the parking lot, hoping their visibility might act as a deterrent. Two of them, Michael Bucher and Heath Jackson, arrived to find between 75 and 100 bikers in the lot behind the restaurant, many wearing Bandidos red and gold, most with knives on their belts. Some, Bucher later claimed, seemed to be stretching, limbering up. When Rogers came on the radio and said there appeared to be some tension at the front of the restaurant, Bucher drove around and found about 200 bikers by the patio, arranged in a way that reminded him of a football team huddled around a coach. He saw a Cossack push a Bandido at the edge of the crowd.

Another server, Jessica Drewry, tried to deliver some beers to the patio, but a Cossack stopped her. Shaniqua Corsey, busing tables, glanced through a window and spotted a biker in a yellow helmet engaged in a heated argument. His face was red. He pulled out a silver revolver with a long barrel that reminded her of Dirty Harry’s gun. When he opened fire, Corsey ducked below a table. She heard a second shot. “Then,” she would write in her police statement, “it was like go-time!”

On Bucher’s dashcam video, you see a biker toward the right of the frame throw a punch. More punches follow. Then the crowd pulses, like a single organism, before scattering as the first gunshot is fired. Bikers run in every direction, taking cover behind vehicles, dropping to their bellies. As Jackson, a Marine Corps veteran, exited the patrol vehicle with his rifle, a round struck the door frame. Amid the chaos, he would later report, he saw a man calmly aiming a revolver as if preparing to execute someone on the ground. Jackson decided to take a head shot. On the video, you can see a man pointing a gun in the manner described by Jackson before abruptly dropping.

Bucher, an Army veteran, was using his door for cover as bullets whizzed past. He shot a biker who had been firing a gun, following the man to the ground with his scope. The man kept firing, so Bucher shot him again, in the head. Bikers were grappling and fistfighting, stabbing one another, running for cover. Bucher saw one walk up to someone on the ground and shoot him, point blank, before disappearing behind a truck.

Inside the restaurant, customers and staff were scrambling toward the kitchen, where many hid inside a walk-in freezer. Outside, the video caught a big man with long hair swinging a chain, then dropping to the ground after being shot in the leg. Two men briefly pummeled him before running.

The firefight lasted for only about two minutes. In the end, bullet fragments from police weapons would be found in the bodies of four of the nine bikers killed — though some also contained fragments of bullets from other guns, making the source of the fatal shots unclear. (A grand jury found the officers not guilty of any wrongdoing in 2016.) As police officers secured the scene, the bikers raised their hands in surrender or sprawled prone with their hands on their heads. Some cried out for help. Others tried to perform CPR on the wounded. Rock music continued to blare, eerily, from the restaurant’s sound system.

Large gatherings of bikers have been a source of anxiety for Americans since at least 1947, when up to 4,000 motorcyclists showed up for a rally in Hollister, Calif. The possibly sensationalized reports of what became known as the Hollister Riot included drunkenness, indecent exposure and the riding of motorcycles through restaurants and bars; they would inspire the short story that became “The Wild One,” the 1953 film in which Marlon Brando’s Black Rebels Motorcycle Club terrorizes square townies. There was a line, often attributed to the American Motorcycle Association, reassuring the nation that 99 percent of riders were law-abiding. But this statistic would eventually be turned “back on itself,” as the biker historian William L. Dulaney has written, by “a loose association of truly outlaw motorcycle clubs known as One Percenters.”

The best known of the 1 percent clubs, the Hells Angels, was started in Fontana, Calif., in 1948. The Bandidos came along 18 years later in 1966, founded by a 36-year-old Houston dockworker and Vietnam War veteran named Donald Chambers. One early member told Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly that many of them read Hunter S. Thompson’s just-published “Hell’s Angels” as a sort of how-to manual. Chambers’s leadership ended in 1972, when he received two consecutive life sentences for murdering a pair of drug dealers who tried to sell him baking soda as meth.

In 1981, an Austin police lieutenant told Newsweek that the Bandidos were “the single greatest organized-crime problem in Texas.” By this point, some members carried business cards reading, “We are the people our parents warned us about.” Dick Reavis, another Texas Monthly writer, did an article on the Bandidos in 1979, growing so close to members of the Fort Worth chapter that they invited him to prospect with the group. (A prospect is a probationary member. “I call them pledges,” Avery told me, “because I’m used to sororities.”) Reavis wasn’t so sure how organized the crime ever became, but he estimated that at least a third of the Bandidos he knew engaged in some sort of illegal activity (burglary, selling drugs, “driving hot cargo”), and he found violence endemic to the subculture. The Fort Worth chapter’s president was killed weeks before Reavis’s arrival; two others featured in his article would be shot within the year.

Patches on a Bandido’s vest commemorate Candyman, a Bandido who was killed in the fight.
Patches on a Bandido’s vest commemorate Candyman, a Bandido who was killed in the fight.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times
Patches on a Bandido’s vest commemorate Candyman, a Bandido who was killed in the fight.
Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

The case made by the U.S. Justice Department in its successful 1988 prosecution of Ronald Hodge, Chambers’s successor, suggested more of a top-down structure. Hodge, prosecutors said, ordered subordinates to collect $100 from every member of the group to fund an elaborate revenge plot against a rival club, the Banshees, meant to include a machine-gun attack on a clubhouse in Texarkana and the bombing of homes and vehicles in Dallas.

Prosecutions of Bandidos leadership would continue, but the organization expanded. By 2015, the Justice Department estimated a membership between 1,500 and 2,000. “Depending on who you talked to at that time, they were either the largest or second-largest outlaw motorcycle organization in the world, after the Hells Angels,” says Eric Fuchs, the assistant U.S. attorney who headed a 2018 case against the Bandidos’ president, Jeff Pike, and vice president, John Portillo. The Texas Department of Public Safety ranks the Bandidos as a Tier 2 gang, alongside the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings and Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. According to the Justice Department, the Bandidos brokered an agreement with the Texas Mexican Mafia to traffic cocaine and methamphetamine without paying the typical 10 percent permission fee. “I’m not convinced every Bandidos member commits crimes,” Fuchs told me. “But the way this organization operated had criminal activities intertwined throughout.”

In other states, Bandidos shared territory with other One Percenter outlaw clubs — but Texas, their motherland, they had always claimed for themselves. “Every Bandido in the U.S. has a Texas flag on their vest,” Fuchs says. According to Reavis, Bandidos ignored citizen bikers wearing American Motorcycle Association patches, but when it came to other outlaw clubs in Texas, “if you don’t behave like the subject of their feudal power, you’re going to be in trouble.” As he noted in his article, this hegemony extended to both nomenclature — a Black club called the African Bandits changed its name to the Mandinkas to avoid a war — and attire. “On the list of prohibited adornments” sewn on other clubs’ jackets, Reavis wrote, “are rocker patches that say Texas — for Bandidos consider that their native, exclusive turf.”

The Cossacks, founded in 1969, were nearly as old as the Bandidos. The club spent most of its existence with a much lower profile, but by 2015, its membership, and its ambitions, had grown. Sometime the year before, the Cossacks began wearing a Texas rocker on the back of their own vests. Federal investigators have claimed the Cossacks asked the Bandidos for permission first; according to W., the Cossacks simply went to the Bandidos and “told them we were doing it.” But in both accounts, the Cossacks were given a green light. “Actually,” W. told me, “their exact words, because I was sitting at the table that day, were, ‘If anybody deserves to have a Texas rocker, it would be the Cossacks, because you’ve been around just as long, and you’ve earned it.’”

At some point in fall 2014, though, Pike, the Bandidos’ president, convened a meeting at his home in Conroe, Texas. His second in command, John Portillo, and the national sergeant-at-arms, Justin Forster, attended. It’s unclear what had soured the relationship with the Cossacks — some believe it came down to the fact that the Cossacks made their Texas rocker substantially larger than the Bandidos’ — but permission to wear the patch was rescinded. And when the Cossacks refused to remove it, Fuchs says, “war was declared.”

The investigation that would lead to the takedown of the Bandidos’ national leadership came to be known as Operation Texas Rocker.

In 2015, the district attorney of McLennan County, where Waco is the largest city and county seat, was an ambitious 43-year-old named Abel Reyna. His father, Felipe, the son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, put himself through law school while working as a janitor at the McLennan County courthouse; he, too, served as the county’s D.A., from 1977 to 1982. Abel initially worked as a criminal defense lawyer and attributed his success in part to ignorance: Unaware of how to work the system to avoid trials, he logged plenty of courtroom hours, developing a flair for persuading jurors. An early profile by Tommy Witherspoon of The Waco Tribune-​Herald noted that, during jury selection, Reyna would dazzle the room by quickly memorizing dozens of potential jurors and calling on them by name.

Even though he worked as a defense lawyer, Reyna found himself disgusted by the number of cases the D.A., a five-term Democratic incumbent named John Segrest, was declining to prosecute. Reyna contested the seat in 2010, running as a law-and-order Republican and promising less lenient plea deals. “Law enforcement is voting for me,” he said during the campaign; stocky and buzz-cut, he looked more like a cop than a lawyer. He managed an upset victory, and by 2015, he had been easily re-elected to a second term. Despite a prickly relationship with the press and critiques that he wasn’t spending as much time personally trying cases as he had promised, Reyna had fulfilled his central campaign pledge, perhaps to a fault — his office was prosecuting cases to such an aggressive degree that concerns rose about jail overcrowding.

The weekend of the brawl, Waco’s police chief, Brent Stroman, was visiting family in Boston. The acting chief was Robert Lanning, a Waco native whose father founded the local Dr Pepper Museum. He heard about the shooting around 1:30 p.m., after church, and headed to Twin Peaks.

To that point, the police had been proceeding with a capital murder investigation. The bikers weren’t being given Miranda warnings because they were being treated as witnesses. According to Matthew Clendennen, a member of a Cossacks support club called the Scimitars, the bikers had been told that they would be transported to a facility where officers could take statements, and then they would be free to go. “The police were doing this correctly at first,” says Looney, the defense attorney. Between witness testimony and video and forensic evidence, cases might have been built against specific men responsible for the violence.

Lanning later said that he found Reyna and his first assistant D.A., Michael Jarrett, walking around the crime scene. Reyna, he said, initially told him that “he felt all of the bikers wearing colors should be charged,” then later narrowed that to Bandidos, Cossacks and their affiliates. (Reyna has disputed the first part of that account.) Lanning didn’t think that would be appropriate, and neither did two other assistant chiefs and a sergeant he consulted. He called Stroman, the chief, in Boston and told him, as Stroman would later recall, something “to the effect that he” — Reyna — “was wanting everyone arrested.” Stroman said it was Lanning’s call. “But I told him I was not going to make that decision,” Lanning said. “Or, if I did make that decision, it would be not to arrest.”

So Stroman called Reyna, who assured him there was probable cause for a mass arrest and that “he could stand in front of a jury and prosecute everyone that we arrested.” (Reyna disputes this portion of Stroman’s account.) Stroman told Lanning to make the arrests.

Looney found the identical bonds and affidavits farcical. ‘Justice is individualized,’ he says. ‘There’s no class-action prosecution.’

The bikers were transferred to the Waco Convention Center, where police officers separated them based on the colors on their vests, placing them in different rooms with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. Many ended up spending the night there, sleeping on the floor while restrained. Cody Ledbetter, a Cossack who grew up in Waco, remembered the convention center as the site of car shows and tattoo expos. He wasn’t taken to Highway 6, the county jail, for booking until 10 the next morning, and wasn’t placed in a cell at Jack Harwell, an ICE detention facility, until 2 the following morning.

Lanning was still prepared to conduct a capital murder investigation. But at the convention center, he was informed by a member of the district attorney’s staff that a more appropriate charge would be “engaging in organized criminal activity,” defined by a Texas statute used to prosecute criminal gangs — in this case, by linking all the bikers to a conspiracy “with the intent to commit murder, capital murder or aggravated assault.” The staff was already writing up a boilerplate arrest affidavit, which would be signed by the lead detective working that day, Manuel Chavez. First it described the clash and the nine deaths. “After the altercation,” the somewhat tangled next paragraph began, “the subject was apprehended at the scene, while wearing common identifying distinctive signs or symbols or had an identifiable leadership or continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activities.” An identical affidavit was used for each biker, their names handwritten by police officers on a blank line at the top. If found guilty, each faced a sentence ranging from 15 years to life.

By the time Looney took on William and Morgan English as clients, the couple had been sitting in jail for more than a week. His first order of business was a reduction of their million-dollar bonds. He couldn’t get anyone from the county to return his calls, so he drove to Waco and parked himself in the lobby of the D.A.’s office, telling Avery he didn’t plan on leaving “until somebody deals with me or arrests me.” Shortly before closing time, he was granted an audience. “And within five minutes,” according to Looney, “we had an agreement for a $25,000 bond.”

Up in Dallas, Clint Broden, a lawyer who specialized in federal white-collar cases, received a call from his then wife’s aunt, who knew one of the arrested bikers — Clendennen, from the Scimitars, a 30-year-old with a wife, four children and his own landscaping business. The local defense bar was overwhelmed with cases, so Broden met Clendennen at the Waco detention center. He was, in Broden’s view, a weekend-warrior type who just liked to ride, drink and hang out. He said he researched the Scimitars before joining, wary of being in a club with a bad reputation. He had no criminal record and was carrying only a two-inch pocketknife at Twin Peaks. He was on the patio drinking a glass of water when the shots rang out, after which his actions, Broden later wrote in a case filing, “were consistent with what 99 percent of the population would do — he immediately took cover to avoid being struck.”

After being transferred to the convention center, where he thought he would simply be giving a witness statement, Clendennen wound up spending more than two weeks in jail, unable to afford the $100,000 required for his $1 million bond. Broden talked to the D.A.’s office about reducing that amount, but nobody seemed in any rush to get anything done, even with so many people sitting in jail. Eventually he filed a lawsuit on Clendennen’s behalf, naming the city, county and Officer Chavez as defendants. He received a call from the office the next day, saying they would reduce the bond to $100,000.

Looney found the identical bonds and probable-cause affidavits farcical on their face. “Justice is individualized,” he told me. “There’s no class-action prosecution.” Back in Houston, he made it his mission to replace court-appointed defense attorneys before they could push their clients into accepting plea deals — an outcome he was convinced had been part of the D.A.’s strategy all along. With Avery’s help, Looney would eventually persuade nearly 30 lawyers to take pro bono Twin Peaks cases. “When I called, some were like, ‘I don’t know if I have the time,’” Avery told me. “I’d say: ‘You don’t need the time. You have me!’”

Still, the local justice system did not seem like friendly turf for the bikers. W.H. Peterson, the justice of the peace who set the identical million-dollar bonds, told The Waco Tribune-Herald that “I think it is important to send a message. We had nine people killed in our community.” After speaking to the press, Broden and Clendennen were hit with a gag order issued by the district judge Matt Johnson, Reyna’s former law partner. A Waco police detective was named the foreman of a grand jury that could hear Twin Peaks cases. By July 10, all but four of the bikers had been freed on bond, but judges still ruled against defense lawyers, including Looney, who argued that there hadn’t been cause to arrest their clients in the first place.

More stories began to trickle out, like that of Patrick Harris. He was a graduate student in Austin who worked as a volunteer clown with Hunter Adams, the real-life Patch Adams. Several members of his family worked in law enforcement in Houston, where his uncle, Raul Martinez, was the first Hispanic person to join the Police Department. Harris had no criminal record and no connection to the Cossacks or the Bandidos; his club, the Grim Guardians, worked as advocates for victims of child abuse. He had been outside parking his motorcycle when the shooting started, but he still found himself swept up in the mass arrest, along with two other friends from his club. “One is a civil engineer for the city” of Austin, Harris told me, “and the other is the foreman for a nonprofit that makes tiny homes for homeless people.” How many other bikers rounded up at the scene, citizens following the case might reasonably wonder, had been ordinary motorcycle enthusiasts with no connection to violent crime?

Patrick Harris, a graduate student in Austin who belonged to the Grim Guardians and is now a member of the Preytorians, was swept up in the mass arrest. A tattoo on his left arm commemorates the number of arrests.
Patrick Harris, a graduate student in Austin who belonged to the Grim Guardians and is now a member of the Preytorians, was swept up in the mass arrest. A tattoo on his left arm commemorates the number of arrests.Credit Eli Durst for The New York Times

Jake Carrizal, of the Dallas chapter of the Bandidos, was the first biker to stand trial. Jury selection began in fall 2017, two and a half years after Twin Peaks. Johnson, the district judge, presided.

Carrizal probably struck the prosecutors as both a high-value target and an easy win. Since his arrest, he had risen from vice president to president of his chapter, and he had flagrantly violated the conditions of his bond by continuing to associate with club members. Carrizal also admitted to firing his pistol at someone and lying to the police by denying he had brought a gun.

The prosecutors showed jurors stickers and patches on Bandidos’ gear, including one on Carrizal’s father’s bike that said “I Do Gang Things.” (“Is that a literal patch,” Jarrett asked sarcastically, “or is that a secret meaning that means the exact opposite of what it says?”) The prosecutors also revealed damaging text messages, including an exchange between Carrizal and a support-club member called Jughead, who had texted to say that Cossacks had tagged the wall of a bar in Dallas and might still be nearby. “OK,” Carrizal replied. “I’m not far away if you need me and I’m packing.” What was he packing, Jarrett asked — a lunch?

In the end, though, Carrizal, in his thick black glasses, soft-spoken and obviously intelligent, made a surprisingly compelling witness, undermining the state’s portrayal of him as a violent gang leader. He claimed the Cossacks had ambushed his crew, and he began crying when talking about his father, Chris Carrizal, who was known as Shovel, being shot that day. Before Twin Peaks, he had never been arrested. A Cossack, he said, threw the first punch, and Carrizal got in a single punch before being swarmed: “I remember they had brass knuckles, and they were trying to get inside my face shield — they were trying to hit inside there. I was just kicking and punching. I remember I had a foldout pocketknife in my pocket. And I was trying to get that pocketknife because I wanted to get them off me, and I never could.” Tommy Witherspoon, who covered the trial for The Waco Tribune-Herald, told me that Carrizal was “the most effective defendant I’ve ever seen take the stand in his own defense, and I’ve been doing this for 40 years.”

On Nov. 10, 2017, after deliberating for 14 hours, the Carrizal jury announced that it could not reach a verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial.

Carrizal, center, at Strokers Ice House in Dallas. 
Carrizal, center, at Strokers Ice House in Dallas. Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times
Carrizal, center, at Strokers Ice House in Dallas. 

This was far from the prosecutors’ only setback. Because Reyna was named in a number of the civil suits, two defense lawyers — Broden and Abigail Anastasio, a friend Looney recruited from Houston — argued that the district attorney had a financial incentive to bring the cases to trial, and they began filing motions to disqualify him from pending matters involving their clients. They also accused him of improperly hijacking the police investigation in, as Broden wrote, “an act of political opportunism.”

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