Clarity remains elusive four months after Waco biker shootout

More than four months after nine bikers were killed May 17 during a shootout outside the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, troubling questions stand before us, while clarity remains elusive.

The mass arrest of 177 people has created a legal morass, and complicated an already complex investigation. An overly broad gag order is feeding suspicion that more than complexity is delaying the release of information about the investigation.

And while autopsy reports on the nine bikers killed were released in August, ballistics testing reportedly continues. Without ballistics evidence the question of who shot whom increasingly generates harmful speculation. The embarrassing lack of transparency begs the question: Why don’t we know yet what really happened in Waco?

What we do know is that some police bullets hit bikers, a point confirmed last week by Associated Press reporter Emily Schmall following a review of more than 8,800 pages of police reports and other evidence. But it isn’t known how many of the nine dead or 18 wounded bikers were hit by police gunfire, or whether any of the police gunfire caused any of the bikers’ deaths.

A coalition of motorcycle clubs was meeting at the Twin Peaks restaurant when Waco police say a parking-lot fistfight between Bandidos and Cossacks, two biker gangs with a history of violence between them, escalated into a shootout that quickly involved numerous police officers who had assembled nearby to watch over the gathering. Police dash-cam video viewed by AP shows people fleeing the scene while shots are fired. Video viewed by AP from Twin Peaks and an adjacent restaurant does not clarify who is shooting at whom.

Schmall also reported last week that police confiscated more than 430 weapons after the shooting, including 151 guns. Some of the weapons were taken from bikers, some were removed from vehicles, some were found scattered about the scene. It isn’t clear what all the weapons are or how many of the guns were legally owned and carried — or how many might have been fired.

What has become increasingly apparent over the past four months is that most of the bikers who were arrested May 17 probably had nothing to do with the alleged clash that prompted the shooting, or with the shooting itself. Many of the bikers present at Twin Peaks may have been nothing more than motorcycle enthusiasts who wear leather vests and club colors as they play the role of biker rebel, but who are not members of criminal motorcycle gangs.

An AP review of a Texas Department of Public Safety database showed that more than two-thirds of the 177 people arrested have no criminal history. Their lives appear to have been placed unfairly in legal limbo simply by their proximity to the shootout. That is, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Citing a DPS report, Schmall reported that authorities took the bikers to the Waco convention center to be interviewed as witnesses. Once there, McLennan County prosecutors decided to arrest the majority of those detained and charge them with engaging in organized crime, a catch-all charge. A justice of the peace approved scores of arrest affidavits without making any individual determination of probable cause, the AP reported.

Several examining trials have been held since the arrests to rule on the question of probable cause, and to determine whether there is enough evidence in each case to present it to a grand jury for possible indictment.

The mass arrest and the exorbitant $1 million bail that followed left scores of bikers sitting in jail for days or weeks, unable to afford bond. Eventually, bail was reduced for most of the bikers, which allowed them to post bond and return to their lives pending possible indictment and trial — though many had lost jobs or apartments while stuck in jail, and some even had lost custody of their children.

The McLennan County grand jury that could consider indictments against the arrested bikers is led by James Head, a Waco police detective. The constitutionally questionable gag order thrown over the case was written by McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna and issued by District Judge Matt Johnson, Reyna’s former law partner. Both relationships underscore the familial and professional coziness among local officials that long have generated complaints about conflicts of interest in Waco and McLennan County.

The public needs to be confident that every one of the bikers arrested May 17 — whether alleged gang member or ersatz rebel — will receive impartial justice. It’s up to Waco authorities to build and maintain that confidence.

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