The announcement comes nearly four years after roughly 200 members of rival motorcycle clubs descended on the Waco, Tex., strip mall parking lot, allegedly to settle a territorial dispute. Before long, it devolved into a bloody melee. Terrified diners enjoying a midday lunch took cover in the restaurant as dozens of Bandidos and Cossacks bikers exchanged gunfire and brandished knives. Overwhelmed police failed to stop the violence, instead adding to it with more gunfire. In just minutes, nine people died, making it the deadliest biker shootout in U.S. history. At least 20 were critically injured. Dozens of guns and knives were abandoned as swarms of tattooed men scattered.
Nearly everyone at the scene — 177 people — was arrested.
What followed was a prosecutorial fiasco, as one by one, the criminal cases collapsed under a former district attorney’s leadership. During the four years of prosecution against dozens of alleged gang members, only a single case went to trial, resulting in a mistrial. The vast majority of the original 177 cases were dismissed.
For Johnson, who took office Jan. 1, the mess he inherited was too hopeless to clean up. He suspected further prosecution of the remaining 24 individuals would fail, just like the rest. It was time to let it go, he said.
“I do not believe that it is a proper exercise of my judgment ... to proceed with the further prosecution of what I believe to have been an ill-conceived path that this District Attorney’s Office was set upon almost four years ago,” Johnson wrote in his statement, “and I do not believe that path should continue to be pursued.”
The Bandidos and the Cossacks both trace their roots in Texas to the 1960s and, for years, the Lone Star State biker gangs remained rivals. The trigger of the May 17, 2015 brawl, however, has largely remained mysterious, even as prosecutors interviewed dozens of bikers during the years-long investigation. Authorities said the shootout was the result of a turf war, arguing that the Bandidos were angry when the much smaller Cossacks club began wearing Texas patches on their jackets. Bikers who were present at the shooting have disputed this, with some saying that it began when one biker ran over another’s foot.
Regardless, problems plagued the case from the very beginning. Within hours of the shootout, former McLennan County district attorney Abel Reyna issued 177 blanket arrest warrants for those found at the scene. No matter their suspected degree of involvement, all faced identical felony charges: engaging in organized criminal activity, resulting in murder and aggravated assault.
Some, however, were not even connected to the brawl and just happened to be wearing biker-like clothing while dining at Twin Peaks, where the Bandidos were hosting a social event. Multiple erroneous arrests resulted in multimillion-dollar lawsuits that are still pending, the Austin American-Statesman reported. At least 130 of the bikers have filed civil rights lawsuits against the police and DA’s office, angry they had been labeled “gang members,” while insisting they were innocent of any gang conspiracy.
Defense attorneys for the men weren’t the only ones who bashed Reyna for the blanket accusations. As former Harris County district attorney Johnny Holmes told the Houston Chronicle in 2018: “You got to prove who the bad egg is. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to put all the chickens in jail.’ "
Ultimately, 155 motorcycle club members were indicted by a grand jury on the identical charges. Johnson wrote in his letter that he was perplexed why Reyna didn’t more closely examine each biker’s actions so he could bring more specific charges against each one. Had he done so, Johnson wrote, Reyna could have had a better opportunity to present evidence that would “support a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“In my opinion,” Johnson wrote, “had this action been taken in a timely manner, it would have, and should have, resulted in numerous convictions and prison sentences against many of those who participated in the Twin Peaks brawl. Over the next three years the prior District Attorney failed to take that action, for reasons that I do not know to this day.”
Reyna said in a statement to the Waco Tribune-Herald that he disagreed with Johnson’s decision and with some of the “accusations” Johnson made in his statement but said he would “respect the fact that voters of McLennan County chose Mr. Johnson to make these types of decisions.”
The only person to go to trial was Christopher “Jake” Carrizal, president of the Dallas Bandidos chapter. The county spent a total of $1.3 million preparing for Carrizal’s trial and investigating all the Twin Peaks cases, KWTX reported.
Carrizal was accused by prosecutors of organizing the brawl, based in part on text messages in which he instructed Bandidos members to bring their “tools” to the Twin Peaks meeting, which prosecutors alleged meant guns, and to “leave your women at home.”
Carrizal, however, maintained on the witness stand that the Cossacks group ambushed them at Twin Peaks, showing up with bulletproof vests and looking for a fight.
Speaking to the jury, the thick-bearded biker wiped tears through his black-framed glasses as he recounted being surrounded by Cossacks, “just lying there, waiting to be stabbed or shot,” as the Waco Tribune-Herald reported. Carrizal admitted he fired his gun, but claimed it was in self-defense.
He blamed only the Cossacks, he said.
Of the dead, six were Cossacks, one was a Bandido, one belonged to another motorcycle club and another man was not affiliated with any club, according to KVUE. Ballistics evidence later showed that four of the men who died had bullet wounds from the same caliber rifles fired by police, the Associated Press reported. A grand jury declined to indict three of the Waco officers who were involved.
In November 2017, the jury in Carrizal’s case voted 10 to 2 for acquittal, causing the mistrial.
Johnson told the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday that he didn’t want a repeat of that “nightmare.”
“To open that Pandora’s box back up and start down that road again — when we don’t feel that, after looking at the facts and the evidence, that we would be able to meet our burden of beyond a reasonable doubt — would be irresponsible, in my opinion,” Johnson said. “Therefore, I am making the decision now to end this nightmare that we have been dealing with in this county since May 17, 2015.”
Before being voted out of office — largely over the handling of this case — Reyna dismissed all but 24 of the cases. He downgraded the charges from engaging in organized criminal activity to rioting, a class B misdemeanor.
Johnson could have still upgraded those riot charges to felonies based on the violent acts in the parking lot. But the new district attorney said he did not believe this would be successful, believing the risky legal maneuver might not withstand an appeal. He said he feared wasting more taxpayer money and judicial and law enforcement resources.
Defense attorneys for the bikers were thrilled, telling the Tribune-Herald they had known since the start that their clients would prevail.
“They destroyed this case a long time ago,” Houston attorney Paul Looney told the newspaper. “They were kind of like a chicken that had its neck wrung. They ran around the yard for a bit, but eventually they fall over dead. That is what happened here.”