The secrecy that enshrouds the investigation of a biker shootout in May that left nine people dead and led to the mass arrest of 177 people is hardly surprising in this city, where public scrutiny is rare and unwelcome.
On the banks of the Brazos River in Central Texas, Waco and the surrounding county are largely run by a close-knit circle of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement that defense lawyers complain leads local agencies to close ranks in the aftermath of this most recent calamity.
A district judge and district attorney are former law partners, the mayor is the son of a former mayor, the sheriff comes from a long line of lawmen and Waco pioneers and the sheriff’s brother is the district attorney’s chief investigator.
Bikers and public watchdogs have criticized authorities here for how they’ve handled the investigation, citing the arrests in which people were held for days or weeks with bail set at $1 million without sufficient evidence to support such actions four months after the shootings.
No formal charges have been brought, and it remains unclear whose bullets, including police bullets, struck the dead and injured, or when cases will be presented to a grand jury, which is currently led by a Waco police detective.
“I don’t know of any defense lawyer who hasn’t looked at the facts of this case and gasped,” said Grant Scheiner, a criminal defense attorney in Houston who is not connected to the bikers’ case.
Waco police, McLennan County prosecutors and judges refused to comment – citing a gag order written by the DA – but law enforcers staunchly defend their actions, including the 12 shots that the police chief said officers fired into the melee after bikers allegedly opened fire on them.
The violence erupted May 17 before a meeting of a coalition of motorcycle clubs that advocates rider safety. Police have said two rival biker gangs got into a confrontation that turned deadly when one group opened fire on another outside a Twin Peaks restaurant.
Authorities arrested 177 people who remained in custody until their bail amounts were reduced. Defense attorneys have been critical of how the cases have been processed, accusing District Attorney Abel Reyna of writing “fill-in-the-blank” arrest affidavits. A police officer testified that a justice of the peace approved the affidavits without making any individual determination of probable cause.
In the criminal case of one of the defendants, Reyna’s former law partner, District Judge Matt Johnson, issued a gag order as written by Reyna.
Many bikers who previously told The Associated Press they were innocent bystanders are now reluctant to say more because of the gag order.
Although police and the district attorney described last spring everyone who was taken into custody as criminals, an Associated Press review of a Texas Department of Public Safety database found no convictions listed under the names and birth dates of more than two-thirds of those arrested.
Justifying the mass arrests, Sheriff Parnell McNamara said, “A message was sent to the whole country that we will not tolerate this type of disorder in our community.”
McNamara describes the county’s criminal justice system as a close-knit Christian “posse” of Baylor University graduates committed to “putting away as many hard-core criminals as possible.”
That kind of mentality led former McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest to compare the county’s criminal justice system to a “bubble, a separate realm. When you’re a member of the system, you tend to think that most everything revolves around anything that you do. You get an unrealistic view of the world from inside.”
The city’s crown jewel is Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, which in the 1880s attracted Baptists from across Texas to Waco, then known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. The private university has an air of insularity that extends to the county courthouse, a domed palace whose Lady Justice lost her arm holding scales in a storm.
From a series of Ku Klux Klan lynchings nearly a century ago to a massive twister in 1953 that tore through downtown to the Branch Davidian siege in 1993, Waco’s downtown streets, a mix of historic mansions, public buildings, dilapidated houses and empty spaces where nothing was rebuilt reflect a city perpetually recovering from its last disaster.
Sheriff McNamara, the descendent of one of Waco’s early settlers, was formerly a U.S. marshal who participated in the Branch Davidian siege in which federal agents tried to arrest cult leader David Koresh for stockpiling weapons at a ranch outside town. The confrontation led to a 51-day standoff that ended when the complex caught fire, killing Koresh and nearly 80 followers.
The international attention brought by the tragedy left Waco residents wary of outside law enforcement agencies, and they say they'll handle the biker shootout themselves.
“Waco’s nickname is Six-Shooter Junction,” McNamara said. “Not really anything we’re real proud of, but that’s just the way it is.”