– An Opinion by Raine Devries
After almost five months, the criminal justice system in Waco continues to mystify journalists and legal minds across the nation with more questions arising than answers. Observers are impatiently awaiting the elusive ballistics report that will say for once and for all if this was truly a biker-on-biker crime, a cop-on-biker crime, or a combination thereof that left nine motorcyclists lying in pools of blood in a parking lot on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
This case is one of the largest criminal prosecutions to have ever occurred in Texas and, while Sgt. Patrick Swinton of the Waco Police Department held an astonishing seven press conferences in the 72 hours immediately following the bloodbath, he, and the department at large, have been amazingly quiet over the past several weeks. So quiet, that they’ve even deleted the updates they posted to their official Facebook page in the days following the shootings.
The families of the dead deserve answers – as do the 18 injured and the staggering 177 arrested. All these people deserve to be treated with respect and IF the Waco PD and McLennan County DA’s office did err—even with the best of intentions– they are only digging the proverbial hole deeper the longer they wait to come clean.
Sgt. Swinton’s initial comments to the national press vilified more than 200 people, most of whom it appears were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The “Waco 177” as they have come to be known, were each hit with a $1 million bond which almost none of them could raise. As a result, they languished in the for-profit jail for the better part of two weeks before bond reduction hearings started being scheduled. Even then, it was months before they all made it out of jail – most wearing GPS monitoring devices.
These riders were alleged to be members of outlaw motorcycle gangs and charged with a capital crime, yet according to research by the Associated Press, more than two-thirds of those arrested did not even have criminal records. Dozens of innocent people were incorrectly labeled as villains and so very many of them have paid high prices: losing jobs, homes, and for some, custody arrangements for their children.
As the slow wheels of justice began to turn, troubling news surfaced that the office of District Attorney Abel Reyna issued arrest affidavits that would have been laughed out of any decent first-year law class, were it not for the fact that there was so much blood spilled. The justice of the peace who approved the affidavits was not approved under Texas state law to hear capital cases, let alone set $1,000,000 bonds.
More than a month after the killings, a judge issued a gag order–a judge who happens to be the former law partner of the DA. Then, as if the case wasn’t muddy enough, Waco police detective James Head was appointed as the foreman of the grand jury hearing the Waco 177 cases. An immediate outcry from the public resulted; by all appearances, the case was reeking of nepotism and good ol’ boy politics.
It would be four full months before the autopsy report would be released on the nine slain motorcyclists. The report clearly states that five were shot in the head, neck, and/or back with “downward trajectory” and one had a bullet hole in the top of his head; those men were possibly on their knees when shot and none of them had evidence of debris indicating that they were shot at close range.
One man was shot in the buttocks and thigh…he died by bleeding out in that parking lot within sight of a hospital just across the road. Waco police officers reportedly would not allow paramedics to tend to his wounds nor would they allow fellow motorcyclists with military combat experience to help him. According to those at the scene, those officers clearly and loudly told the bikers trying to help the dead and dying that they were to lie face down or they too would be shot.
The AP has gone on record stating that the evidence it has seen confirms that police bullets hit motorcyclists; however, the ballistics report has still not yet been released so the public does not yet know if the bikers shot one another or law enforcement. Reportedly, defense attorneys do not yet know who shot whom.
On Friday, October 2, as this author drove by the site, the Twin Peaks in Waco sits vacant along the busy I-35 corridor and is unadorned of its signage. The building is for sale but there are no signs anywhere advertising it. Nine yellow skulls have been placed in memory of the dead, bullet holes are still apparent on the exterior of the building and even in the bright afternoon sun there is an aura of sadness and loss. Even harder to process is the size and configuration of the parking lot. Witnessing how small it is forces the realization that those bikers were shot like fish in a barrel with nowhere to escape.
There are 177 people facing 15 years to life, most of whom are guilty of nothing more than riding to Waco one spring Sunday to find out more about motorcycle rights and legislation. There are 18 people recovering from their wounds, and there are the loved ones of nine dead motorcyclists asking for the truth.
With so much secrecy on this case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals should step up and help right a wrong by nullifying the gag order–transparency is desperately needed at this time.
There needs to be full disclosure calling for the reasons of why the Waco PD was outfitted in tactical gear and lying in wait for the riders on that Sunday…disclosure of which law enforcement agency gave them the kind of information that was so alarming, they literally shot and asked questions later.
The McLennan County and the Waco Police Departments need to step up and do the right thing because this issue isn’t going away for them either. The Associated Press, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and local news affiliates throughout Texas have all sent in their best investigative reporters; even GQ Magazine is covering this story.
What D.A. Reyna, Sgt. Swinton, and the rest of law enforcement need to understand is that this case is not just about bikers, it is about basic rights afforded to all American citizens.
List of the motorcyclists killed on May 17, 2015 in Waco, TX:
- Daniel Boyett, 44, was shot twice in the head and once in the abdomen.
- Wayne Lee Campbell, 43, died from a gunshot wound to the head.
- Richard Matthew Jordan, 31, suffered one gunshot wound to the head.
- Richard Vincent Kirschner Jr., 47, was shot three times in the left buttocks, right thigh, and left knee.
- Jacob Rhyne, 39, died of gunshot wounds to the neck and abdomen.
- Jesus Rodriguez, 65, died from gunshot wounds to the head and trunk.
- Manuel Rodriguez, 40, died of gunshot wounds to the head and back.
- Charles Wayne Russell, 46, was shot once in the chest.
- Matthew Smith, 27, was shot in the back and in the abdomen.