The more sinister side of biker culture was thrust into the spotlight after Sunday’s bloodbath in the parking lot of a Waco, Texas, restaurant where a gathering of several rival gangs ended with nine people dead and 18 wounded.
Authorities Monday charged about 170 gang members in the massacre. The shootings are being investigated as capital murder because of the number of people killed, said Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton. Swanton said the groups were apparently meeting to discuss turf and recruiting issues.
Among the unanswered questions is who fired the fatal shots. Along with the bikers, police also fired when the melee erupted inside the Twin Peaks restaurant and spilled onto an outdoor patio and then the parking lot.
The first shots were fired inside the restaurant, Swanton said. “We had wounded inside, we had people stabbed, and we had people beaten.”
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Swanton said he didn’t know how many officers fired or whether they struck any of the bikers. No bystanders or officers were hurt in the violence.
“As we turned up on scene,” the bikers, who had been shooting other bikers, “turned on police, who returned fire.”
The bikers were “not here to drink beer and eat barbecue,” Swanton said. “They came with violence in mind.”
Police have been highly critical of the Waco restaurant and its decision to allow the bikers to gather despite intelligence reports that the motorcycle gangs, including the Bandidos and Cossacks, represented a danger. Members of the Scimitars — a gang affiliated with the Cossacks — and two other motorcycle clubs were also involved.
Twin Peaks — a national chain that features waitresses in revealing uniforms — on Monday revoked the franchise rights to the restaurant, which opened in August.
Randy DeWitt, chief executive of Twin Peaks, describes the restaurant as “a high-energy mountain-themed sports bar.”
“We have an expression at Twin Peaks,” he adds: “It’s a place where you can let your man out.”
Swanton said reports of additional bikers speeding into town for payback were borne out. He said that in addition to a “green light” order issued by biker leaders to attack local officers, threats were made overnight to the convention-center area where bikers were being detained, but that the area was secure Monday.
More than 100 motorcycles were in the parking lots around the restaurant Monday, along with an additional 50 to 75 vehicles that probably belong to gang members, Swanton said.
The public image of many motorcycle gangs has been burnished in recent years thanks to the many largely benign bike enthusiasts who’ve co-opted some of the same clothing and style.
“I think, as a society, and to a large extent even in law enforcement, we fall into the sense that these guys are these big, rough-looking teddy bears that do blood drives and toy runs and are harmless,” said former undercover agent Jay Dobyns, who infiltrated the notorious Hells Angels Motorcycle Club for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “The reality of it is that it’s a very dangerous world, inhabited by violent men.”
Motorcycle culture’s image problem goes back at least to 1947, when a race in Hollister, Calif., descended into two days of bloody riots. The Hollister riots spawned “The Wild One,” Marlon Brando’s 1953 classic. But Brando’s character, with his dungarees turned up at the ankles and cap at a rakish angle, seems quaint compared with FX Networks’ bloody “Sons of Anarchy” series.
Both good and bad alike call their organizations “clubs.” Both use the term “colors” for the emblems on the backs of their jackets and vests.
“Wear your colors with pride,” advertises a California company that makes patches for biker clubs, law-enforcement agencies, fire departments, even the Boy Scouts of America.
Don Chambers, founder of the Bandidos gang, modeled his club’s emblem — a sombrero-wearing Mexican caricature carrying a sword and pistol — after the corn chip company’s Frito Bandito mascot, Katz says.
Other clubs that want to operate on their turf are required to wear a patch called a “support cookie,” so named because it’s the size and shape of a cookie.
“You have a major gang. Then you have like a puppet club or you can call it a farm team that is part of their organization. But they’re not a member of the big dogs,” says Katz, vice president of the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association.
Motorcycle-gang members wear vests with top and bottom patches or “rockers” indicating their membership and location, which become an issue in turf wars.
“The Cossacks have been trying to become a little more independent,” Cook said. Instead of wearing patches showing their city and county, they “recently started wearing Texas bottom rockers — well, that’s a direct challenge to the Bandidos, which claim Texas as a territory.”
“The view of the Bandidos is that Texas is their state,” Katz said. The Bandidos “are the big dogs of Texas,” he said, but the smaller Cossacks gang was “not going to bow down,” and there has been a series of violent confrontations between them.
A lawyer and a biker leader disputed the police characterization of the Waco event, saying it was a publicly scheduled meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents, a grass-roots gathering to discuss legislative and safety issues that has taken place regularly across the state for years without any violence, the men say.
“They happen about every other month,” said William Smith, a Dallas-based attorney who did not attend the meeting but represents bikers. He said Sunday’s shooting was the first instance of violence he had heard of happening in 18 years of attending such meetings across the state.
“We’re all shocked by the other group that came in to intentionally disrupt the meeting,” Smith said of the Cossacks.
A Bandido leader, who declined to give his name and identified himself as “Gimmi Jimmy,” was scheduled to speak to attendees at the meeting about legislative issues brought up at the annual National Coalition of Motorcyclists convention he had just attended in Denver.
A gang-threat assessment by the Texas Department of Public Safety last year classified the Bandidos as a Tier 2 threat, the second highest. Other groups in that tier included the Bloods, Crips and the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.
Steve Cook, a Kansas City-area police officer with the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Investigators Association who has worked undercover in the Hermanos gang affiliated with the Bandidos, said Sunday’s shooting was no surprise. He also described it as a scheduled meeting of a “confederation of clubs.”
The dominant gang dictates the terms of the meeting, Cook said: “what you wear, what you ride, who you talk to.”
The Bandidos, formed in the 1960s, are involved in trafficking cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines, according to the Justice Department.
Though less is known about them, the Cossacks have a history with the Bandidos dating to at least November 2013, when a fight broke out between members of the two gangs outside Logan’s Roadhouse in Abilene, Texas. Five men were injured.
Katz says bikers maim and kill each other all the time. The only thing unusual about the Waco confrontation was that it happened in public.
“I get that question all the time: ‘Are these guys still around?’ ” he says. “Of course, they are. But they’ve lowered their profile, because it’s bad for business to be involved in something where you’re going to attract a great deal of law-enforcement attention. They’ve never gone away. In fact, they’ve grown.”
Some clubs boast chapters on the other side of the globe.
“You look at crime syndicates. They come to America from other places,” says Dobyns, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. “But the biker culture? That is America’s export to the … world of crime syndicates.”