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WACO, Texas — After the guns fell silent on May 17 — one of the bloodiest afternoons in the history of American motorcycle clubs — nine bikers lay dead in a strip mall parking lot littered with weapons.
Many more were injured, bleeding from gunshots and knife wounds. A police officer asked what every other cop there must have wondered at that moment: How many of you are armed?
“I asked anybody who had a gun to raise their hand,” Waco Officer Ryan Holt wrote in a police report obtained by CNN.
Nearly everybody did.
As Holt and his fellow officers disarmed the injured bikers, so many guns piled up on the ground that they literally got in the way. SWAT team officers drove a pickup truck to the crime scene “so we could pile the firearms in the bed to try to keep suspects from moving over the top of them,” Holt noted in his report.
480 weapons, 177 arrests
In all, police recovered 480 weapons: 151 guns, along with assorted knives, brass knuckles, batons, hammers, and the bikers’ blunt objects of choice — padlocks wrapped in bandanas.
Some 177 bikers were arrested — so many that they were taken to the Waco Convention Center and held for processing in separate rooms: one for members of the club known as the Bandidos and the other for their rivals, the Cossacks. All were jailed on $1 million bail each and charged with engaging in organized crime activity.
More than five months later, no one has been charged in the deaths of the nine bikers. Police and prosecutors are silenced by a gag order; a grand jury is weighing charges in the case.
But against a backdrop of official silence, CNN has obtained thousands of pages of documents — including police intelligence reports, crime scene photos and witness interviews — as well as surveillance video. These begin to tell the story of how a midday gunfight turned the parking lot of a Waco strip mall into a battle zone.
They also show that tension had been building for months between the two motorcycle clubs.
The oldest club in Texas versus the upstarts
The Bandidos, formed in Houston in 1966, are the oldest, largest and most powerful motorcycle group in Texas with more than 2,000 members, according to the Department of Justice. They have a national presence, particularly in Southern states. The Cossacks formed a few years later but kept a low profile. Now, they’re considered an upstart, with about 800 members and, according to police, a strong desire to beef up their presence in their home state of Texas.
Although the bikers insist their clubs are social, even philanthropic organizations, police see both as criminal gangs. Law enforcement officials call them outlaw biker clubs, among the “one-percenters.”
That label is derived from a quote that may be apocryphal but is part of biker lore that dates back to the 1960s: Someone supposedly said that 99% of bikers are law-abiding citizens, leaving the mayhem to the other one percent.
Both clubs deny they are involved in criminal activities such as drug distribution. They scoff at the notion that they are gangs in disguise. The Bandidos denied any wrongdoing in a news release after the gunfight. They accused police of mishandling the confrontation and giving the public “a false narrative.”
“Members of the Bandidos were not aggressors, did not start the altercation, did not strike first, were not the first to pull weapons, and were not the first to use weapons,” the club stated in its news release. “The majority of the Bandidos took cover, and all involvement in the altercation by members of the Bandidos was in self-defense.”
What started it?
It’s difficult to know for certain who started the mayhem on May 17. A review of the voluminous police file raises some troubling questions and intriguing theories. The witness accounts vary widely, depending on who’s talking and what his or her club alliances might be.
The Bandidos had reserved the patio of the Twin Peaks restaurant for a meeting to discuss club business. They told police the Cossacks crashed the meeting, according to the incident report.
But many Cossacks and their supporters said they were invited to the meeting and told it had been called to broker peace. Now they’re wondering if they were set up.
Harsh words were exchanged as the Bandidos rolled up to the restaurant to find a line of Cossack bikes already parked out front. Several witnesses insist that a high-ranking Bandido, backing his motorcycle into a parking space, struck a Cossack “prospect.”
“The lead guy, I looked out — I was watching — he deliberately steered into one of our prospects and hit him,” said John Wilson, president of the Waco-area chapter of the Cossacks. Wilson, who owns a Waco bike shop, Legends Cycles, spoke on camera with CNN.
He said he was unarmed and hadn’t come to fight that day.
By his account, the Bandido biker “deliberately ran into” the Cossack prospect, hitting him hard enough to “knock him down.” He described the prospect as “an older guy” with a leg brace who “certainly wasn’t a threat to anybody.”
Prospects are would-be members who are assigned menial tasks as they work their way up to becoming full-fledged, “patched” members. In this case, prospect Clifford Pearce was tasked with watching over the parked Cossack motorcycles.
Pearce insisted to police that nobody ran over his foot, as Wilson and some other witnesses claimed. But Pearce acknowledged that it might have looked like he’d been hit because he didn’t move out of the way quickly enough. During the melee, he was shot in the spine and paralyzed. He declined to speak with CNN. Pearce has not been charged.
‘It was pretty horrific’
Wilson said it didn’t take long for harsh words to turn into flying fists, and finally gunshots.
“I couldn’t even see who threw the punch,” he told CNN. “But I saw our guy’s head go back, and it looked like he was getting ready to punch back whoever did it and a shot went off.” He heard “a couple more shots, some scuffling around and then, almost instantly, gunfire just erupted from all around the perimeter.”
The view from Wilson’s vantage point was heart-stopping.
“I promptly got down on that sidewalk trying to avoid being hit myself,” he told CNN. “At that time it was pretty horrific, there were guys getting hit, falling, and I realized that I needed to get away from where I was. I looked to the guy to my left, a good friend of mine, and said, ‘We need to get off the sidewalk or we are going to die here.'”
Other bikers were thinking the same thing. A large group ran from the gunfire toward Waco police Officer George Vrail as he stepped out of his patrol car. He ordered them to the ground; some said they’d been hit. The shooter, they said, fled into the bathroom.
Inside the men’s room, officers found pools of blood, along with piles of bloody paper towels. It looked like an injured biker had tried to treat his wounds there. Whoever it was, he was gone.
Two fellow officers told Vrail they’d been shot at and returned fire. One, Heath Jackson, said he believed they’d both “struck multiple suspects.” A third officer also told Vrail that he had “engaged with his weapon.”
There has been no official word on whether anyone was injured or killed by police bullets.
‘Streaks of blood, droplets and pools of blood’
Officer Kristina Woodruff was called to the scene on her day off. When she arrived at Twin Peaks, the food on the tables was still fresh, the drink glasses dewy with moisture, she recalled in a vividly written report.
She stepped around the bodies and walked across the patio.
“The music was blaring loudly and dead bikers were lying on the concrete, many of them with drying, coagulating blood turning from red to brown that gravitated to the crevices and cracks,” Woodruff wrote. “There were streaks of blood, droplets and pools of blood, blood smearing and smudging all around.”
And then there were the weapons.
“There were so many guns, knives and brass knuckles lying all around the motorcycles,” she added in her report.
“It was unbelievable. They were everywhere.”
The video, taken from more than a dozen surveillance cameras, reveals a chaotic scene inside the restaurant.
As the Bandido bikers roll into the parking lot, a crowd of Cassocks already gathered on the patio is eating and drinking; some are still being served.
The parking lot can’t be seen on the video, but it does show the reaction of the Cossacks and their supporters.
Several men draw handguns. One biker runs across the patio, firing a gun wildly toward the crowd. A camera catches a small group of bikers, off to one side, pummeling a man.
Another camera angle shows a man running from the parking lot onto the patio. His face is a bloody pulp.
Some bikers leap over a patio fence and rush toward the parking lot — and presumably into the gunfire. But nearly as many others run inside to hide in the restrooms and kitchen. They emerge under police escort, their hands held high in the air.
CNN also spoke with attorneys for some of the bikers charged with engaging in organized criminal activity. Some spent days or weeks in jail, unable to raise the required $1 million bail. They say their only mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Turf and respect
While the initial fisticuffs might have been triggered by a perceived slight, police reports show the Bandidos and Cossacks had been locking horns for months over issues near and dear to any biker — territory and respect.
The Bandidos decide what other groups can operate in Texas and charge them dues. They insist that only dues-paying members can wear a “Texas” patch on their jackets or vests, according to police documents.
Wilson, who heads the Waco-area Cossacks chapter, says the Bandidos are simply taking money from the other clubs. The Cossacks won’t pay, he told police. After the shootout, the Bandidos released a statement calling the violence “senseless, unnecessary and wrong.”
Yet Cossacks have been spotted wearing Texas patches even as they refuse to acknowledge the Bandidos’ self-proclaimed supremacy. The Cossacks think they’re being picked on. They consider the Bandidos to be “the bully on the block,” as biker Robert “Vegas” Bucy told police.
Investigators were hearing about rising tension between the two clubs as early as March, according to a 430-page investigative report by the Texas Department of Public Safety. It is included among the documents CNN obtained.
Less than three weeks before the melee in Waco, the department issued a memo that warned of escalating violence between Bandidos and Cossacks, “with no indication of diminishing.”
The memo, shared with law enforcement agencies across the state, cited clashes between the two clubs dating back to November 2013, when a Bandidos member was arrested after allegedly stabbing two Cossacks outside a restaurant in Abilene. Bandidos reportedly had knocked over and damaged the Cossacks’ bikes in the parking lot, sparking a fight.
Two biker confrontations in March — two months before the shootout in Waco — caught the eye of police. Eight to 10 Cossacks forced a lone Bandido biker off the road. Police say they beat him with chains, batons and metal pipes. The same day, a group of Bandidos confronted a Cossack at a truck stop. They hit him over the head with a hammer, police said, after he refused to remove his “Texas” patch from the back of his vest. The Bandidos took the vest.
FBI agents in San Antonio and El Paso picked up intelligence that the Bandidos were planning to go to war with the Cossacks, and police were on alert during the spring biker rallies in Amarillo, Midland and Odessa. But nothing happened.
The Bandidos made a crucial decision on March 27 of this year, moving the regular meeting of the Confederation of Clubs and Independents from Austin to the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco. Some considered that a direct challenge to the Cossacks, who frequented Twin Peaks’ weekly Biker Nights and believed Waco to be “Cossack country.”
Waco police feared, with good cause as it turned out, that the May 17 meeting would trigger violence. But the restaurant’s manager complained to the police chief that the presence of cops scared away paying customers, according to police. Police had been asked to leave there on at least two occasions. So when undercover officers saw the crowd of Cossacks on the patio May 17, a decision was made to keep an eye on the place from outside.
They watched from the parking lot.
The gunbattle lasted just a couple of minutes.
Daniel Raymond “Diesel” Boyett, 44, was shot in the head.
Wayne Lee “Sidetrack” Campbell, 43, was shot in the head and torso.
Richard Matthew “Chain” Jordan III, 31, was shot in the head.
Richard Vincent “Bear” Kirschner Jr., 47, died of multiple gunshot wounds.
Jacob Lee Rhyne, 39, was shot in the neck.
Jesus Delgado Rodriguez, 65, who was unaffiliated with a club, was shot in the head and torso.
Charles Wayne “Dog” Russell, 46, was shot in the chest.
Matthew Mark Smith, 27, was shot in the torso.
Manuel Issac “Candyman” Rodriguez, 40, died of unspecified gunshot wounds. He was a Bandido.
The Cossacks lost seven “brothers.” The Bandidos, one.