WACO – An interstate access road running by the Twin Peaks restaurant where nine people died in a Sunday shootout involving motorcycle gangs was still closed three
As police continued investigating, the late morning crowd at a Panera Bread at the other side of the sprawling shopping complex enjoyed their lattes despite their proximity to the site of a bloody, Old West-style gun battle that had injured 18 people and resulted in organized crime charges against more 170 bikers.
“It was one of those O-M-G moments,” said Melinda Cavanaugh, 63, a retired librarian. On Sunday she was in the stands at a Baylor University baseball game when someone in the crowd got a cellphone call and began telling people about the shooting.
“Waco is a wonderful place. Where do these people come from? They don’t come from where I come from," she said.
Most Texans know little about about outlaw motorcycle gangs whose members generally shun the limelight. But experts say the organized crime networks reach across the the state, country, and in some cases, international borders.
They generally avoid the public and open displays of violence, said James F. Quinn, a University of North Texas criminologist who has studied outlaw motorcycle gangs for more than a decade.
“That’s why they call themselves ‘one-percenters.' But they live by their own rules, and they enforce their own rules," he said.
The meeting last Sunday at Twin Peaks, a sports bar that features scantily clad waitresses, involved five clubs including the Cossacks and Texas-based Bandidos. It was a regular event, said Quinn.
The trouble apparently started when an uninvited group showed up for the meeting of a loose confederation of biker gangs, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton told The Associated Press.
One man was injured when a vehicle struck his foot. That caused a dispute that continued inside the restaurant, where fighting began, followed by shooting. The melee spilled back outside, where police had been monitoring the situation, the AP quoted Swanton as saying.
“Everybody expected some kind of trouble," Quinn said. "Why it got ugly was growing tension between Cossacks and Bandidos."
Quinn described the Bandidos as "one of two superpowers of the subculture.” The Hell’s Angels are the other.
The Bandidos Motorcycle Club has 2,000 to 2,500 members in the United States and 13 other countries. About 900 members belonging to 93 chapters in the United States, according to the Justice Department.
The gangs are hardly collections of motorcycle enthusiasts. According to the Justice Department, Bandidos are involved in distributing cocaine and marijuana, as well as the production and distribution of methamphetamine.
A Justice Department website said the club is expanding by bringing on new chapters and affiliating with members of other clubs - known as "puppets" or "ducks" - who support the Bandidos' criminal enterprise.
The real flashpoint Sunday could well have been a patch worn by the Cossacks, which Quinn said he spotted in a photo from the scene. The patch read, “McClennan County.”
“The Cossacks were wearing bottom rockers,” part of a three-piece patch on their jackets, he said. “That bottom rocker is a territorial claim. The big clubs require permission to wear it."
Quinn said the patch could have been an affront to the Bandidos. "This is all tied up in symbolism," he said.
David Pyrooz, a Sam Houston State University professor of criminal justice and criminology, said the patches are a form of "signaling" - similar to the way that street gangs throw signs.
"You have to be able to read it," he said, adding that less is known about the symbology of outlaw motorcycle gangs.
"People have been studying street gangs for over 100 years. We don’t have that same information about motorcycle gangs. You can’t talk about it as authoritatively. They’re far more secretive," he said.
Such open displays of violence are also rare among outlaw gangs, which usually stick to "fear and intimidation," he said.
"Violence is bad for business. They resort to it only when they have to. The victims are usually members of other outlaw gangs," he said.
Most large cities have at least one outlaw club, Pyrooz said, and it's a safe bet that its members are armed.
“Somehow, when they’re in conflict, weapons do get produced,” he said. “So that would suggest that they carrying regularly.
“If you put them in the same barroom or parking lot, somebody’s going to look at somebody in a particular way. It’s like putting Bloods and Crips gangs at the same park. There’s bound to be violence," he said.
Such was the case on Sunday in Waco, a city of 130,000 people halfway between Dallas and Austin. Outbreaks of violence aren't unheard here. Once a stop on the cattle-driving Chisholm Trail in the 19th century, Waco earned the nickname "Six-Shooter Junction."
A century later, it received world attention when federal agents choked off the compound of a separatist cult on the edges of town. After a nearly two-month siege, fire destroyed the property, killing 74 people including leader David Koresh.
Waco's citizens these days describe a far calmer place - a college town plugged into the energy and aerospace industries where flashes of violence are rare.
Waco resident Michael Honza said he’d eaten at the now-shuttered Twin Peaks restaurant. On Sunday, he heard about the shooting and drove over to have a look. The closest he could get was an overpass on Interstate 35.
“Oh my gosh! When we went over the overpass we saw a lot of bikes, a lot of cops and a lot of emergency personnel,” said Honza, 47. “It was a shock. It’s a familiar place. You had a feeling of loss of control."
Honza describes Waco as a "unique" place. "We’re kind of sheltered from some of the growth that’s gone on in the larger cities. We’re like Austin-lite," he said.
A contractor, Honza is a former Methodist youth minister who rides a Kowasaki motorcycle. He aspires to own a Harley-Davidson.
On Tuesday, the local Harley dealership just down the access road from Twin Peaks was closed.
The outlaw gangs may no longer congregate at that dealership, as they had prior to the shooting. But Honza doesn’t think Texas has seen the last of the outlaw bikers.
“These guys are not playing a short-term game,” said Honza, looking out from the Panera patio toward Twin Peaks. “This was just a convenient place for what was going on. This is a big game that’s going on.”
John Austin cover the Statehouse for CNHI's Texas newspapers.Contact him at jaustin@CNHI.com