It’s been more than two years since one of the deadliest criminal shootouts in American history. But the bloody clash involving motorcyclists at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco continues to be shrouded by a veil of secrecy. Criminal trials are scheduled to start next week, and thanks to a trove of leaked documents obtained by the Texas Standard, we now gain a fascinating insight into the lethal fray.
Bandidos were singled out as the primary culprits. Mass arrests wrangled 177 people who were held on extraordinarily high $1 million bonds, with many contending they were merely bystanders that day.
Law enforcement has stayed largely silent on the matter, while those accused of wrongdoing have launched a series of civil lawsuits targeting everyone from the police to Baylor University. What previously undisclosed documents show is that police had reason to believe violence would occur, but failed to intervene, that Twin Peaks management didn’t take proper precautions to protect customers and that one state law enforcement agency was kept completely in the dark.
The “potential for violence” was “very high”
On May 1, 2015, nearly two weeks before the shootings, Waco Police Department gang detective Jeff Rogers sent an email through the department ranks, warning about the potential for violence at an upcoming gathering of bikers. A source had tipped Rogers off that a grassroots coalition of biker groups, known as the Confederation of Clubs and Independents, was going to hold a gathering at Waco’s Twin Peaks on May 17. Rogers’ email said the event could possibly draw 300 bikers, many of them associated with the Bandidos and their support clubs.
Escalating tensions had also drawn the attention of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Two months before the Waco shootings, a warning went out from the Texas Joint Crime Information Center, an intelligence entity run by DPS. The bulletin outlined an incident that occurred in the town of Lorena, just 15 minutes south of Waco. There, a gang of up to 10 Cossacks armed with a chain, a baton and a metal pipe had beaten a Bandidos member and stolen his bike.
The bulletin also noted that on the same day, 150 miles north in Palo Pinto County, a group wearing the Bandidos’ colors (red and gold) hit a Cossacks member in the head with a hammer for refusing to remove a Texas patch from his vest. The right to wear the patch was reserved for Bandidos and their affiliates. The bulletin ended on a note of caution, saying the Cossacks were attempting to get national recognition as a club, and that tensions could “escalate at any time” between them and the Bandidos.
But despite warnings of impending violence and the potential for loss of life, it appears that police didn’t take steps to intervene. In fact, a series of text messages obtained by the Texas Standard, that were sent nearly an hour before the shooting shows that law enforcement may have ignored signs that a violent confrontation was on the horizon.
Michael Lynch was at Twin Peaks on May 17. He belongs to a local motorcycle club known as the Los Pirados. A Waco-area plumber, Lynch had done contracting work for McLennan County Constable Walt Strickland. Before the shooting started, Lynch sent a message asking Strickland to call him immediately, saying there was a “bad situation” with a large number of Cossacks and Bandidos pouring into the restaurant.
Strickland responded that he notified the Waco police department, and was told police were “unaware” of any problems at Twin Peaks. It’s unclear whether that information was relayed through the proper departmental channels, or if certain parts of the department were unaware of an undercover police presence on the scene.
But emails, operations orders and notes would show that police were already conducting a long-orchestrated surveillance operation that had already unearthed several warning signs.
Michael’s wife Sandra, who was also there that day, confirms the messages were sent. Sandra Lynch, who regularly attends biker gatherings on weekends, was setting up a table to sell t-shirts and merchandise at Twin Peaks. She says that soon after she set up shop, about 75 Cossacks entered the restaurant. Lynch said she tried to stop them from entering but she was unsuccessful.
“After they got off their bikes, about six to eight surrounded me, yelled at me for getting in their way, kicked me, spit on me, call me a c***,” she says. “I looked around for a policeman and thought to myself, ‘Where is a cop when you need one?’”
Lynch said she and her husband reached out to the constable after Michael arrived. “Walt called him back and told him that Waco [police] said it was all taken care of, they said it was under control,” Lynch says.
Moments later, gunfire erupted, leaving nine people dead and 18 wounded.
Lynch was separated from her husband during the barrage. “It felt like I was in Afghanistan,” she says. “It felt like I was in a war.”
Both Michael and Sandra Lynch, along with nearly 200 others, were rounded up and arrested. Charges for both of them would eventually be dropped. Sandra Lynch questions whether law enforcement could have intervened beforehand. That’s a question another law enforcement entity may have wondered about as well.
Kept in the dark, the TABC said “communication had broken down.”
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is a law enforcement entity with jurisdiction over all matters related to alcohol sales. In the weeks before the shootings, the agency had been made aware the Waco Twin Peaks restaurant was frequented by Bandidos, and that management had grown “uncooperative” with police, according to internal notes.
The TABC could have been a natural partner with the Waco Police Department – but instead the agency was kept out of the loop.
In internal communications, the TABC highlighted its previous working relationship with the police department, which included working in parallel, to monitor previous biker nights at the same Twin Peaks location. But while the department had previously told the agency about the increased Bandidos presence at the restaurant, no mention was ever made of the impending mid-May gathering. The police department took a more administrative route initially; one Waco officer requested TABC assistance in contacting Twin Peaks’ corporate office about the growing biker presence there. But the agency lost track of whether that phone call ever happened. Even so, the there was very little the TABC could do, as they noted, “there are no violations committed for allowing motorcycle clubs … inside their business.”
Major Victor Kuykendoll from the TABC’s Arlington office later wrote in an internal email that “it is unknown at this time why intelligence of the (Confederation of Clubs) meeting was not conveyed to TABC” and that the move was “very uncharacteristic of Waco PD.” He added that once the hectic and chaotic nature of the investigation around the shooting began to settle, the agency needed to address “where communication had broken down.” Kuyenkdoll believed that with advance notice from the police department, the agency “could have taken proactive measures to help them address concerns about the upcoming event.” That said, it’s unclear what, if anything, the TABC could have done.
The Waco Police Department would instead team with another agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, to launch a joint surveillance operation at Twin Peaks. That operation took a far more aggressive stance, with a mission including undercover agents, SWAT teams and surveillance cameras. The plan, written days in advance of the May 17 gathering, listed contingency plans for everything – from barricaded suspects to hostage situations and downed officers. It noted Baylor Scott & White Medical Center, three miles down the road, had the nearest emergency room. The hospital did receive the injured, in the gory aftermath of the shootout.
The TABC wouldn’t learn about the shootout from either Waco police or the Texas Department of Public Safety. In fact, the agency was only made aware of the incident when a TABC agent’s family member notified her nearly a half-hour after it had happened. Agent Doris Board learned about the shooting from her husband, a police officer in the nearby city of Lorena, and quickly relayed the news up the TABC chain of command.
Twin Peaks may have known of the danger, but didn’t take steps to prevent it.
Since the shootings, several lawsuits have been filed by people who were at Twin Peaks that day. Many of those suits have been aimed at the restaurant itself, claiming management knew there was a high risk of danger, but did little to prevent it.
According to TABC documents obtained by the Texas Standard, there may be some evidence to support that claim. On May 4, the TABC received a message from Waco Police Sergeant Jared Wallace. The Waco Twin Peaks had been hosting biker nights with “no issue,” Wallace wrote. But he was now alarmed because the Banditos “claimed the bar” as their own.
The TABC notes are somewhat vague about the reaction of restaurant management at this point. The notes simply say management didn’t like “them” disrupting their business, and it’s unclear if that meant the management was unhappy with the Bandidos or the police department inquiring into their affairs. However, other statements point to rising tensions between the restaurant and law enforcement.
After the shootings, the TABC interviewed restaurant operating manager Jinten “Jay” Patel. He admitted that he had been warned about the “likelihood of violence at the location” well in advance by Waco officers. The TABC documents state that Patel admitted he didn’t believe additional security precautions were needed for the May 17 gathering, such as patting down patrons for weapons or hiring off-duty officers to attend. In fact, Patel allegedly claimed that customers would be uncomfortable at the sight of police “in uniforms with guns roaming the premises.” Still, Patel told authorities that he hired three security guards to attend, but they never showed.
The restaurant’s general manager, Brad Doan, also caught law enforcement’s attention. He told authorities that he witnessed a fight erupt on the patio before shouting for a “code red,” a warning to employees that things had grown dangerous, and that they should take shelter in the kitchen. Several employees and customers huddled in a cooler as gunfire broke out in the parking lot.
In the eyes of the TABC though, Doan wasn’t just seen as a witness; the agency theorized that Doan may have had a connection to one of the outlaw motorcycle gangs in attendance that day. The TABC would later comb through Doan’s social media contacts to find a connection, but documents show nothing tangible was found at that time.
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, the TABC issued a summary suspension, prohibiting the Twin Peaks restaurant from selling alcohol – an action the agency may take after a shooting, or other violent event. The TABC said that the action isn’t an accusation of wrongdoing, and was done only to allow for an investigation.
Soon after the TABC action, Twin Peaks’ parent company stepped in. It quickly pulled the franchise agreement with Chalak Mitra Group, which operated the Waco location, forcing the restaurant to permanently close. Franchisee general manager Doan would respond in a written statement, voicing his disappointment in the “sudden decision to cancel our Waco franchise before all of the facts are learned.” In that letter, he also said that “law enforcement officials did not ask either the Waco restaurant operator (with whom they spoke several times) or the Twin Peaks franchisor to cancel the patio reservation that was made on Sunday.” Operating manager Patel reiterated that assertion in a similar statement, saying, “Our management team has had ongoing and positive communications with the police.” The Waco Police Department would later say that statement was a “complete fabrication.”
An incomplete picture
Repeated attempts were made to reach both the Waco Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety for comment. When asked to confirm the veracity of our documents, DPS initially demanded that we identify the source of our information. A spokesperson later responded, saying that they “are not able to confirm that information.” A TABC spokesperson told us that documents attributed to them are authentic. The agency would not comment further due to the ongoing investigation.
Mitchel Roth is a professor at Sam Houston State University, and an expert in outlaw motorcycle gangs. He says the lack of transparency after the shootout is concerning. “It sounds like a poorly planned operation that just got out of control,” Roth says. “When something’s kept quiet for that long, you know somebody f***** up somewhere.”
In the years since the shootings, Waco courts levied exorbitant bail amounts, and issued sweeping gag orders (since lifted) against many people who were at Twin Peaks that day. But there has not yet been a single criminal conviction. The first criminal trial is slated to begin September 12 – but even that date could be subject to change, after a series of motions caused one judge to be recused from three trials. The next presiding judge, 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson, may face a similar challenge.
As many of the 177 arrested wait for their day in court, much of the bloody melee has gone unexplored. Until a fuller picture emerges, we have the glimpses offered by these documents – a restaurant blind to possible dangers, missed opportunities for law enforcement collaboration, and a police department eager for intel on biker clubs, all to the detriment of public safety.
Explore the Twin Peaks documents that informed our reporting: