The whole scene felt out of time and place.
Armed with knives, chains and more than a few guns, renegade biker gangs fought to the gory death of nine men, prompting about 170 arrests and raising fears of a vendetta against Texas law enforcement personnel in the weeks to come.
Seemingly drawn from some fever dream of the 1960s and 1970s, the menace began under the last haze of a rainy weekend on Sunday afternoon as a local Twin Peaks restaurant franchise teemed with at least 100 members from five gangs and officers mustered nearby, anticipating trouble.
It came around 12:15 when a fight broke out in the men’s room and quickly spilled into the bar area. At nearly the same time, another began in the parking lot over a space.
As the first shots rang out, police officers rushed in. At least one off duty officer, shopping at the mall, joined the effort to hold back fleeing suspects. The fight turned multi-directional, with bikers assaulting other bikers and officers alike.
The outburst ended within fifteen minutes, leaving behind a chaotic crime scene. In addition to the deaths, at least 18 people were wounded.
On Monday, local and federal police were still trying to piece together what sparked the violence, determining who shot whom and questioning whether the carnage could have been avoided if the Twin Peaks management had heeded their warnings.
Members of rival gangs had begun to converge in recent weeks on Waco, said Sgt. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police, and the restaurant had made itself a tinderbox for violence by“allowing them to come in and fly their colors.”
As many as five gangs were involved in the melee, police said. The dead men, according to an Associated Press interview with McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, all belonged to two infamous factions, the Bandidos and the Cossacks. Other law enforcement agencies, including the local police, declined to confirm that assertion.
Even as the violence subsided Sunday, law enforcement agencies spent the night on high alert. Statewide bulletins warned of more gang members descending on Texas, seeking revenge against their rivals, the police or both.
“There were credible intelligence reports coming in of threats to law enforcement officers,” Sgt. Swanton said,“Basically a green light out for uniformed officers in the area. We encourage those individuals not to bring criminal activity to Waco, but let it be known: If they do, we are ready.”
Agents of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took up roles in the investigation. The Texas Rangers assisted local police and sheriff’s deputies. Outside a hospital, the Department of Public Safety kept watch. Officers armed with AR-15 military-style rifles patrolled the courthouse and jail.
Throughout Monday afternoon, court officials recorded charge after charge of engaging in organized crime. As prosecutors began their work, myriad other charges - including capital murder - emerged as possibilities.
Outside the restaurant, about 100 expensive motorcycles, some riddled with bullet holes and splattered with blood, still leaned on kick stands behind yellow crime scene tape. Parts of the shopping mall, Central Texas Marketplace, shut down for the day. Shell casings and blood littered the parking lot.
Chaotic, terrifying and loud, Sunday’s rumble spilled across the parking lot of Twin Peaks, a chain tavern catering to men who prefer to consume their chicken wings with a draft beer, a big-screen television and a state of undisguised arousal.
Hardly consigned to some out of the way truck stop, though, the so-called“breastaurant” occupied a prominent storefront in a new outdoor mall on Interstate Highway 35, alongside Office Depot and Best Buy.
By Monday, Twin Peaks’ corporate bosses had revoked their franchise and state officials were revoking their liquor license, and this little city that means well found itself at a loss to explain an episode of hedonistic violence.
“I think it could happen anywhere,” said Swanton of the Waco Police.“This is Anytown, USA. It just happened to be Waco, Texas, on a Sunday afternoon.”
While Waco may qualify by some measures as Anytown, it has long seemed somewhat out of place, a borrow-a-cup-of-sugar-over-the-back-fence town dropped awkwardly into the swaggering Texas Triangle of Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. Best known for a Baptist university that once prohibited dancing on campus, the city has worked to draw tourism dollars by building monuments to semi-local glory, from a Dr Pepper Museum to halls of fame for Texas Rangers and Texas Sports.
At first, the city’s latest turn in the national spotlight elicited comparisons to another spectacular shoot-out, in the early 1990s, when law enforcement agencies staged a disastrous raid outside the town on the heavily armed compound of a doomsday sect known as the Branch Davidians. For Americans scrolling through social media accounts in the lull before the Houston Rockets playoff victory and the finale of“Mad Men,” news reports raised the specter of an era when anti-federal government movements kept the nation on edge from Ruby Ridge to Oklahoma City.
While those sentiments have long since gone mainstream, forming a powerful wing of the Republican Party in Texas, the weekend gunfight proved starkly different in other important ways. Law enforcement agencies seemed to have exercised great caution, and the only dead bodies belonged to combatants.
By the estimate of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has described outlaw motorcycle gangs as“a serious national domestic threat,” the Bandidos rank among the more dangerous, with more than 900 members in the United States. Narcotics sales provide their primary income.
Modern biker gangs derive their structure from clubs formed in response to“the angst returning veterans dealt with after World War II,” said Larry Karson, a retired Customs Service agent who teaches criminal justice at the University of Houston Downtown.
Their outlaw image inspired plenty of groups motivated by comradery and love of the open road. It also spawned legions of poseurs - doctors and lawyers making weekend use of expensive Harley-Davidsons.
Perhaps inevitably, some of the more unrestrained clubs eventually delved into drug and prostitution rings. For those that became gangs, territory became paramount, the foundation of membership and marketing.
“Violence,” Karson said,“is integral to the ‘business plan.’”
At a Starbucks across the street from Twin Peaks Monday, a retired woman named Marvis Hanchey sipped her coffee and scanned the local newspaper.
“I didn’t even know there were biker gangs anymore,” she said.“When I see their picture in the paper, they are not young men. They look old enough to know better.”