By MANNY FERNANDEZ and DAVID MONTGOMERYMAY 17, 2016
WACO, Tex. — One year ago Tuesday, law enforcement officials here broke up one of the biggest and deadliest clashes of motorcycle gangs in the country. Gunfire erupted outside a Twin Peaks restaurant at a meeting of a regional coalition of motorcycle clubs after an altercation between two rival groups, the Bandidos and the Cossacks. So many bikers were arrested — nearly 200 — that officials used the Waco Convention Center for initial processing.
Police have said that the bikers, who attacked one another and fired on police officers, were part of “a gang-oriented criminal element” that had brought a stockpile of weapons with them. More than 300 handguns, knives, clubs and other weapons were recovered by the police.
Still, a year later, not all those trying to move on from the debacle are bikers with rap sheets.
A crowd of about 80 bikers and their supporters rallied at the steps of the county courthouse on Saturday to mark the anniversary. Long after they left, the widow of Daniel R. Boyett, one of nine bikers who were killed, sat on a bench recalling her husband, who would have turned 45 this month.
Mr. Boyett was a member of the Cossacks, but his widow, Nina Boyett, said he was not looking for trouble. Mr. Boyett, who owned a roadside-service business here, had made plans to be at his nephew’s fourth birthday party later that day.
“You get married, you think you’ve got all these years to do things together and mark things off your bucket list, and then one day, it’s just all taken away from you,” Ms. Boyett said.
In the months after the shootout, several of those arrested, their lawyers and supporters, including Ms. Boyett, have raised questions about the mass arrest, saying that many of those arrested had no idea the meeting could turn violent, were not involved in the gang rivalry and ducked or ran as shots rang out. Some of the arrested bikers have filed federal civil rights lawsuits against Waco officials, saying they were wrongfully arrested and have had their lives upended simply because they were at the meeting or wearing biker clothing.
Diego N. Obledo, 41, still has the property list given to him by the authorities that shows he was not only unarmed that day but was carrying his pocket Bible. It was a New Testament with a camouflage cover, issued to him when he served in the Texas Air Guard. As he crouched behind a car in the parking lot as gunfire echoed around him, he did not fit any biker stereotype: He drove his car to Waco and was making $123,000 a year as a mortgage-underwriting manager at a financial services company in San Antonio.
Mr. Obledo was arrested, jailed for about 15 days, charged with engaging in organized criminal activity and had his bond set at $1 million. Because of his arrest, he lost his job and the home he and his wife were in the process of buying. Mr. Obledo wore a Bandidos undershirt that day, but he said it was not visible. He bought it the day before at an auto-parts store, he said, and had no ties to the Bandidos.
“I broke no law that day,” he said. “By merely wearing a T-shirt — even the folks that wear patches on their vest — that’s not a crime.”
Mr. Obledo is one of seven arrested bikers who have filed federal lawsuits against the Waco authorities, and a number of others are preparing to sue. Mr. Obledo was indicted by a grand jury. Of the nearly 200 who were arrested, about 40 were not indicted, and they remain in a legal limbo as their cases were not dismissed but remain effectively dormant.
“If it had been one person, maybe two, it wouldn’t be near the outrage that it is when it’s three dozen,” said Paul Looney, a lawyer representing two bikers who were not indicted.
Waco police officials and prosecutors have previously defended their handling of the shootout, given the weapons found and criminal history of the gangs.
In January, the authorities arrested the highest-ranking leaders of the Bandidos on federal racketeering and drug distribution charges, including its national president, Jeffrey Fay Pike. The federal indictment says that Bandidos members had declared, beginning in 2013, that they were “at war” with the Cossacks.
Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, a spokesman for the Waco Police Department, declined to comment, citing a court-issued gag order that prevented him from discussing specifics of the case. Other officials, including Abelino Reyna, the McLennan County district attorney, declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
In court documents, a prosecutor told a judge at one hearing that in Texas, individuals can be charged as actual actors but also as parties. “The act of engaging in organized crime was committed when these people showed up in our fair county with the intent to show themselves as a show of force, both the Cossacks and their ilk and the Bandidos and their ilk,” said Michael Jarrett, a prosecutor in Mr. Reyna’s office.
Several of those arrested said that it was clear that a group of bikers had turned a minor altercation into a bloody shootout, and that the meeting was taking place amid the tense conflict between the Bandidos and the Cossacks. But they and their lawyers described another group of bikers who were not connected to either club and were there to simply attend the Confederation of Clubs and Independents meeting, routine gatherings where various motorcycle clubs and supporters discuss motorcycle rights and other issues. Previous meetings have been held without incident.
“We were pretty much guilty by association because we were wearing colors,” said Cody K. Ledbetter, 27, a member of the Cossacks who was arrested and who watched as Mr. Boyett, his stepfather, was executed by a biker. “We have a right to assemble. No matter if you’re a biker, no matter if you’re a church group.”
One of those arrested, Ben A. Matcek, 28, was not even at Twin Peaks when the shooting unfolded — he was driving there in his pickup truck with a friend. He rushed a fellow member of the Line Riders club, who had been shot, to the hospital and was arrested after he and his friends pulled over in an empty parking lot two miles from Twin Peaks.
Mr. Matcek said he believed he was wrongfully arrested because he identified as a biker and had ties to a motorcycle club. The Line Riders are well known in rural Burleson County, where they have a chapter — they host a church service every Sunday at a bar partly owned by the chapter president, Jimmy Dan Smith, 60, who was arrested with Mr. Matcek. They do charity and volunteer work for seniors at nursing homes and for needy schoolchildren.
Mr. Matcek has been involved in a custody dispute over his son since his arrest. Mr. Ledbetter’s family lost Mr. Boyett’s roadside-service company. Mr. Obledo’s bail restrictions and nighttime curfew prevented him from being at his brother’s side when his brother died of cancer last year. Brad Terwilliger, 28, who was arrested and was with Mr. Matcek, lost his job at a Texas coal mine, his car and his apartment.
“Everyone thinks that we’re Sons of Anarchy, and we’re not,” said Mr. Matcek, who, along with Mr. Smith and Mr. Terwilliger, was arrested but not indicted. “My grandparents were on a cruise in Alaska and my mug shot was on the TV screen. It haunts me every day. I worked hard to have a good name for myself, and it’s completely and utterly destroyed.”