177 arrestees, hundreds of weapons seized: Waco courts overwhelmed after biker brawl

Huge caseload, steep bail demands bog down legal system after Waco biker brawl

It is perhaps symbolic that the statue of Justice atop the dome crowning the white limestone courthouse here had the scales ripped from her hand in a storm. After a bloody weekend melee between motorcycle gangs left nine people dead, 18 wounded and more than 177 in jail, the criminal justice system is a bit frayed.

Investigators have mountains of evidence to review -- hundreds of weapons were recovered from the crime scene -- and authorities will probably have to tap other counties to secure enough defense attorneys to represent the accused. Scores of bikers were arrested on suspicion of engaging in organized crime and held in lieu of $1-million bond.

Earlier, police estimated the weapons seizure at about 1,000 after looking at the large crime scene that took in a restaurant and parking lot. The number was later revised downward to about 320 guns (including an AK-47), knives and brass knuckles.

A defense attorney and prosecutors wrangled Wednesday over whether one biker could be released even after posting such bail.

On Tuesday night it appeared that Jeff Battey, a 50-year-old north Texas factory worker and member of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, had been able to make the $1-million bond and would be released.

Instead, the local district attorney met with the county's two district judges behind closed doors Wednesday and negotiated special release conditions for Battey and any others who post bail. Among the conditions: electronic monitoring, no alcohol and no contact with other gang members.

Battey's attorney said that his client played no role in the shooting, that he had no criminal record and that the delay in his case highlighted how heavy-handed local legal officials had become since Sunday's shooting at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco.

"They were surprised somebody could make bond. That just shows that these bonds were used to send a message," attorney Seth Sutton said.

McLennan County officials have said the local legal system can handle the influx of cases, but some said Wednesday that the jail and courts already appeared overwhelmed and that the situation would only grow more complicated as more of those jailed are released and begin challenging their arrests.

After the shooting, Battey was treated briefly at a hospital before being jailed with bullet fragments still lodged in his right arm, Sutton said, adding that officials had no probable cause to hold him.

"He's in a lot of pain, and he's not the only one. Our office has had calls from three others who were wounded with bullet fragments still in their bodies" and remained jailed, Sutton said.

Battey was released before noon Wednesday. Sutton declined to say how much his client paid to a bail bond agent in order to post bail — it's typically 10% in Texas. "He has some family support behind him," Sutton said.

Sutton has fielded calls from other relatives of those arrested, some of whom waited in line at a jail visitor's center Wednesday. "We've had calls from dozens of people upset their husband, sons — good citizens who work — are in jail and their jobs and businesses are in jeopardy," he said.

At least eight of those arrested have hired attorneys and had bail reduction hearings set, but not until June, court staffers said, adding late Wednesday that "they're coming faster than we can process."

"We've got a situation now where we've just decided to lock people up for weeks while we sort it out," Sutton said.

William A. Smith, a Dallas-based attorney, said the high bonds for those arrested were deterring witnesses from coming forward. Some bikers who were at the scene of the violence but were not arrested are afraid to give their accounts because they're afraid of being charged as gang members, he said.

"It's got a lot of folks on edge, and I don't know that there's any bail bondsman in Waco, in the county, McLennan, that's capable or willing of writing" a $1-million bond, Smith said. "So these guys could be in there a long time."

But McLennan County Dist. Atty. Abel Reyna said his staff of 27 attorneys could prosecute the Twin Peaks cases in addition to the 3,000 cases that were pending before the shooting. He does not plan to call the state attorney general's office for assistance. "We can handle it," Reyna said. "Even in the event I need additional help, I've got loads of district attorneys who have offered to help" from across the state, he said.

Reyna defended his decision to charge so many suspects, saying he had probable cause and the $1-million bonds were needed because "you're talking about securing an individual's appearance at trial."

If those arrested are really victims, he said, "I would expect that these 'victims' would be very interested in working with law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice" — but so far, that has not been the case, he said.

Prosecutors have 90 days to present a case to a grand jury to indict before those in custody are entitled to reduced bonds, Reyna said.

The 941-bed McLennan County Jail and an adjacent 816-bed overflow facility were well occupied before the shooting and "pretty full" afterward, according to McLennan County Sheriff's Capt. John Kolinek, who supervises the jail. "Our initial challenge was just the sheer number of people taken into custody."

While those arrested at Twin Peaks were entitled to the same access to attorneys and relatives as other inmates, he said, "because of the numbers, the process has slowed down" visits for some.

Dan Jones is an attorney representing Jimmy Dan Smith, 59, one of the bikers arrested and still being held Wednesday. Jones, a former police officer, has complained that police and prosecutors have lumped all of the bikers together, failing to distinguish the "outlaws" from men like his client, a mechanic who he says belongs to a smaller, "friendly, family-oriented" motorcycle club and didn't participate in the violence.

Jones said he understood that prosecutors were overwhelmed, but "we need to look at who we are detaining because we're taking people's freedom away."

Twitter: @mollyhf

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


12:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with a lower police estimate on the number of weapons recovered from the crime scene.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.