The deadly shootout between the Bandidos Motorcycle Club and the Cossacks Motorcycle Club in Waco, Texas, in May 2015 raised questions about the groups involved.
At the end of the shootout, 20 people were injured, and seven members of the Cossacks, one member of the Bandidos and one biker not affiliated with either group were dead. Police arrested nearly 200 people on charges of engaging in organized criminal activity.
The two biker groups have been around since the 1960s. An indictment filed in U.S. District Court in San Antonio calls the Bandidos “a highly organized criminal organization” and charges three of the group’s leaders with “racketeering activity,” including murder, drug trafficking and extortion. The Cossacks, the smaller of the two groups, have also been identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as an “emerging outlaw motorcycle gang.” Both groups deny being gangs or being involved in illegal activities.
On this episode of Embedded, Kelly McEvers tries to find out what led to the shootout in Waco.
On the Texas bottom rocker
Some members of the Cossacks say the fight began over a patch: the Texas bottom rocker.
The patch is worn on the back of a member’s vest, and it establishes the organization’s territory. According to the federal indictment, the Bandidos didn’t want the Cossacks wearing the patch without the group’s permission.
But some Cossacks say that about a year before the shootout, they had started to wear the Texas bottom rocker. One Cossack leader, who did not want to be named because of the ongoing investigation into Waco, says the group informed the Bandidos the Cossacks were going to wear the patch.
Court documents allege John Portillo, then the national vice president of the Bandidos, declared the group was “at war” with the Cossacks beginning in 2013 and continuing through 2015. The two groups began to fight in other parts of Texas. In an incident in March 2015, the indictment alleges, one Cossack was struck on the head “multiple times with a claw hammer, causing serious injury.”
The Cossack leader says the Waco chapters of the two biker groups decided to sit down and try to work it out — a claim the Bandidos deny — on May 17, 2015, a Sunday.
How the shootout allegedly started
Cossacks member Richard Luther says a Bandido started the skirmish. He and several other members were sitting on the patio of the Twin Peaks restaurant when, he says, a Bandido ran over a Cossack prospect’s foot in the parking lot. A police spokesman at the time said the same thing.
Luther says there was a lot of yelling before a Bandido hit a Cossack.
“I couldn’t see exactly what he hit him with, but he hit him with an object upside the head,” Luther says. “I saw another one of our Cossacks step up, and I heard the first gunshot.”
Luther says there were maybe two more pistol shots followed by a barrage of rifle fire.
“I hit the ground right where I was,” he says. “It was myself and a couple of other brothers laying on the ground, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die here.’ ”
The Cossacks say they’re the victims in this situation, but the Bandidos say this isn’t true. They point to surveillance video showing one Cossack with a gun drawn, and two witnesses who say Cossacks shot first.
A statement from Stephen Stubbs, a lawyer who had been acting as a spokesman for the Bandidos soon after the incident, says group members “were not aggressors, did not start the altercation, did not strike first, were not the first to pull weapons, and were not the first to use weapons.” The statement also accuses the Waco Police Department of creating a “false narrative” of the incident.
On the future of the groups
Despite what happened in Waco, a Cossack leader says the group will continue wearing the Texas bottom rocker, even if it means more fighting.
“You notice our Texas didn’t come off our backs,” he says. “And we’re not hiding — we’re driving down the highway.”
Authorities say fights between the Cossacks and the Bandidos have not died down.
In an incident on Aug. 23, 2015, the federal indictment alleges, members of the Bandidos assaulted Cossacks in the city of Port Aransas and one Cossack “was hit in the head with a beer bottle.”
According to the Waco Tribune, 154 people have now been indicted in connection with the Waco shootout. The defendants are still awaiting trial.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.