SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Authorities in Waco, Texas continue to investigate the death of nine motorcycle gang members. In one of the worst biker brawls in recent times, more than 170 people were arrested and charged with organized crime. And now there's a backlash from biker groups who claim that many of the riders were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and had nothing to do with Sunday's bloody fight. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Waco police continue to justify the large number of arrests. They say five criminal motorcycle gangs went to war with one another at the Twin Peaks Bar and Grill last weekend. Ron Blackett emphatically disagrees. He's a 48-year-old business security specialist in Austin, former U.S. Army and Coast Guard, and he rides a 2011 Harley-Davidson Road King. Blackett says he knows many of the riders now sitting in county jail in Waco.
RON BLACKETT: They're not gang members. I'm not a gang member. And to be labeled as a gang member are some of these kids that are right now locked up with a million dollar bond on them, it's terrifying and it's extremely unfortunate.
BURNETT: Blackett, whose club name is Bone, acts as vice president of the Central Texas region of the Confederation of Clubs and Independents, known as CoC and I. This biker organization meets regularly to educate its members on motorcycle legislation and to drink beer. Last Sunday, the group was hosting a meeting at Twin Peaks when the violence broke out. Blackett says he arrived at the restaurant in a pickup truck shortly after the melee ended.
What did you see when you pulled up?
BLACKETT: Law enforcement all over the place. Helicopters flying over. A lot of people crying, you know, a lot of people scared.
BURNETT: Ron Blackett says other clubs that belong to the umbrella group include the Christian Motorcycle Association, Bikers Against Child Abuse, Legacy Vets and Vise Grip. That club builds and rides pre-1970 custom Harley choppers. Vise Grip member Theron Rhoten was among those arrested. His wife, Katie, spoke to KUT in Austin.
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KATIE: Most of the clubs that were present there had nothing to do with the shootings. They didn't do anything but go to a meeting.
BURNETT: Police are blaming the confrontation on bad blood between the Cossacks and the Bandidos. The Cossacks are a Central Texas biker gang that's not affiliated with the CoC and I, but they showed up in force at the meeting anyway. The Bandidos is an outlaw motorcycle gang long associated with drug trafficking that considers Texas its home turf. Bandidos do attend the Confederation meetings, and that's how the free-for-all started. Bill Smith, a well-known motorcycle lawyer in Dallas, says one jailed rider told him there was already a large group of Cossacks in the parking lot when the Bandidos rolled up.
BILL SMITH: He said shortly after the Bandidos got off their motorcycles, an altercation broke out, and that's when they hit the ground.
BURNETT: Smith says his informant could not say who or what started the gunplay, but the lawyer - himself a biker and member of the Confederation - says in the 15 years he's been attending meetings, he's never seen trouble break out.
SMITH: In fact, our meetings, after the "Pledge of Allegiance" and a prayer, many times the chairman will say, if you have any issues with anyone for any reason, take it up elsewhere.
BURNETT: Despite the strenuous defense by the biker confederation that their members are peaceful, Waco police spokesman Sergeant Patrick Swanton defends the big round-up of criminal suspects.
PATRICK SWANTON: There are clubs of motorcycle groups that do really good things. We understand that. But that was not the people involved in the incident Sunday, where an extreme amount of violence took place. Those that were involved in the activity at Twin Peaks are known criminal gang members.
BURNETT: Swanton says investigators recovered 318 weapons, most of them knives and handguns, and he says nearly a week after the incident, there are still death threats against law enforcement from outlaw motorcycle gangs. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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