AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
What really goes on inside a biker club? That question has been asked a lot after a deadly shootout last spring at Hooters-type restaurant in Waco, Texas. Nine people were killed in a fight between two rival biker groups. But almost a year later, no one's gone to trial yet.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For her new podcast Embedded, our co-host Kelly McEvers and NPR's Tom Dreisbach went to Waco to understand why the shootout happened. And a warning - this story has graphic descriptions of violence and language that may offend some listeners.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Trying to get embedded with bikers is not easy. First, we try to call them.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: That does not go well.
MCEVERS: OK. I know you've talked to other - OK. You've talked to other people in the media up to now. And he just hung up on me. He said, I got no comment.
DREISBACH: Then, we got to the scene of the shootout, a restaurant called Twin Peaks.
MCEVERS: This is not some, you know, like, crusty roadhouse in the middle of nowhere, you know?
DREISBACH: Yeah. If I were to - I'm not an outlaw biker, but if I were to call for a venue for a big fight, big throw-down, I wouldn't pick Sunday at 1 p.m. across from Charming Charlie's having its semiannual sale.
MCEVERS: But that's exactly where the police and some bikers say these two groups - the Cossacks and the Bandidos - had planned to meet and talk about a dispute they were having. The dispute, say police and federal investigators in a recent indictment, was over a patch that biker wear.
DREISBACH: It's called a bottom rocker. Bikers wear it on the back of their leather vests. It basically just says Texas or McLennan County, and it establishes your club's territory. In a recent federal indictment of three Bandido leaders, authorities say the Bandidos want to own Texas. And they won't let other bikers wear the Texas bottom rocker.
MCEVERS: But Cossacks told us they should be able to wear Texas, too. So local and federal authorities say the two groups started fighting about the patch about a year before Waco. A police report and the federal indictment says, two months before Waco, Bandidos allegedly beat one Cossack with a claw hammer and took his vest. Later that day, the police report says, Cossacks beat a Bandido they saw on the highway.
DREISBACH: And then came that Sunday afternoon in Waco. Some Cossacks told us they thought they were going to Twin Peaks for lunch and to negotiate a truce with the Bandidos. After many days trying to meet bikers, one Cossack contacts me on Twitter. He was in Waco that day. I go to meet him. His name is Richard Luther.
RICHARD LUTHER: And we went to the patio area, and I sat down, and the waitress come up. I ordered a glass of water with lemon in it, you know, to add a little flavor to it.
DREISBACH: Richard is 59. He owns a handyman business. And he says he liked being part of a club - going on campouts, raising money for poor kids. That Sunday in Waco, Richard saw a new recruit - they're called prospects - guarding the motorcycles in the parking lot.
LUTHER: When this Bandido rolled in and just ran over our prospect - just ran over him.
DREISBACH: A police spokesman at the time said that a motorcycle may have run over somebody's foot.
MCEVERS: Cossacks who saw what happened say the prospect fell down, then got back up. Richard says dozens of Cossacks run out to confront the Bandidos in the parking lot. Then, a police account says, a Bandido hits a Cossack. Richard says that's what he saw, too. Here's where it gets graphic.
LUTHER: I couldn't see exactly what he hit him with, but he hit him with an object upside the head. And I saw another one of our Cossacks step up, and I heard the first gunshot. And I saw that Cossack fall, and I just stood there. I was just - and then another gunshot. I was just, like, shocked. Did this really just happen? Did I just see one of us get shot, you know, in the head?
DREISBACH: Richard says, then, there was a barrage of gunfire. He hit the ground.
LUTHER: As I looked to my left, I saw the president of our chapter holding his chest, and he had been shot. And I look to my right, and I see a Bandido at the end of the sidewalk at the north end of the building just emptying his gun in our direction. And I saw another Cossack as his neck exploded, and I just - I just freaked out. I lay prostrate in the restaurant floor, thinking, you know - you know, Lord forgive me for my sins, you know, because - I don't know. I'm just minutes from dying here.
DREISBACH: Then Richard saw a friend - a Cossack - lying on the ground with a gaping bullet wound just above his knee.
LUTHER: And it was just pumping blood every time his heartbeat. And so myself and two other brothers ran over there to him. And one of them took a belt and tried to get a tourniquet put on the leg to try to stop the bleeding. The cops are screaming at us, get down on the ground or we're going to kill you. And Bear - we called him Bear - he raised his head. And I put my arm around his head, and he says, I can't breathe. And I said, Bear - I said, just relax. Just relax, Bear. It's going to be all right.
DREISBACH: A police spokesman told us they got help to people as soon as the scene was secured.
LUTHER: And they finally said, we're going to back up a pickup truck. And they looked at me and this other brother and they said, you two throw him on the back of this truck, and we'll take him over there to the ambulance, which, by this time, Bear is gone.
MCEVERS: In a written statement, the Bandidos deny that they went to the restaurant that day to negotiate a truce. They also denied they threw the first punch or fired the first shot. Two lawyers close to the case said that Bandidos actually believe the police were working with those Cossacks, and those Cossacks actually provoked some of the fighting so authorities could arrest as many bikers as possible. Federal authorities have been investigating the Bandidos for at least two years. A recent indictment charged three Bandido leaders with racketeering crimes, including murder, drug trafficking and extortion. These charges are not related to Waco. The Bandidos say they're innocent.
DREISBACH: And police and prosecutors deny that Waco was a setup. Still, the Cossacks say the Bandidos started the fight. But we want to know -are the Cossacks really just the victims here? And will this happen again?
MCEVERS: Let's go a little - oh, it's so loud. Let's go this way.
Our last stop in Texas is a big Cossack party in a barn down a dirt road. Up on the wall is a memorial to the Cossacks who were killed in Waco. There's a picture of Bear, Richard's friend. There are pictures of Diesel, Dog, Chain, Trainer, Rattle Can and Sidetrack. Outside, an older Cossack who doesn't want us to use his name tells me that Cossacks are not criminals, let alone organized criminals.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah. You going to talk about organized crime? You know where we're organized at? Motorcycles, big-titted women and [expletive] parties. We're not organized in anything else. We ain't - that ain't us. This wears me out. This wears me out. I got seven different brothers on that wall in there.
DREISBACH: Seven of the nine guys who died in Waco were their guys. They weren't the bad guys, he says. That ain't us.
MCEVERS: But then, it gets later, and I spend more time with a Cossack leader. He also lets us record but doesn't want us to use his name. He says the Cossacks are going to keep wearing the Texas bottom rocker, even if that means more fighting.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, you notice our Texas didn't come off our backs. And we're not hiding. We're driving up and down the highway.
MCEVERS: Do you think you're at war now?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, we're - as much as we want to say we're not - I mean, do I think it's coming tomorrow? No. Do I think it's coming soon? No. I think it's going to come when they think everything has finally died down.
DREISBACH: And the federal indictment says the war between the Cossacks and the Bandidos did continue after Waco.
MCEVERS: Hearing the leader talk like this is when it starts to become clear that some of these Cossacks may not be the good guys they say they are. There are some bikers who are in it for the weekend rides and others who are willing to let this war go on, whatever the consequences.
SHAPIRO: You can hear more about this story in NPR's new podcast Embedded. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.