For a few weeks in 2015 it was big news. Nine people killed, dozens injured when two motorcycle clubs, the Bandidos and the Cossacks, began shooting at each other outside the Twin Peaks Restaurant in Waco on a Sunday afternoon. The Bandidos reputation as an outlaw motorcycle club guaranteed front page ink for a while. After the television news had spooled through all of the available surveillance video in the case, the subject melted from the front page. CNN did a “one year anniversary,” documentary on the melee, and others have done “two year anniversary” stories, but little else has been reported in the mainstream media.
Now, twenty-nine months after the incident, the white limestone McLennan County courthouse is surrounded by steel barricades and extra police. The first trial is underway. Jacob Carrizal, president of the Dallas chapter of the Bandidos motorcycle club, is charged with one count of directing activities of a criminal street gang, a count of engaging in organized criminal activity with an underlying offense of murder and one count of engaging in organized criminal activity with an underlying offense of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Carrizal, who stands over six feet, sports a long black beard, and has a multi-colored eagle head tattooed on the back of his right hand, is a foreboding figure, but affable in conversation.
Although local TV stations are sending reporters, there is only one news person in the courtroom writing for the record: Tommy Witherspoon of the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Each day he takes a seat in the front row, picks up his “tweet machine,” as he calls his iPad, and begins communicating, 140 characters at a time, with an audience of 3, 700 followers. An audience, @TSpoonFeed, that grew by 600 last week alone. Attorneys, law enforcement officials, bikers and everyone in the courthouse hang on his every word.
The case draws broad interest not only because of the notoriety of the motorcycle clubs, but because of the way Waco County DA Abel Reyna has handled it.
Reyna engineered the arrests of 192 people who were at the site, on what have been called “fill in the blank warrants,” identical except for the names of the individuals.
Reyna has testified that he spoke to Waco Police detective Manuel Chavez the night of the shootings and arrests, instructing him to make sure each arrest warrant was carefully reviewed. Chavez testified he never spoke to Reyna that night. A rare court of inquiry has been launched, investigating whether a public official (Reyna) has committed a criminal act (perjury).
Today, nearly two and a half years after the incident, three dozen of those arrested have never been charged with a crime, lending heft to a recurrent charge against Reyna that the accused have been denied their right to a speedy and fair trial.
Reyna faces civil charges in more than a hundred of the cases for false arrest. Should he lose those cases he, and McLennan County, could face financial judgments. Some of those arrested say they were simply there the day of the incident, but have lost their jobs because of the legal actions against them. Thus, defense attorneys argue Reyna has a conflict of interest in the cases - he must win the criminal cases to protect himself from civil judgements.
The McLennan County courthouse is 116 years old. This November, Tommy Witherspoon will have spent 35 years covering it. He knows virtually everybody in the building, and in some cases, their parents. From sheriff’s deputies to Crystal and Deeanna in the Jail Magistrate’s office on the first floor, the courthouse trusts Witherspoon’s tweets. “He tells it straight down the middle,” they all told me.
Reporting about an event in real time does not really permit much besides “down the middle.” It is too difficult just to pump out descriptions of what is happening, let alone season it with opinion, even if he wanted to, Witherspoon says. “The bikers want you to tell the story their way, the other side wants just the opposite. Being objective is not good enough for those people. It’s exhausting,” Witherspoon says. He manages an endearing joviality despite working in an environment, like many reporters, where simply describing events is going to make somebody angry.
When his iPad battery ran down one day during a trial and he had to go offline to charge it up, his audience got mad at him. “One guy wrote something like ‘you have a journalistic obligation to tweet this out to us!’” Witherspoon says. The comments his Twitter followers make in this trial are aimed more at the testimony than him, however. He averages about 110 tweets a day. Most draw reaction. “That’s BS!,” comments one. “Where’s the evidence of that?” says another. “Boy howdy, that jury must be having an itch to have this over already!” says a third. When his tweet duty is done each day, Witherspoon still must craft a story for the Tribune-Herald, and that material goes nationwide for the Associated Press as the reporting of record for the trial.
He does all this because he feels a responsibility as a journalist, and because having a reporter of Witherspoon’s impeccable reputation tweeting live about an important case is good for the newspaper. “Our (internet) traffic goes way up when Tommy is tweeting on an important case,” says editor Steve Boggs. “He puts it all in context.” A monitor in the Tribune-Herald newsroom tracks how many people the paper is getting at any given time, and which stories readers are interested in. Lately, the Carrizal trial has been at or near the top of the list.
This is not the first time Witherspoon, 60, has been in this position. One of his first big stories was the Lake Waco murders in 1982, in which three local teenagers were brutally killed. Since then there have been the Branch Dividians and the explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, to name a few.
“He has unparalleled sources around the courthouse,” says Boggs. As Witherspoon makes his rounds down the hallways, he is universally greeted with smiles and handshakes. The need for good sources is one thing that hasn’t changed in the news business during his career. Just about everything else has. Witherspoon reckons there are less than half as many reporters in the newsroom as when he started in 1982.
The declining readership and economic pressure that brought staff cuts to most newspapers in the country are the same reasons Witherspoon is the lone print reporter in the courtroom for the biker trial. Although Waco is only two hours south of Dallas and three hours north of Houston, neither the Dallas Morning News or the Houston Chronicle has seen fit to put a reporter on a story that dominated their front pages. “They’ll come if it (the trial) blows up,” says editor Boggs. Until then, it’s too expensive.
Witherspoon first started tweeting during a murder trial five years ago, getting how-to tips from some of his younger colleagues at the paper in the process. He’s a one-fingered typist on the tweet machine, which seems to give him time to synthesize what’s happening in the courtroom to get the facts right, unlike some tweeters who make charges of fake news in the mainstream media.
Witherspoon’s audience knows him better. They demand he stays in his front row seat, performing his obligation as a journalist, tweeting truth.