WACO, Texas (AP) — Theron Rhoten had just pulled into the parking lot on his vintage Harley chopper when the bullets started flying.
Rhoten showed up at the Twin Peaks restaurant for a regional motorcycle club meeting. But, according to his wife, he soon found himself in the middle of a deadly shootout involving scores of other bikers.
Katie Rhoten said her husband ran for cover and was later arrested, along with motorcycle-riding friends and other “nonviolent, noncriminal people.”
Authorities on Sunday swept up around 170 bikers who descended on the Waco restaurant.
“He’s good to his family,” she said. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do drugs. He doesn’t party. He’s just got a passion for motorcycles.”
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara and Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton declined to comment Tuesday on whether innocent bikers were arrested in the melee that left nine dead and 18 wounded.
Police have said the gathering of five biker groups was to resolve a dispute over turf. Some bikers dispute that, saying the meeting was organized to discuss laws protecting motorcycle riders and other subjects.
Katie Rhoten said her husband, a mechanic from Austin, called her from jail and said that he and two other members of Vise Grip motorcycle club ducked and ran for cover as the violence raged around them.
Police said the shootout started with a parking dispute and someone running over a gang member’s foot, and that an uninvited biker group also appeared.
Preliminary autopsy results indicated that all of the dead were shot, some in the head, neck or chest. Police have acknowledged firing on armed bikers, but it is not clear how many of the dead were shot by gang members and how many were shot by officers.
The arrested bikers have all been charged with engaging in organized crime and each is being held on $1 million bonds. It is unclear how long they will remain in custody.
“Unless they try to make some other arrangement to move them through it more quickly, it could be weeks and possibly months” before the jailed bikers have bond-reduction hearings, said William Smith, an attorney who has met with several of the inmates.
It’s also unclear whether the McLennan County district attorney will require outside help to prosecute all those arrested Sunday.
The eight members of Theron Rhoten’s group, the Vise Grip Club, specialize in building and riding vintage and antique motorcycles, particularly pre-1970 Harley Davidson big twin choppers, according to spokesman Brian Buscemi.
Buscemi said the bimonthly meetings have been happening for 18 years.
“Yes, there was a problem at this scene, and it was absolutely horrific, but there just also happened to be a significant amount of people there who had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Jimmy Graves, who described himself as an ambassador for the gang known as the Bandidos, said his group had no intention of engaging in a scuffle.
But he acknowledged that differences with other groups, such as the Cossacks, have been “simmering and brewing.”
The U.S. Justice Department said in a report on outlaw motorcycle gangs that the Bandidos “constitute a growing criminal threat.” The report said the group is involved in transporting and distributing cocaine and marijuana and in the production and distribution of methamphetamine.
Another biker named Johnny Snyder also said he was at the restaurant for a scheduled meeting to talk about legislative issues.
Snyder, a long-haul trucker, declined to describe what he saw inside the restaurant, saying he was only concerned with “not getting shot.”
He is vice president of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club in Waco, a group that Snyder says does charity events and family gatherings and is not a criminal gang.
Associated Press National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.
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