He was a “big ol’ bear” of a man, tall and strong and slightly rotund, with a long, ginger beard hiding a strong-jawed, handsome face. His given name was Jacob Lee Rhyne, though most people called him Jake. He could come off gruff, and he didn’t watch his language.
Rhyne loved his kids and sports and Miller Lite. He worked at the same place for 19 years, pouring iron at a foundry. You couldn’t drag him away from his hometown, Ranger, Texas, a decrepit place nearly a century removed from its oil-field heyday. He still hung out with his ex-wife, Rocki Hughes, and he kept the high-school rings they’d exchanged at their wedding tucked away in a box, along with old Father’s Day cards.
On weekends, he rode his Harley, with his teenage daughter Skyi on the back, long, blond hair flowing beneath her helmet. Or with his “brothers,” the Cossacks, an obscure, 46-year-old motorcycle club that’s part of the scenery in rural East and West Texas small towns like Ranger but virtually unknown in Dallas and Houston.
That was until May 17, 2015, when a gunfight took his life, along with those of eight other men. The details are sketchy, and Waco police haven’t done much to answer the lingering questions, but a melee involving an “outlaw” club, the notorious Bandidos, left Rhyne dying in the parking lot of the Waco Twin Peaks, bleeding from bullet wounds to his neck and torso.
Witnesses say he convulsed and bled for up to 45 minutes, receiving no medical help from police who swarmed all around him. Ambulances were parked nearby, but Rhyne spent his final moments with a young Cossack who desperately tried to staunch the bleeding with a bandanna. Jake Wilson, the “brother” who was with him, calls his death “a very big injustice.”
More was to come. Though the Bandidos’ top leaders had secretly declared war on the Cossacks, ordering their minions to attack Cossacks on contested turf, Waco authorities prosecuted the Bandidos and the Cossacks alike as murderous gangsters, arresting them en masse and slapping them with million-dollar bails and felony charges for engaging in organized crime. The Cossacks don’t consider themselves an outlaw club and prohibit their mostly middle-aged members from wearing the associated “one-percenter” patches, says John Wilson, the outspoken president of the McLennan County Cossacks, but all of that was lost in the scramble to process the biggest and most complex murder crime scene Waco police had ever handled.
Which is why Rocki Hughes and her children, Dyllan Rhyne, 20, and Skyi Rhyne, 19, want you to know that Jake Rhyne was a real person, an ordinary guy with a family and a pickup. “He wasn’t a gangster,” Hughes says. “Not even close.”
The same is true, she and many others say, for his corps of brothers in the Mingus chapter of the Cossacks, where Rhyne went by his road name, Rattle Can. Seven of the Mingus Cossacks were known to be present in Waco on May 17. The six who survive face felony charges and up to 99 years in prison; they stand to lose their families, their homes and what remains of their fortunes.
The Internet is rife with criticism of how Waco police and McLennan County authorities have handled the biker shootout. News organizations such as The Associated Press and CNN have diligently fought for the public records Waco police seem loath to release. What’s lost in these dissections of a chaotic event that began and ended in a few minutes is the men who got swept into it. While some are certainly guilty, with surveillance video clearly capturing men in Cossacks colors wielding guns, most of them are seen running for their lives. Who are these guys, beyond the names and creepy mugshots?
Who are the Cossacks?
“Laura from Strawn” — she didn’t want to use her full name — remembers those wild-west days. “We had 11 bars at one time,” she says, with a note of awe. “That was back in the ’70s. Then, slowly but surely, it dwindled. And that’s the only bar that’s open,” she said, pointing to the Mule Lip. “Who’d a-thought?”
Like others around town, Laura blames Mingus’s demise on overzealous law enforcement. “It just got really tough. You know, they’d be just sittin’— highway patrol, county. And it scares people, ’cause you can have two beers, and you’re not gonna pass. What’s the point in going? I’m not gonna drive over to Mingus for two beers.”
With the death of the honky-tonks went much of Mingus’s commerce. Years later relief would come from an unlikely source: the Cossacks Motorcycle Club. Laura reckoned that the Cossacks rolled in “ten years ago, at least.”
And no one batted an eye. Guys on motorcycles were a familiar sight, including those with the vests and patches signifying their membership in organized clubs. The Cos-sacks — emphasis on the second syllable, unless you want to sound like a city slicker — did more than blend in. Choosing Mingus as a home base halfway between Dallas-Fort Worth and Abilene, the Cossacks earned the gratitude of locals when they rolled in on the weekends and spent money at their bars, restaurants and stores.
In the early days, the Cossacks would pitch tents in a field and hold weekend gatherings. They later shifted to a club called City Limits, and when that closed, the local members gathered at the home of Joey Matthews, a well-liked middle-aged Cossack with a ranch home on Mingus Boulevard and plenty of room to park Harleys. In recent years, Cossacks leaders purchased a large plot of land on Parsons Road behind Mingus, where they put up a few shelters and staged weekend “blowouts” a few times a year, attracting as many as 300 people.
The blowouts would feature barbecues, games like horseshoes and cornhole, live music, an occasional wet T-shirt contest and, of course, lots of drinking. Kids darted around, supervised by mamas in black leather jackets emblazoned with words like “Property of Leadbutt.” The Cossacks did their thing here for years, and hardly anyone cared.
Laura likens them to modern-day cowboys. “Because we had a riding club — horses, you know — and we’d party and stuff, barbecue and everything, do big trail rides, and the only difference between them and us was they got a different ride. It’s the same ol’ thing.”
Craig Goen, chief deputy of the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office, says the Cossacks have never caused problems there. He recalled maybe three fights involving Cossacks over 12 years, nothing of note.
In Laura’s eyes, that makes them downright tame compared with the locals. “These little shitkickers around here, my God, they’re gonna fight,” she says.
There was no question, though, that the Cossacks cultivated a tough, macho image. Look at some of the members’ Facebook posts, and you’ll see a disproportionate number of beer-bellied white guys in bandannas and cuts flipping off the camera. At least one older resident in the area saw trouble on the way. He’d had a couple of run-ins with the Cossacks, including one that almost turned violent. There are fewer Cossacks fans than you think, he says, but in a town of 258, you have to watch what you say.
“I’m sure some of them are good guys,” he says, referring to the local Cossacks members. “But when they put on those vests, they’re assholes.”
Why do men join the Cossacks? John Wilson, president of the McLennan County chapter, which includes Waco, offers a one-word answer: brotherhood.
“Just a bunch of like-minded guys who do the same stuff, go out and ride together, enjoy motorcycling,” Wilson says. “And it’s a good support system. Our club motto is ‘We take care of our own.’ If you’re a Cossack and your house burns down, we’re going to put a roof over your head and clothes on your back that night. And that’s what it’s been about forever.”
Many of them are rough-cut, like the towns they live in. But among their mostly middle-aged ranks are a sprinkling of professionals, and men like Edgar Kelleher, one of the Mingus Cossacks, who runs a successful oil-field servicing business.
Wilson acknowledges that the Cossacks’ bylaws originally called for whites-only membership. That changed some years ago, he says, but the reputation lingers. Wilson says there are quite a few Hispanics among the Cossacks’ 600 to 800 members, and at least one black guy donned the colors in recent years. The Cossacks’ rules bar any white supremacist insignia. A widely circulated photo from Waco, however, shows two Cossacks bearing the lightning-bolt Nazi “SS” symbol — one in a patch, the other in a tattoo.
“Now, you’ve got 800 people, and I can’t tell what’s on everyone’s mind,” Wilson says. “But I can tell you that white supremacist patches are banned from the club. Those guys shouldn’t have had those. They probably just haven’t been called on it yet.”
Chapter heads are warned to vet their “prospects,” and Wilson conducted background checks on his guys and ended up excluding a few with felony convictions. “One-percenter” insignia — referring to the motorcycle clubs that consider themselves outlaw organizations, such as the legendary Hells Angels and Texas’s Bandidos — are a no-go in the Cossacks.
The word “outlaw,” Wilson says, “was never attached to us till May 17.”
To Angie Ellis Martin of Mingus, the Cossacks are the guys with jobs, the ones who aren’t strung out on meth. And they’re the group that contributes the most to the annual toy drive for kids in need. “I would love to tell you what great people they are,” she says.
Martin spoke from a table at Mingus’s New York Hill Restaurant, where she’s served as a hostess for many years. Friendly and disarmingly open, chatting about everything from her weight-loss surgery to a yearslong meth addiction to the untimely death of her husband just before Christmas, Martin tells stories by way of explaining the Cossacks’ significance in her community.
For starters, they filled New York Hill on their rides, cracking jokes, ordering plate after plate of cheese fries and chicken-fried steak, bringing in several thousand dollars of business. New York Hill never had a problem with them, she says.
If you ever had an issue with a Cossack, she says, you told one of the leaders, and the problem was taken care of, like a young gun named “Monster” who cussed at and intimidated her teenage son outside the Mingus Quick Stop. Martin had a word with the Cossacks, and Monster disappeared, never to be seen on the Mingus strip again.
The Cossacks like to drink, but “99 percent of them don’t do drugs,” Martin insists. And she would know. It has taken her years, she says, to live down her reputation as a meth head, with all the lying, stealing and irresponsibility that entails. Meth use and manufacture, in fact, are Palo Pinto County’s hidden scourge, affecting a whole generation of men and women who came up in the waning days of the honky-tonks.
Eight years ago, Martin met a good man, and together they found Jesus. She’s clean and sober today and sports a new set of teeth. When the local Cossacks and their families found themselves in a tough place after Waco, facing $100,000 bail (lowered from $1 million), the loss of work and tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, Martin showed up at Joey Matthews’s door with what she had: bread, tea, coffee and paper towels. It was the least she could do.
Rhyne’s need to belong seemingly has deep roots. Raised in an abusive home, little Jake supposedly positioned himself right in front of his father during a fight and hollered “Stop!” with all the authority a two-year-old could muster. Hughes calls Rhyne a “born protector”— of his mom, his wife, his kids, his little brother — and a natural fit years later for the Cossacks position of sergeant-at-arms, which is basically a protector of the chapter.
Rhyne’s mother left the marriage and became a devout Jehovah’s Witness, while Rhyne grew into an outstanding all-around athlete in Ranger. Like many Jehovah’s Witnesses, his mother opposed letting her child take part in competitive sports. One time coaches came to the house and pleaded with her to allow her son to play sports, but she said no. Judging by his actions with his own children, Rhyne never forgot that.
Hughes and Rhyne met in Ranger High School, where they were a year apart. Asked what attracted her to him, Hughes says, “not his charm.” She and both of her kids laugh. Rhyne evidently had his eye on Hughes for days and was following her around town, but his gruffness put her off at first. He had at least one thing going for him, though: “Hell, you’ve seen him,” Hughes says. “He was cute.” His daughter giggles.
“We had fun together,” Hughes continues. “We were friends.” She tells how he’d pick her up in his big truck and take her to school. They liked drinking together, too.
In her senior year, Hughes became pregnant. She and Rhyne married after their son Dyllan was born. After graduating from high school, Rhyne got a job at EBAA, a foundry in nearby Eastland that manufactures water and wastewater pipe joints. As his kids grew older, Rhyne shifted from nights to days, allowing time for his greatest pleasure in life: watching Dyllan and Skyi play sports. Both are outstanding athletes, and they participated in everything from softball to track. Rhyne never missed a game, and he was usually coaching one of their teams, too.
Skyi and Dyllan cue up some family videos. There is Rhyne bouncing his little boy on his lap, sacked out in the bleachers between tournament games and walking on the treadmill, singing to himself, hitting the sexy deep notes in some old country song. Glancing aside at the camera, his long beard flowing, he looks a bit like a Sasquatch in a baseball cap.
Rhyne and Hughes divorced in 2007. “He was not faithful,” she says in her usual outspoken way. “And I could not get past it. I had a grudge for a long time.”
Still, they were on-again, off-again as recently as two years ago. Rocki’s family loved Rhyne, and he remained a fixture in his kids’ lives.
Hughes calls Rhyne a forgiving guy, but he never forgave himself for his own mistakes. That led to occasional bouts of self-destructive behavior “as far as drinking [goes],” Hughes says.
But in a way, his desire to break free propelled him to the Cossacks. Instead of sitting around and sulking when his friends left BACA, he found himself a new crew.
Skyi recalls her father talking about his rides with the Cossacks. She would sometimes ride on the back of his bike, going to Mary’s in Strawn, known for its chicken-fried steak. But in the spring of 2015, Rhyne stopped taking her along. Things had gotten too dangerous, he told her.
That’s when the Bandidos showed up on the scene.
After Rhyne died, Hughes found a receipt for a handgun in his belongings, dated just two weeks before Waco. Why exactly he bought it, she doesn’t know. He’d also purchased a box of bullets, and five were missing.
It happened at the Bar-B Travel Plaza in Gordon, a couple of miles east of Mingus, on March 22. A Cossack named David Young pulled up at the gas pump wearing his colors, and his girlfriend, who was riding with him, went inside the convenience store. As Young prepared to pump gas, three or four cars pulled up, blocking him in. As many as 20 Bandidos emerged, surrounding Young.
Kimberly Winblad was inside, manning the register, watching the scene unfold. “They were just standing there talking, and then all of a sudden, they start whaling on him,” she says. Some of the guys kicked Young; another bashed him with a claw hammer. A federal indictment says that Young’s Cossacks vest was “forcibly removed,” along with his phone. Winblad called 911 and wouldn’t let Young’s girlfriend leave the store.
“I didn’t know how bad it was till he got up, and his head was gushing blood,” Winblad says. By the time Palo Pinto deputies arrived, the Bandidos had left. Young was taken to the hospital and reportedly received several staples to repair his head wound.
No one was prosecuted for the attack. Chief Deputy Goen says the suspects “couldn’t be picked out of a photo lineup or positively identified.”
Whether the Cossacks knew it or not, the Bandidos had declared “war” on them, according to a 23-page indictment of the outlaw club’s top leaders released two weeks ago. Federal and state authorities in Texas arrested the Bandidos’ three highest-ranking leaders on January 6, detailing how they’d enlisted and egged on rank-and-file Bandidos as they literally hunted down Cossacks in areas they claimed as Bandidos turf. The leaders are accused of “racketeering acts including murder, attempted murder, assault, intimidation, extortion and drug trafficking to protect and enhance the organization’s power, territory, reputation and profits.”
The indictment includes the March 22 attack on Young. Just the day before, Bandidos national vice president John Portillos had urged four Bandidos members to “shake up shit” and “get a little aggressive” with the Cossacks, according to the indictment.
What’s shocking is the number of incidents that occurred after Waco, with the Bandidos under heavy scrutiny. The indictment paints a picture of utter impunity, of bands of armed Bandidos launching road trips to hunt down Cossacks. (Not that the Cossacks are innocent: The same day Young was beaten with a claw hammer, eight to ten Cossacks forced a Bandido off the road in Lorena, near Waco, and attacked him with a chain and baton.)
The leaders are caught exulting over successful missions. One such assault in Port Aransas “was referred to as a ‘fishing trip’…[and] ‘everyone got to catch a fish.’” On July 28, Portillo bragged that “this is really an all-out war we got going on.”
What’s unclear is whether the Cossacks knew they were in this war. Whatever the case, they would pay dearly for it.
On a Friday evening shortly before Christmas, David Young sat outside Joey Matthews’s house. Young smelled of alcohol, and he had the typical Cossacks look: shaved head and pointy beard, though these features are pretty mainstream here. He politely declined an interview and said that no one in the Mingus Cossacks was going to talk. Some had lost their jobs, their kids, all because of Waco, he said. There was just too much at stake.
A Christmas tree was visible through Matthews’s front window. But with Rhyne dead and nearly all the Mingus Cossacks facing felony charges, there wasn’t much to celebrate.
These days, you seldom see a Cossack in his colors on the Mingus strip.
This much is not in dispute: Scores of Bandidos, Cossacks and members of associated clubs gathered at the Twin Peaks in Waco on a sunny Sunday morning, and all hell broke loose. Cossack John Wilson was there, and he offered his story.
Wilson arrived at the Twin Peaks with five members of his chapter, including his son Jake, for what he’d been led to believe was a “peaceful meeting” between Bandidos and Cossacks to iron out their differences. With this understanding, he and his son left the handguns they used to protect their motorcycle shop locked in the saddlebags of their Harleys. John Wilson told his guys to do the same; he didn’t want anyone going inside with a gun.
“We were there for an hour before the stuff happened,” Wilson says. “There were Cossacks shaking Bandidos’ hands, and I’m sitting there looking around thinking, ‘Well, I guess it’s okay.’” There wasn’t any trouble, he says, until the Dallas-area Bandidos rolled up.
Then the fighting started, and the shooting. Waco police entered the fray, firing as well. (Surveillance video shows Rhyne engaged in a fistfight, Hughes says.)
Wilson, unarmed and essentially helpless, dropped to the asphalt behind some bikes. Afraid he’d see a gun aimed at him if he stayed there, Wilson got up and scrambled away amid “withering” gunfire, pulling a fellow Cossack to safety through a patio gate.
He took refuge inside the restaurant, where many other Cossacks had fled. He says he half-crouched by a window, looking for his son and chapter members.
When the shooting stopped, Waco police with guns drawn herded all the bikers away from the area where nine men lay dead or dying and 20 were wounded. Wilson ended up six feet away from Rhyne, who had gone down with bullets to his neck and torso.
Wilson’s son Jake stayed by Rattle Can’s side, pressing a bandanna to the neck wound. At this point, Rhyne was still talking — saying that he was having difficulty breathing, that he couldn’t feel his legs. Some moments later, he fell silent.
Some Cossacks grabbed him and carried him to the tailgate of a pickup truck, where one performed CPR. But Rhyne didn’t appear to be conscious anymore.
Wilson recalls his anger and disbelief. By this time, he says, crime scene technicians had fanned out through the parking lot, carefully marking spent casings. Fifty yards away, ambulances stood at the ready. The crime scene had long since ceased to be “hot,” Wilson says.
Waco police were everywhere, Wilson says, his voice hardening, and none of them helped Rhyne or allowed the Cossacks to carry him to an ambulance. If he made a move, a cop told him, he could get shot, Wilson says. Rhyne and two other Cossacks in Wilson’s view, Richard Kirschner of Wylie and Matthew Mark Smith of Keller, lay bleeding without medical aid for 30 to 45 minutes, Wilson claims.
“Just standing there watching those guys bleed until they start convulsing and die,” Wilson says, “knowing every one of them’s [the Waco police’s] got a first aid kit in their car…and then not lifting a single finger to do anything to help those guys, I was angry.”
Wilson and his son Jake were among the 177 men and women arrested after the shooting, and both were indicted in November on felony charges for engaging in organized criminal activity. The indictments for the Wilsons and 104 others are identical, none indicating the individual’s specific role in the shootout.
Skyi Rhyne was getting ready to buy a pair of shoes when her mother got a call from a friend, saying there was a shooting in Waco, and Jake might have been shot. Skyi called her dad’s phone, and there was no answer. She tells her story from a couch in the modest home she shared with her father, tearing up several times during a long conversation.
Rocki and Skyi got in their pickup and started driving the 130 miles from Ranger to Waco, determined to get solid answers. Along the way, they got another call from a friend. Yes, it was Jake. Back in Ranger, someone sent Dyllan a picture of Jake on the back of that tailgate — it was already on the news.
In Waco, mother and daughter searched frantically for answers, going to the hospital, which was blocked off, and calling police and the morgue. No one gave them information.
The Rhynes never received a call from Waco authorities informing them of Jake’s death, but soon enough, they’d heard from enough friends to know it was time to go home.
The next morning, Skyi did what she always did. She got up early and showed up for class at Ranger High School. Everyone knew what had happened by now, and Skyi found herself unable to go beyond the principal’s office. “I told her I didn’t want to go to class but I had to be there, so I just went in the gym and talked to my [basketball and softball] coach.”
Skyi pulled herself together a day later for the Ranger High sports banquet, which would have been a highlight of Jake’s year. She was honored as Athlete of the Year, with standout performances for the Lady Bulldogs in softball, basketball and track. In the latter, she was an ace shot-putter with several trips to regionals and state under her belt.
“He always told us to be tough and not to cry,” Skyi says of her dad. “Any time I’d have a bad game, he wouldn’t want me to be upset, because he knew I was already hard enough on myself. So he would just try to grin and make me happy and make me smile.”
She starts to cry.
Skyi was still hanging tough at her high school graduation days later. She walked across the floor to get her diploma while cheers filled the Ranger High School gym.
“I just wanted it to be over,” Skyi says, “so I didn’t have to smile anymore.”