AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — As supporters of then-President Donald Trump surrounded and harassed a Joe Biden campaign bus on a Central Texas highway last year, San Marcos police officials and 911 dispatchers fielded multiple requests for assistance from Democratic campaigners and bus passengers who said they feared for their safety from a pack of motorists, known as a “Trump Train,” allegedly driving in dangerously aggressive ways.
“San Marcos refused to help,” an amended federal lawsuit over the 2020 freeway skirmish claims.
Transcribed 911 audio recordings and documents that reveal behind-the-scenes communications among law enforcement and dispatchers were included in the amended lawsuit, filed late Friday.
The transcribed recordings were filed in an attempt to show that San Marcos law enforcement leaders chose not to provide the bus with a police escort multiple times, even though police departments in other nearby cities did. In one transcribed recording, Matthew Daenzer, a San Marcos police corporal on duty the day of the incident, refused to provide an escort when recommended by another jurisdiction.
“No, we’re not going to do it,” Daenzer told a 911 dispatcher, according to the amended filing. “We will ‘close patrol’ that, but we’re not going to escort a bus.”
The amended filing also states that in those audio recordings, law enforcement officers “privately laughed” and “joked about the victims and their distress.”
Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who was running for Congress at the time, is among the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The new complaint also expands the number of people and entities being sued to include Daenzer, San Marcos assistant police chief Brandon Winkenwerder and the city itself. A spokesperson for the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday. Daenzer and Winkenwerder could not immediately be reached.
The confrontation between the Biden bus and the Trump supporters made national news after it was captured on video the last weekend of October 2020, when polls showed a tight race in Texas between the two candidates. Trump later praised his supporters’ behavior, which occurred months before the former president’s backers violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an apparent attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of his reelection loss.
The Texas highway incident featured at least one minor collision and led to Texas Democrats canceling three scheduled campaign events in Central Texas, citing “safety concerns.” The original lawsuit was filed against Chase Stapp, San Marcos’ director of public safety, and the San Marcos city marshal’s department and claims the plaintiffs continue to suffer psychological and emotional injury from the event. They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and for legal fees.
The lawsuit alleges that by refusing the help, law enforcement officers violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 because they were aware of “acts of violent political intimidation” but did not take appropriate steps to prevent the Trump supporters from intimidating eligible voters.
The provision of the Klan Act that the plaintiffs are citing in the lawsuit has laid dormant for years, but saw a resurgence under the Trump administration, according to Project Democracy lawyer John Paredes, who is representing some of the plaintiffs. It was also recently cited in a federal lawsuit against Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection.
A second lawsuit was filed against a group of Trump supporters who allegedly harassed and followed the bus. That lawsuit claims the group of Trump supporters who surrounded the bus also violated Ku Klux Klan Act and Texas law by organizing a “politically-motivated conspiracy to disrupt the campaign and intimidate its supporters.”
“We’re not going to escort a bus”
The amended complaint in the lawsuit against officials said that a San Marcos crime analyst and a Biden supporter both alerted city police that the Biden bus was being followed by Trump supporters as it traveled to a scheduled campaign stop at Texas State University in San Marcos.
While Stapp, the public safety director, told the Biden supporter that San Marcos police would send backup, he did not order an escort. The complaint said he sent the information to Winkenwerder, the assistant police chief. Winkerwerder also did not order an escort or assistance, the complaint alleges. Instead, he told officers to “close patrol” the area near the university.
When the Biden bus entered San Marcos’ jurisdiction, a New Braunfels 911 dispatcher attempted to get San Marcos police to take over the escort that city had provided along Interstate 35.
The 911 dispatcher in San Marcos put the New Braunfels dispatcher and the Biden campaign staffer who was pleading for assistance on hold and called Daenzer, the police supervisor on duty.
“I am so annoyed at New Braunfels for doing this to us,” the dispatcher tells Daenzer, who answered the call and began laughing, according to the transcribed recording in the filing. “They have their officers escorting this Biden bus, essentially, and the Trump Train is cutting in between vehicles and driving — being aggressive and slowing them down to like 20 or 30 miles per hour. And they want you guys to respond to help.”
“No, we’re not going to do it. We will ‘close patrol’ that, but we’re not going to escort a bus,” Daenzer responds.
The transcript shows that the 911 dispatcher passes along information about the sense of danger expressed by the Biden campaign staffer who called for assistance as he was trying to caravan behind the bus in a white SUV.
“[T]hey’re like really worked up over it and he’s like breathing hard and stuff, like, ‘they’re being really aggressive.’ Okay. Calm down,” she said to Daenzer.
The transcription shows that Daenzer said the Biden bus should “drive defensively and it’ll be great.”
“Or leave the train,” the 911 dispatcher responds. “There’s an idea.”
According to the transcription in the complaint, the dispatcher gets back on the phone with the Biden staffer and tells him there would be no escort.
“If you feel like you’re being threatened or your life is threatened, definitely call us back,” she told him.
“Are you kidding me, ma’am?” the staffer responded before saying “they’ve threatened my life on multiple occasions with vehicular collision” and again asking for an escort.
The dispatcher repeated that officers would be there to monitor traffic infractions, but said there would be no escort and indicated that decision was made by a high-ranking police official the lawsuit claims is Winkenwerder.
The bus “could really use your help”
According to Friday’s filing, San Marcos police continued to receive 911 calls from other witnesses warning them of reckless driving along I-35, but the police department did not send an escort. The Biden campaign decided to cancel its event in San Marcos and continue north toward Austin.
Eric Cervini, one campaign volunteer and a plaintiff, had already arrived at the San Marcos event location. He alerted Cole Stapp, a deputy in the city marshal’s department who was at the site, that the event was canceled and told him the bus “could really use your help,” the filing stated.
When Cole Stapp called 911 dispatch to relay the message that the Biden event in San Marcos was canceled, he did not share that the bus needed help, according to another transcribed audio recording in the amended filing.
Instead, he told Cervini the people on the bus should call 911 if they needed emergency services. When Cervini informed him the bus had already called 911 and shared the bus’s exact location, Cole Stapp noted the bus was near the police headquarters, the filing states.
“Despite these multiple calls for help from Plaintiffs and others, for the roughly 30 minutes it took to drive through San Marcos on the main highway that runs through it, there were no officers from San Marcos or any other police cars in sight–not on the I-35 exit or entrance ramps, nor on either side of the highway,” the filing read.
Without a police escort, those on the bus allege, the Trump supporters grew more aggressive surrounding the bus and the campaign staffers’ car. At one point, there was a collision between one of the Trump supporters and the white SUV driven by the Biden campaign staffer who had earlier connected to the San Marcos dispatcher. It wasn’t until the bus reached Kyle around 3:46 p.m. that a police escort from that city arrived and the Trump supporters moved away from the vehicle, the lawsuit alleges.
But when the Kyle police escort departed at the Travis County line, the filing stated, the trucks of Trump supporters “resumed their threatening behavior.” It wasn’t until the bus was able to make it to a campaign stop in Austin that those onboard were able to get off. The Biden campaign canceled multiple events due to safety reasons.
Allegations of poking fun at the attack
According to the filing, plaintiffs argue a text message between some of the San Marcos police officers who refused to provide assistance “poked fun at the attack.”
To support that claim, the lawsuit refers to a group text message among San Marcos officers, including Winkenwerder, in which an unidentified person appears to refer to Democrats who drove through town as a derogatory slang term for someone who is mentally disabled.
The following day, Chase Stapp, the public safety director, texted multiple officers about the situation, according to Friday’s filing. “From what I can gather, the Biden bus never even exited I-35 thanks to the Trump escort.”
Yet in the days afterward, after news of the melee spread, officers started calling the event a “debacle” in internal emails and braced for a “political fire storm” after officers realized that what happened in San Marcos “might lead to political and legal consequences,” the complaint alleges.
When Daenzer wrote the report of the incident four days later, he said “due to the staffing issues, lack of time to plan, and lack of knowledge of the route, we were unable to provide an escort.”
A spokesperson for the city of San Marcos told The Texas Tribune last year that police responded to requests to assist the bus, but traffic prevented officers from catching up before the bus left the city limits.
Yet Lisa Prewitt, a former San Marcos City Council member who was running for a county commissioner seat at the time, told the Tribune in the days after the skirmish that she had flagged the event to local law enforcement 24 hours in advance and mentioned safety concerns. Prewitt said she had also called Chase Stapp and alerted him the bus was 30 minutes away from the event location in San Marcos and was being followed by 50 or more vehicles with Trump flags.
Last year, Chase Stapp denied that Prewitt specifically requested a police escort or mentioned the “Trump Train” was causing issues, but did not respond to follow-up questions at the time.
“With the exception of the two phone calls to me from Ms. Prewitt, at no time did anyone from the campaign request assistance from the San Marcos Police Department in advance of the event so that the request could be evaluated and prepared for,” Chase Stapp said in a statement to the Tribune last year.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.