Cesar Villagrana, one of three men charged with participating in a fatal, prearranged duel in a Sparks, Nevada casino, moved last Thursday to have his case severed from that of two Vagos charged with the same offense for the same incident.
The charges against all three men stem from what rational human beings understand to have been a spontaneous, deadly fight between about a dozen Hells Angels and about 60 Vagos at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada on September 23.
One man, San Jose Hells Angel Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, died. Vagos Leonard Ramirez and Diego Garcia were shot during the fight. A Vago named Ernesto Manuel Gonzalez is charged with shooting and killing Pettigrew. A former Vago named Stuart Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick is charged with issuing the challenge that resulted in the duel.
Duels and Lynchings
All three men are charged with “conspiracy to engage in an affray.” “Affray,” a variation on the words “terror” and “affright,” commonly means a fight in a public place that terrorizes innocent bystanders. The charge was invented in the Middle Ages to discourage men from fighting in church. During the 18th and 19th Centuries the word was a legal euphemism for a public duel. The charge of “conspiracy to engage in an affray” was originally intended to punish “seconds” and other assistants in deadly duels as accessories to those homicides.
The use of the charge in this instance is very creative. It is intended to assist prosecutors in the revival of another old fashioned and mostly discredited practice – lynching.
Rudnick is charged because he allegedly insulted Pettigrew until Pettigrew became enraged and began to fight. Gonzalez is charged because he allegedly fired the shots that killed Pettigrew. Villagrana is charged because he fired a gun during the fight.
All three men are charged because prosecutors apparently believe it gives them the greatest possible chance to condemn all three men to life in prison. Duels were often deadly fights over matters of honor. The participants on both sides of the Sparks fight were all bound by a code of honor to fight to protect one another. The prosecutors who led a grand jury to make the “conspiracy to engage in an affray” accusation have in effect charged all the defendants with conspiracy to live by a code of honor.
In a nation that seems increasingly divided and cynical, the notion of criminalizing the concept of “one for all and all for one” is fulsome.
The “conspiracy to commit affray charge” is also a blatant attempt to tie adversaries together in the same bag in hopes that eventually their opposing self-interests will force them to destroy each other.
Villagrana is represented by attorney David Z. Chesnoff who may be most famous for representing Paris Hilton and Mike Tyson. In his severance motion last week Chesnoff quoted grand jury testimony from a former Vago who, acting in his own self-interest, agreed with prosecutors that the Vagos are an “outlaw gang” that is “involved in criminal activity” including “murder, rape, robbery” and “drugs.”
“If this information is presented at trial,” Chesnoff argued, “it would be clearly prejudicial to Mr. Villagrana because the jury may be led to believe that all motorcycle clubs operate the way the Vagos club does.” Chesnoff said his client “responded to an onslaught of violence in self-defense.”
Chesnoff also told Judge Connie Steinheimer the obvious truth about the absurd legal fiction that makes all three defendants co-conspirators. “For the jury to believe one version of events, it will necessarily have to disbelieve the other, thereby precluding acquittal of one of the defendants,” Chesnoff wrote. “It will therefore be unnecessary for the prosecution to prove anything. The Vagos will prosecute the Hells Angels and the Hells Angels will prosecute the Vagos.”
Prosecuting The Other Club
Chesnoff then got down to the dirty business of prosecuting the other motorcycle club. He said that the fight between Pettigrew and Rudnick, “erupted into what was actually a larger-scale, pre-meditated attack by Vagos members on Hells Angels members.”
It is exactly the sort of thing prosecutors want the opposing attorneys to say to a jury if Judge Steinheimer, a former probation officer and assistant district attorney, denies the severance. She might.
In his response to the motion for severance, prosecutor Karl Hall told the judge that there is no point in separating Vagos from Hells Angels because they are all part of the same criminal “culture.”
“Each gang has relatively equal gang history,” Hall wrote – managing to use the word “gang” twice in a seven word sentence. “Steeped in gang culture, each group willingly entered into battle.”