Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of Ernesto Gonzalez. Gonzalez, is the former president of the Vagos Motorcycle Club in Nicaragua. Gonzalez killed Hells Angel Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew in a Sparks, Nevada casino on September 23, 2011. Jurors must decide if the murder was coldly premeditated or if Gonzalez acted reasonably to save the life of another Vago.
The deadly fight erupted during an annual motorcycle rally in Reno named Street Vibrations. The two motorcycle clubs were coexisting peacefully at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort when a former Vago named Stuart Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick started trying to provoke Pettigrew. At the time, Rudnick was vice-president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Vagos. The provocation continued for almost an hour. Numerous, senior Vagos told Rudnick to stop. When he did not, Pettigrew hit Rudnick in the head with a beer bottle and the melee began.
Rudnick was one of three men charged in the case. He made a plea deal with the state last year and was released from custody. Two other Vagos, Leonard Ramirez and Diego Garcia were shot that night.
Hells Angel Cesar Villagrana was also charged in the case. Villagrana pled guilty to one count of “battery with a deadly weapon” and a single count of “challenge to fight with a deadly weapon” on Monday.
The prosecution’s theory of the case has evolved during the last 22 months. Originally, prosecutors had accused both Hells Angels and Vagos of agreeing to fight that night.
A twelve person jury with three alternates was empanelled Tuesday. The opposing attorneys in the case, prosecutor Karl Hall and defense attorney David Houston outlined their cases for the jury yesterday.
Hall will try to convince jurors that Pettigrew’s death resulted from a Vagos conspiracy. Rudnick is expected to testify that Vagos International President Pastor “Tata” Palafox wanted someone to kill Pettigrew and Gonzalez volunteered.
Various state and federal police forces have been trying to pin something on Palafox since the fight. Palafox was one of 12 Vagos arrested after a massive series of raids called “Operation Simple Green” in October 2011. It took 500 policemen and a press conference to take those dozen men into custody. At the time, a California Department of Justice Special Agent named Andy Spillman told the Los Angeles Times that Simple Green was “…a tremendous blow, because we’re targeting their (the Vagos) top leaders.”
Palafox was accused of stealing a motorcycle, possessing a stolen motorcycle and “street terrorism.” All the charges against him were dropped the following January.
Houston will tell jurors that there were few security guards near the scene when the fighting started, that Gonzalez did not become immediately involved, that Gonzalez and Pettigrew started shooting first and that Gonzalez drew and fired a pistol only after Pettigrew and another Hells Angel began kicking an unconscious Vago in the head. In his opening statement yesterday Houston told jurors Pettigrew said, “This will teach you to fuck with the Hells Angels,” as he kicked the Vago.
Anticipating Rudnick’s testimony, Houston said Rudnick wanted to collect a Hells Angel “souvenir” and that he tried to rip the patched cut off an incapacitated Hells Angel before he fled. In his opening statement Houston told jurors Rudnick was solely responsible for the tragedy and that once the fighting started Gonzalez simply faced a hard choice and did what he thought was best at the time.
“Ernesto Gonzalez was put in a position of making a decision. Do I do nothing and let that (the assault on a brother Vago) happen? Or do I fire this weapon,” Houston said.
The defense attorney also told jurors the Vagos is a “fraternal organization” that includes doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
Judge Connie Steinheimer has banned the words “gang” and “club” from the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks.