The fate of Ernesto Manuel “Romeo” Gonzalez is now in the hands of a Reno jury.
Gonzalez, a member of the Vagos Motorcycle Club, was tried on seven criminal charges including murder, second degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to engage, challenge to fight resulting in death, carrying a concealed weapon and discharging a firearm in a structure. He killed a widely respected Hells Angel named Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew during a brawl between members of the two clubs inside John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada on September 23, 2011.
The brawl culminated more than an hour of taunting of Pettigrew by former Vago Stuart Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick (photo above). Rudnick pled guilty to conspiracy to murder, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators and will be sentenced on August 22.
Prosecutor Karl Hall took two weeks to present what, at a distance, seems to have been an unconvincing case against Gonzalez. Hall called several current Vagos to the stand including Gregory Fearn who is president of the Lake County Vagos chapter, Richard Nickerson who was with Gonzalez moments before the fight erupted and Robert Wiggins who is vice-president of the Vagos Orange County, California chapter.
Fearn testified he was pistol whipped by Pettigrew. “He fired two or three rounds, and then he came around to me and hit me in the face. I turned and he hit me a second time.” Fearn said Pettigrew “looked like a wild coyote.”
Nickerson said the two clubs had “coexisted” until “some drunken fool shot off his mouth and started a hornet’s nest.”
Wiggins was on the casino floor and was kicked in the head by both Pettigrew and his chapter sergeant-at-arms, Cesar Villagrana at the moment Gonzalez shot Pettigrew. It remains unclear why Hall thought these witnesses would advance his 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 the first day of the trial. He will be sentenced September 4.
Former Vago Jacob Cancelli, who agreed to cooperate with federal authorities after a conviction for stock fraud, also testified for the prosecution. He told jurors that the blood in this tragedy covered Rudnick’s hands.
But Hall called Rudnick, “the drunken fool shot off his mouth and started a hornet’s nest,” as his chief witness anyway. Rudnick testified that the Vagos and Hells Angels had been itching to murder each other for months, that there was a meeting of 200 Vagos that night to decide which Hells Angel to kill and that Gonzalez volunteered at that meeting to kill Pettigrew.
Hall showed the jury hours of surveillance video but there was no video of Gonzalez shooting Pettigrew.
Only Gonzalez testified for defense attorney David Houston.
Gonzalez said that he had just returned from dinner at a burger joint with Fearn when Pettigrew hit Rudnick. “When the fight ensued, I backed up,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t want any part of it.”
“As I approached inside the disco, I still see them walking at the same time and same moment, I have a brother on the ground. Then they start approaching him and kicking, I see one of them with a firearm and I shot.”
Gonzalez said he shot Pettigrew with a .40 caliber Glock automatic pistol. He said he found the weapon lying on a counter. He testified he did not own the pistol but it is the same make and caliber as a pistol he owned in Nicaragua. The pistol was the subject of a wide search in early October 2011. The weapon has never been recovered. Gonzalez said he disposed of it and doesn’t know where it is now.
Hall mocked Gonzalez’ recollections of the gun. “That was a fortuitous event that there was a Glock 40. That was quite the find.”
“That’s what happened,” Gonzalez said.
“It just happened to be a gun you owned in Nicaragua,” Hall hectored.
Gonzalez patched into the Vagos in Hawaii in 2009 and testified that he started carrying a weapon that year after being harassed on a California road. “I was heading to San Jose and somewhere between the airport a truck pulls up to me. Rolls down the windows. I heard certain people say stuff like, ‘You are a biker, I don’t like you,’ and I had bottles thrown at me. Since then, I determined I was never going to get caught alone or unprotected.”
Hall pointed to video footage of Gonzalez walking through the casino with the gun in his hand and asked the defendant if he was “on a mission.”
Gonzalez replied “Why the hell do I have a gun in my left hand, when I am right handed.”
The five man and seven woman jury received its instructions yesterday. Both sides gave their closing statements today. Deliberations began about noon Pacific Time. There may be a verdict as early as tonight.