RENO — Nearly two years after a gunbattle between motorcycle gangs turned a casino floor into a shooting gallery, two rival gang members go on trial on murder charges today in the death of a high-ranking Hells Angels officer from California.
Ernesto Gonzalez, president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua, is accused of fatally shooting the president of the Hells Angels’ San Jose chapter, Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, during the melee at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks on Sept. 23, 2011.
He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, open murder and conspiracy to commit murder in what prosecutors say was part of an organized assassination plan.
Making for a bit of unusual courtroom drama, Gonzalez and his lawyer will be sitting at the defense table with a rival Hells Angel who has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and conspiracy charges in the same shootout.
Cesar Villagrana is accused of shooting a Vagos member in the leg, but his lawyer says he only was defending himself and Pettigrew when gunfire erupted.
Courthouse security has been tight with a heavy police presence during earlier hearings on trial motions.
Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer has banned the wearing of gang or “club” insignia in the courtroom. Prosecutors say they are gang members.
Defense lawyers say they are club members.
The judge ruled earlier that neither phrase should be used.
“From now on, no gangs, no clubs,” Steinheimer said. “Use proper names. Refer to the Hells Angels as the Hells Angels and the Vagos as the Vagos.”
Another Vagos member who police blamed for starting the fight that led to the killing pleaded guilty in March to second-degree murder.
Gary Rudnick, former head of the Vagos Los Angeles chapter who went by the nickname “Jabbers,” is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 22. Police say he repeatedly taunted Pettigrew until Pettigrew threw a punch that led to the gunfire.
A grand jury indicted all three in November 2011 based in part on the testimony of a confidential informant who said he was a high-ranking Vagos member for two decades and characterized the shooting as an unplanned event that got out of hand because Rudnick was acting outside his authority within the gang.
But Chief Deputy District Attorney Karl Hall said in amended complaint earlier this year that Gonzalez was “lying in wait” for Pettigrew. He said he conspired with other Vagos with the “specific intent” to kill in promotion of their gang.