66°F
weather icon Clear

Testimony offers glimpse of life with outlaw bikers in Las Vegas

Updated August 15, 2019 - 8:37 pm

An undercover agent who infiltrated a Las Vegas chapter of the Vagos Motorcycle Club for two years offered a glimpse into the underworld of outlaw bikers this week as he testified during a federal racketeering trial.

“If the leadership decides to declare war,” Agostino Brancato, the lead undercover agent in Operation Pure Luck, told jurors, “people are going to die.”

Prosecutor Tracey Batson asked who would make such a decision, and Brancato pointed to Pastor Fausto Palafox, the Vagos international president known as “TaTa,” seated among a crowd of lawyers and seven fellow defendants.

Brancato, a deputized agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, detailed the thorough application process and how he became trusted enough to earn a “fully patched” membership. He also discussed the gang’s response to the 2011 melee at a Sparks casino that left a rival Hells Angels leader dead.

A brawny man with a shaved head and a thick salt-and-pepper goatee, Brancato is the first of dozens of witnesses expected to testify in what’s scheduled as a four-month trial for the eight California men.

Brancato, who was introduced to the gang through a confidential informant, talked about Vagos mantras and slogans, such as “we give what we get” and “trust no one.”

Earning Vagos patches

Members of the gang earned various patches, which were stitched onto leather and denim vests — or “cuts” — for their length of loyalty and their willingness to commit acts of violence on behalf of the group, Brancato said. He testified that he never committed violent acts while he worked his way to a sergeant-at-arms position.

But his testimony, which is scheduled to resume Monday, could be called into question as the trial rolls on in the weeks ahead and defense attorneys start to cross-examine him.

In 2014, a federal magistrate judge recommended dismissal of felony drug trafficking charges against a former Vagos officer because of outrageous government conduct by Brancato. Two federal judges later refused to throw out the case, saying Brancato did not violate the rights of a defendant during an alleged cocaine transaction.

The start of Brancato’s time with the gang included a 12-page application that asked for work history and criminal history, along with emergency contacts, marital status, education and military background.

“They were shocked that I had no prior arrests,” Brancato said.

Later, when he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon on his bike in Utah, he said, “I did not come out of role.” A Utah member of the gang who bailed him out of jail expressed surprise that he had no felony record.

Brancato told the bikers that he paid for good lawyers to keep his record clean.

Casino shooting death

He became a “hangaround” before the Northern Nevada shooting but was not inside John Ascuaga’s Nugget when Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew was killed.

During the casino brawl, one of the defendants now on trial in Las Vegas, Ernesto “Romeo” Gonzalez, shot and killed Pettigrew, 54, a member of the Hells Angels. Pettigrew was known as the “godfather” of the Hells Angels in San Jose, California.

Attorneys for several of the eight men on trial have denied that there was a plan to kill the Hells Angels leader, saying that the Vagos members were responding to “active shooters” in the casino.

Brancato recorded Vagos leaders discussing collecting $300 from each of the more than 1,000 members to help pay for Gonzalez’s defense in a state trial.

Prosecutors have said in court papers that Vagos operated as a criminal enterprise and engaged in drug distribution, firearms trafficking, murder, kidnapping, assault, extortion, robbery and witness intimidation.

Thirteen more defendants are awaiting trial in a case that prosecutors allege involves the Vagos gang and crimes in Nevada, California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah.

Brancato also testified that in early 2013 Vagos leaders planned an attack in New Mexico, where a member had been run over by someone in the rival Bandidos Motorcycle Club. He described a meeting inside a crowded restaurant with a Vagos leader, who passed him a note scribbled on a napkin: “It’s on with the Bandidos.”

The prosecutor asked: “What did you take that to mean?”

Brancato replied: “That we were at war with the Bandidos.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Crime Videos
Gustavo Ramos-Martinez, convicted of killing two elderly people, ordered to serve life in prison
Gustavo Ramos-Martinez, convicted of killing two elderly people, ordered to serve two sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Bizutesfaye
Paula Davis sings "On the Steps of the Palace"
Paula Davis sings “On the Steps of the Palace,” a song from the musical “Into the Woods,” at a Timeless Tonys performance in 2017. (Lissy de Jesus/YouTube)
Attorneys for Aryan Warriors request leaked documents
Defense attorneys for two Aryan Warriors members accused of murder and racketeering requested documents during a court hearing Wednesday after they were leaked to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Chance Underwood Preliminary Hearing Called Off - Video
Chance Underwood appears in court with his preliminary hearing called off but will have his hearing in October.
Man sentenced in DUI crash that killed former Metro sergeant’s son
Nineteen year old Alexander Brewer was ordered to serve five to 20 years behind bars Monday for a DUI crash that killed Garrett Meriwether, the son of a retired Las Vegas police sergeant.
Giovanni Ruiz, accused of shooting and killing his girlfriend, appeared in court
Giovanni Ruiz, a UNLV grad student accused of shooting and killing his girlfriend, Paula Davis, appeared in court during his arraignment at the North Las Vegas Justice Center. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Woman attacked, stabbed while sleeping in Las Vegas apartment
A woman awoke in her apartment to find another woman on top of her “stabbing her repeatedly,” according to Las Vegas police on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Rossi Ralenkotter appears in court
Ex-LVCVA CEO Rossi Ralenkotter appeared in court on Tuesday, Sept. 10 to face felony charges related to alleged theft of Southwest Airlines gift cards bought by the tourism agency.
Chuck Chaiyakul appears in court
Chuck Chaiyakul,accused of killing a woman and putting her body in a 55-gallon drum, appears in court on Friday. Sept. 6, 2019. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Judge denies bail for man accused of sledgehammer murder
Clinton Taylor, the man accused of bludgeoning a woman he did not know with a sledgehammer while she was doing her laundry, appeared in court Wednesday. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Attorney argues for equal treatment for defendant - VIDEO
Attorneys for a Las Vegas man facing life behind bars for drug possession asked a judge this week to make sure he gets treated like a tech billionaire who avoided prison time in a similar case. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police believe woman's body is in 55-gallon drum (Part 1)
Metro Lt. Ray Spencer briefs the media on a homicide investigation where police believe a woman's body is in a 55-gallon drum in the southwest Las Vegas Valley (Alexis Egeland/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police beileve woman's body is in 55-gallon drum (Part 2)
Metro Lt. Ray Spencer briefs the media on a homicide investigation where police believe a woman's body is in a 55-gallon drum in the southwest Las Vegas Valley (Alexis Egeland/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Damion Dill sentenced in shooting of 11-year-old-girl
Damion Dill was sentenced to 50 years in prison Tuesday, following the shooting death of 11-year-old Angelina Erives last November. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas sledgehammer killing suspect ordered held without bail - VIDEO
Clinton Taylor, the man accused of randomly bludgeoning a woman to death with a sledgehammer early Thursday at a Las Vegas laundromat, was ordered to be held without bail on Friday. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Members of white supremacist prison gang arraigned in Las Vegas - VIDEO
Members of the violent white supremacist prison gang known as the Aryan Warriors were brought before Judge Doulas Herndon for their initial arraignments on Thursday in Las Vegas. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Man arrested in face stabbing incident - VIDEO
A man was taken into custody Thursday morning after allegedly attacking his mother at a home on the southwest side of Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police investigate sledgehammer homicide - VIDEO
Metropolitan Police Department homicide Lt. Ray Spencer talks to the media about a woman who was attacked and killed by a man using a sledgehammer, early Thursday morning, Aug. 29, 2019 (Sabrina Schnur/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police fired 6 shots to end standoff at Laughlin casino - VIDEO
SWAT officers fired six rounds Monday morning when they fatally wounded an attempted robbery suspect who pointed a weapon at officers following an hourslong standoff in the Aquarius casino parking lot in Laughlin. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review/Journal)
Off-duty Officer Exchanges Gunfire With Suspect
Las Vegas police Capt. Nichole Splinter briefs the media on a shooting involving an off duty police officer on August 21, 2019. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department/YouTube)
Paul Browning Released from Ely State Prison - VIDEO
Paul Browning greets his mother, Betty Browning, after being released from Ely State Prison. Browning served 33 years on Nevada’s death row. (Rachel Crosby/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Armed robbery suspect killed in officer-involved shooting at Laughlin casino
An armed robbery suspect was killed by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers after six-hour standoff outside the Aquarius Casino in Laughlin on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Suspect dead after officer-involved shooting at Laughlin casino
An armed robbery suspect is dead after a nearly seven-hour standoff the Aquarius Casino in Laughlin ended with an officer-involved shooting. (Mat Luschek / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Second officer-involved shooting of 2019 for North Las Vegas Police Department
North Las Vegas Police hold a press conference about the second officer involved shooting of 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Road Rage Homicide Suspect Van
Video shows a van Las Vegas police believe was involved in a deadly road rage incident on August 5. Police announced on August 26 that they have recovered the van. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Las Vegas police look for armed robbers
Police are seeking two men involved in an armed robbery Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, on the 7500 block of North Cimarron Road, near Farm Road. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Las Vegas police searching for video related to road rage homicide
Lt. Ray Spencer of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Section is asking for clues from the public to solve a murder from Aug. 5. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Jury hears closing statements in killing of 17-year-old
Closing statements began today for Jaiden Caruso and Kody Harlan charged in the death of 17-year-old Matthew Minkler. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CCSD to vote on shooting settlement
The Clark County School Board will vote Thursday on a $100,000 settlement for the mother of Dalvin Brown, the Canyon Springs High School student who was shot and killed on school grounds at the beginning of last school year. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police find 2 dead in northwest valley home
Las Vegas homicide detectives are investigating after two people were found dead in a home Friday night in the far northwest valley.
Teen talks about alleged sexual assault at Las Vegas grocery store
A 17-year old says she was groped and then sexually assaulted by a loss-prevention specialist at an Albertsons store in east Las Vegas. The subject's voice has been distorted to protect her identity. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Court hearing For 17-year-old Who Was Found Dead Begins - Video
An image that captured blood pooled near the head of a 17-year-old’s lifeless body appeared on monitors inside a Las Vegas courtroom Wednesday, as prosecutors gave opening statements in the murder trial for two teens charged in Matthew Minkler’s death.
Purse Theft Occurs at Suncoast - Video
Purse theft occurred July 24 at Suncoast just after 930 pm.
Woman accused of trafficking an 11-year-old girl in Las Vegas - Video
A woman accused of trafficking an 11-year-old girl on the Strip agreed to plead guilty to a child abuse charge, her attorney said. Gigi Mitchell, 40, faces several counts of child abuse and one count of child sex trafficking. The 11-year-old girl told social worker Felicia Tucker that she was a “hustler” and entered nightclubs where she drank and flirted with men.
Federal officials fail to keep criminal undocumented immigrants from reoffending
ICE and the DOJ courts say they are trying to remove undocumented criminals. But statistics show the courts are doing less than a decade ago. (Art Kane/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Gragson crash seen in surveillance video
Newly-released video reveals more details around Scott Gragson crash, including Gragson arguing with a guard over allowing cars to follow him to his home. Video from a resident’s security camera shows the vehicle crash on a median. And police bodycam footage shows Gragson talking to an officer after the crash. (Grand Jury Exhibits)
Woman accused of stealing $1M from company makes court appearance
Donna Blizniak, the Las Vegas woman, who is accused of stealing more than $1 million over the course of five years from Nevada’s largest alcohol distributor, appeared in court on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ex-Metro detective accused of killing her former son-in-law appears in court
Pamela Bordeaux, a Las Vegas former detective, who is accused of shooting and killing her former son-in-law, appeared in court on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police address latest office-involved shooting
Metro police officials provided details on Monday, July 22, 2019, during a media briefing about an officer-involved shooting, which occurred on July 17 in east Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Steve Meriwether talks about his son, who was killed by a drunk driver
Retired Metro sergeant Steve Meriwether talks about his son, Garrett Meriwether, who was killed by a drunk driver. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Las Vegas Metro Police holds press conference about Oct. 1 report
Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo held a press conference on Wednesday, July 10, regarding a new report about the police department's performance during Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1, 2017. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST