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Trial begins for gang members accused in fatal Sparks casino melee

The chaos of a brawl among rival motorcycle gang members and a deadly shootout at a casino in Northern Nevada was replayed Monday at the start of a federal racketeering trial in a Las Vegas courtroom.

Prosecutors said leaders of Vagos orchestrated the September 2011 killing of a rival Hells Angel leader on the floor of John Ascuaga’s Nugget.

Defense attorneys for several of the eight men on trial, meanwhile, evoked images of mass shootings, telling jurors that the gunfire was a response to stop “active shooters.”

Lawyer Michael Kennedy, who represents Ernesto “Romeo” Manuel Gonzalez, used the phrase more than a dozen times during opening statements.

“Shooting to stop two active shooters is not murder,” Kennedy told jurors. “This was a Nevada casino with gunfire and shooting for two minutes.”

Video surveillance showed Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew pistol-whipping another man on the casino floor before gunfire broke out.

During the fight, 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.

The defendants in the trial, which is expected to last through November, are from California and range in age from 36 to 70.

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

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.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Han told jurors Monday that Vagos operated through “fear, intimidation and violence,” showing jurors images of green vests covered in patches that he said were given to members who inflicted bloodshed.

Defense attorney Dan Hill, who represents Pastor Fausto Palafox, the Vagos international president known as “TaTa,” said that Palafox aimed to “focus on family and friends” as he held a leadership role.

Ivette Maningo, a lawyer for Diego Chavez Garcia, who was shot during the melee, told jurors that Garcia, known as “Boo,” had joined the club to be with family.

“Diego’s life was turned upside down, and he’s been picking up the pieces ever since,” she said of the shooting.

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

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