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Retrial ordered in 2011 deadly Nevada casino shootout

RENO — More than five months after the Nevada Supreme Court overturned his murder conviction, a judge on Wednesday scheduled an arraignment for an ex-motorcycle gang leader to be retried for killing a rival gang member during a casino shootout in 2011.

Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer ordered 58-year-old Ernesto Gonzalez to return to court for a June 23 arraignment where he will enter a plea.

Steinheimer sentenced the former head of the Nicaraguan chapter of the Vagos gang to up to life in prison after his October 2013 conviction for the fatal shooting of Jeffrey Pettigrew at a hotel-casino in Sparks. Pettigrew was the president of the Hells Angels in San Jose, California.

The Supreme Court threw out Gonzalez’s earlier conviction in December based partly on faulty instructions to the jury. Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks argued for a rehearing of the Supreme Court’s decision, but the justices unanimously rejected the request in March.

Deputy District Attorney Amos Stege formally refiled the charges on Wednesday, including murder with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder and carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

“The murder was committed knowingly for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in affiliation with, a criminal gang, and with the specific intent to promote, further or assist the activities of the criminal gang: the Vagos,” Stege wrote in court papers supplementing the original indictment.

Steinheimer had intended to set the formal trial date, but said she’d wait until the arraignment. She also plans to rule on whether Gonzalez should be appointed a public defender during the hearing.

Defense attorney David Houston, who represented Gonzalez during part of his previous trial, said Wednesday he’s willing to represent Gonzalez on a pro-bono basis. Gonzalez told the judge he wants Houston as his lawyer.

But Steinheimer said she’ll have to review the law to determine to what extent Gonzalez gets to hand-pick his own lawyer if he qualifies as indigent, which she said she believes he does.

Gonzalez was serving his sentence in state prison before he was returned June 3 to the Washoe County Jail, where he will continue to be held pending his retrial in lieu of $2 million bail.

Prosecutors said the shooting on the busy casino floor at the Nugget in Sparks was an orchestrated hit during a biker festival in September 2011.

Two other Vagos members shot that night survived. A third Vagos member was shot near the casino the next morning and also survived.

Since then, most Reno-area hotel-casinos have adopted policies and posted signs prohibiting the wearing of gang colors in their establishments.

Gonzalez, who was living in San Francisco at the time, said he opened fire only because Pettigrew and another Hells Angel were kicking a fellow Vagos member so hard in the head that he thought they would kill him.

The Supreme Court ruled, among other things, that Steinheimer erred during the original trial when she declined to answer a jury question during deliberations about what constitutes conspiracy.

Steinheimer found the evidence presented so sufficient — corroborated by hours of surveillance tape — that she need not answer. The justices concluded that the video corroborated the murder, but not the conspiracy.

In appealing his conviction, Gonzalez’s lawyers argued that the jurors’ confusion was evident when they sent out a note to the judge asking, “If a person has no knowledge of the conspiracy but their actions contribute to someone else’s plan, are they guilty of conspiracy?”

The justices said Steinheimer should have provided clarification.

“One of the central issues in this case was whether Pettigrew’s death was part of a premeditated conspiracy or occurred in the course of a spontaneous clash between two biker gangs,” Justice Nancy Saitta wrote in the unanimous opinion. “When a defendant does not know that he or she is acting in furtherance of an unlawful act, there can be no conspiracy.”

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