Lawyer in Sparks murder retrial: Vagos not a criminal gang

Ernesto Gonzalez. Washoe County jail booking photograph.
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LAS VEGAS (AP) - A Vagos biker club member killed a rival Hells Angels leader from California in a northern Nevada casino gunfight in 2011 to stop an active shooting that the dead man started, not as part of a murderous plot and a broad criminal racketeering conspiracy, a defense lawyer told a federal jury on Wednesday.

“Defense of others and self,” attorney Michael Kennedy said, representing admitted Vagos member and shooter Ernesto Gonzalez. “That is the singular simple truth of this case.”

Kennedy said none of the eight accused Vagos members deserves to be convicted in a sweeping prosecution stemming from the killing of Jeffrey Pettigrew, then-president of the Hells Angels chapter in San Jose, California. The attorney denied widespread allegations of Vagos conspiring and committing violent crimes for more than a decade in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

Prosecutor Daniel Schiess spent the equivalent of two days telling jurors that evidence showed Vagos are a violent gang adhering to “laws of the street, not laws of society,” committing murders, robberies, extortion, kidnappings and dealing drugs in furtherance of a criminal enterprise.

Schiess also asked jurors to reconsider the credibility of ousted Vagos member Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick — a witness who prosecutors in August featured as key to the case before dramatically disavowing him in September as a liar.

Rudnick admitted fabricating accounts of Pastor Fausto Palafox, then the Vagos international president and now a co-defendant, giving a “green light” go-ahead to kill Pettigrew ahead of a gunfight that sent patrons diving for cover at the Nugget casino in Sparks.

The eight co-defendants — Gonzalez, Palafox, Albert Lopez, Albert Perez, James Gillespie, Bradley Campos, Cesar Morales and Diego Garcia — each face up to life in prison if they’re convicted. Thirteen other defendants await trial.

Jurors have seen Pettigrew on casino security video talking amiably with other Vagos before arguing with Rudnick, throwing a first punch, pulling a gun and apparently firing several shots.

One shot badly wounded Vagos member Leo Ramirez in the abdomen, Kennedy said.

Another Hells Angels member, Cesar Villagrana, is seen drawing a gun and firing shots as people scatter and duck for cover. Garcia was wounded in the leg.

Kennedy said the melee continued for almost two minutes before Pettigrew and Villagrana begin kicking the head and neck of a Vagos member who had fallen to the floor.

Gonzalez drew his own gun and fired just as a casino patron reached for a chair to throw it toward Pettigrew and Villagrana, Kennedy said.

“The incident came to an end only when Mr. Gonzalez acted to stop it,” the defense attorney said. He asked the jury to remember the testimony of the man who endured kicks while on the ground.

“I was going to be killed that night,” Kennedy said, quoting Robert Wiggins’ testimony. “The only reason I’m here is because someone saved my life.”

Closings by other defense attorneys are scheduled Thursday, followed by prosecutor John Han's case summary. The jury then begins deliberating verdicts.

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