RENO — A Vagos motorcycle gang leader killed a high-ranking, rival Hells Angel during a chaotic shootout at a Nevada casino as an act of self-defense, not as part of an orchestrated assassination plot, his attorney said Wednesday.
Ernesto Gonzalez, 55, will testify he shot Hells Angels San Jose boss Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew because he feared Pettigrew was kicking another Vagos to death during the Sparks casino melee in Sept. 23, 2011, defense lawyer David Houston said.
Gonzalez, of San Francisco, was president of the Vagos chapter in his native Nicaragua at the time of the shooting.
The same surveillance video prosecutors say proves Gonzalez carried out the hit will actually show he tried to shy away from the trouble started by another loud-mouthed Vagos — Los Angeles chapter vice president Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick, Houston said.
“This is purely a case of believe what you see, not what you are told,” Houston said in his opening statement to the Washoe District Court jury.
“This supposed assassin, watch where he is, where he stands,” he said. “You will see time and time again, he could simply have walked up and gone ‘bang, bang, bang’ and disappeared.”
Prosecutors said on Tuesday the international president of the Vagos, Pastor “Tata” Palafox, gave the go ahead for the killing and that Gonzalez stepped forward to volunteer after Rudnick organized a meeting earlier in the night of Vagos members who felt their rivals were disrespecting them.
But Houston said Rudnick lied to help secure a plea-bargain deal he thought would keep him out of prison.
“There was no super-secret meeting upstairs where a decision was made to assassinate someone on videotape before hundreds of witnesses,” he said. “All 20 people who supposedly approved the hit on Jeffery Pettigrew are down in the casino trying to keep the peace.”
There was no hostility or rivalry between the two groups. Rather, Houston said, Rudnick was solely responsible for the brawl that turned the busy casino floor at John Ascuaga’s Nugget into a shooting gallery about 11:30 p.m.
Rudnick had told others he was looking for trouble and intended to secure “another souvenir” like the Hells Angels cap he has displayed in his garage, Houston said.
At one point, national Vagos leaders came to the casino floor to tell Rudnick to back off, but he persisted, Houston said. Eventually, Pettigrew “had just about enough.”
“Words are exchanged, he punches Mr. Rudnick in the head and chaos breaks out,” Houston said. Before he fled, Rudnick tried to rip a jacket off an injured Hells Angel on the ground — “that souvenir.”
After the fight begins, as shown on video the prosecution presented to jurors on Tuesday, Pettigrew and another Hells Angel drew their pistols and began “shooting at people if they were wearing green” — the Vagos colors, he said.
Houston said Gonzalez shot Pettigrew as he and another Hells Angel were kicking a fellow Vagos’ immobile body and head on the casino floor. He said witnesses will testify they heard Pettigrew say, “This will teach you to (mess) with the Hells Angels.”
“Ernesto Gonzalez was put in a position of making a decision: Do I do nothing and let that happen? Or do I fire this weapon,” he said.
Houston tried to downplay the gangs’ violent side, describing them as clubs. He said Gonzalez joined the Vagos when he moved to Hawaii after serving in the Navy and opening a business because they “shared his passion for motorcycles.”
“He finds them the kind of people he likes to be with — the barbecues, the social camaraderie that you can imagine comes with fraternal organizations,” Houston said. Their membership includes doctors, lawyers and accountants, he said, but acknowledged, “As in every group there are certain individuals you would definitely not like as your best friend.”