RENO — Police Sgt. John Gutierrez was going to move his car before getting a parking ticket when he encountered someone he thought was a routine car burglar on a dark street in San Francisco about a block from his campus police headquarters.
Instead, he testified Monday, he found the subject of a massive manhunt that was launched after a high-ranking member of the Hells Angels was killed in a gun battle with a rival gang at a hotel-casino in Sparks.
Sgt. Gutierrez said that Ernesto Gonzalez, 53, president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua, eventually told him he was wanted and feared for his life because rival assassins were on his trail.
The longtime detective who once supervised homicide and narcotics investigations in Oakland, Calif., knew something was up soon after he encountered Gonzalez on the night of Sept. 29, 2011.
“As I was asking Mr. Gonzalez what’s going on, his hands started shaking,” said Gutierrez, who had pulled up behind the black 2010 Malibu Chevy with rental plates from Washington state after spotting the dome light on and a man leaning across the front seat.
“His right hand was shaking uncontrollably. And his head was like on a swivel, looking in all directions. He was very nervous,” Gutierrez testified at a pretrial hearing in Washoe District Court in Reno.
Gonzalez is scheduled to go on trial for murder in July in the death of Jeffrey Pettigrew, who was the president of the Hells Angels’ San Jose chapter. He’s being tried jointly with Cesar Villagrana, a Hells Angel member who faces attempted murder charges stemming from the shootout.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors are in court this week arguing about pretrial motions, including defense requests that the unusually strong security presence be relaxed and supporters of the defendants be allowed in the courthouse — if not the courtroom itself — even if they are wearing gang colors or symbols.
Lawyers for Gonzalez also are questioning whether the officer had probable cause to detain the suspect initially. They’ve made a motion to suppress statements that their client made to police early in the investigation.
Defense attorney Ken Lyon told Gutierrez during there was nothing illegal about being parked in that area, having a dome light on or leaning over in a car.
“But if you combine all those three,’ Gutierrez answered, “with my experience, I thought it was suspicious activity. And I could see his right hand. It was beyond shaking.”
Gutierrez said he radioed dispatch after Gonzalez told him his car belonged to a friend but couldn’t name the friend. Soon he learned the suspect was wanted on a homicide warrant issued the day before in connection with the shootout at John Ascuaga’s Nugget during a weekend motorcycle festival.
After calling another officer to assist, they approached Gonzalez with guns drawn and told him to put his hands behind his back and handcuffed him in the car.
“He told me, ‘I’m wanted. There’s an APB out on me,’” Gutierrez testified.
It wasn’t until an hour later, when Gutierrez said he went to check on Gonzalez in the back of a patrol car, that the suspect asked to be removed from the location as soon as possible.
“His words were, ‘Move me or I’m dead and you’re dead. Please move me from the area,’” Gutierrez said.
“Mr. Gonzalez was very, very scared for his welfare. I’ve never heard that before in my 33 years,” he recalled.
Gutierrez said he’s familiar with the crime-prone area where car burglaries and thefts are routine because he regularly parks on the neighborhood streets.
“I thought I interrupted a burglary in progress,” he said about his unexpected stop. “I was trying to get to my own vehicle to move it so I wouldn’t get a ticket or be towed, or both. It didn’t turn out good. I got a ticket.”