RENO — Jurors weighing murder charges in a deadly Nevada casino shootout between rival motorcycle gangs got a preview Tuesday of surveillance video prosecutors say will show the gunman carried out an organized hit on one of the highest ranking Hells Angels in the country.
Ernesto Gonzalez, ex-president of the rival Vagos chapter in Nicaragua, is accused of killing Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, president of the Hells Angels’ chapter in San Jose, Calif.
Prosecutors said Gonzalez of San Francisco shot Pettigrew four times in the back after a brawl broke out on the busy casino floor at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks late on the night of Sept. 23, 2011.
“He fired seven shots at an unarmed man,” Deputy District Attorney Amos Stege said in his opening statement Tuesday in Washoe District Court in Reno. “He waited until Pettigrew’s back was turned. He waited in the shadows ... and shot him to death.”
The “rumble” that sent patrons diving for cover behind slot machines and beneath blackjack tables was motivated by a long-standing, violent feud between the two gangs competing for territory, primarily in the San Jose area, Stege said.
“It also was motivated by what the Vagos call respect. The Vagos were prepared to start and enter this melee. It was a planned shooting of Pettigrew by the defendant,” he said.
Defense attorneys argue it was a case of self-defense involving dozens of gang members who had gathered at the casino east of Reno during an annual biker festival that was cut short when a suspected retaliatory shooting prompted the mayor of Sparks to declare a state of emergency.
The defense was scheduled to make its opening statements early Wednesday at the trial expected to last two to three weeks.
Stege narrated more than an hour of casino surveillance video for the jury late Tuesday afternoon, calling out the nicknames of a number of the Vagos members pictured with Gonzalez — Jabbers, Boo Boo, Dragon Man, Cocky Rocky, Crusher and Top Hat, among others.
“From early on, Gonzalez along with other San Jose Vagos are near and shadowing Pettigrew,” the prosecutor said.
Three suspects originally were indicted on murder-related charges.
But Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick, the former vice president of the Vagos chapter in Los Angeles who was accused of starting the fight that led the fatal shooting, pleaded guilty in March to second-degree murder.
Caesar Villagrana, a longtime Hells Angel and close friend of Pettigrew, agreed to a plea deal on Monday that subjects him to up to 15 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Before the gunfire, Rudnick, Gonzalez and others gathered to express concerns that they were being disrespected by rival gang members, according to Stege.
After Rudnick began taunting and provoking Pettigrew, some high-ranking, well-meaning Vagos leaders thought they had calmed the situation, Stege said. But Rudnick later resumed his tactics and Pettigrew eventually responded by punching Rudnick in the face, Stege said.
The videotape appears to show Villagrana pulling out his 9mm handgun and firing several shots, one that hit a Vagos in the leg. Later, Pettigrew is seen dropping to the casino floor.
The video doesn’t show Gonzalez firing the fatal shots, but Stege said additional footage would show him sneaking up behind Pettigrew and then quickly exiting the area the other direction with a pistol drawn.
Stege said evidence also will show the international president of the Vagos, Pastor “Tata” Palafox, gave the go ahead for the killing.
David Houston, Gonzalez’ lead defense lawyer, said earlier that the prosecution’s theory contradicts the one they pursued in securing the indictment late in 2011.
At that time, prosecutors relied largely on the testimony of a confidential informant and longtime Vagos leader who said the shooting wasn’t planned, rather the result of Rudnick — whom he described as a loud-mouthed, loose cannon — acting outside the authority of the gang.
Houston said he intends to use the same surveillance video to prove Gonzalez’ innocence.