RENO — The star witness who helped convict the triggerman who killed a high-ranking Hells Angels’ boss at a Nevada casino in 2011 says he was lying when he testified that the shooting was an assassination plot orchestrated by a rival motorcycle gang, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Prosecutors think the recantation is a lie, but it could make it more difficult to get another murder conviction against Ernesto Gonzalez, a former Vagos gang member. He’s scheduled to be tried again in August after the Nevada Supreme Court threw out the conviction because of improper jury instructions.
Legal scholars say it’s hard to predict jurors’ reaction to recanted testimony, but it raises questions about the claims of suspects who make deals with prosecutors to take the stand in exchange for more lenient sentences, as Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick did.
His testimony helped put Gonzalez in prison for life for carrying out an organized hit on Jeffrey Pettigrew during a brawl on a crowded casino floor in Sparks that sent gamblers diving for cover under blackjack tables.
Gonzalez, 59, insists there was no plot. He said he opened fire because Pettigrew and another Hells Angel were kicking his partner so hard he thought they would kill him.
The only witness who claimed personal knowledge of the conspiracy was Rudnick, an ex-Vagos vice president from Los Angeles who provoked Pettigrew into fighting. He was released from prison in 2016 after serving two years for conspiracy to commit murder.
Rudnick testified that the Vagos international president gave Gonzalez the “green light” for the killing as the gangs feuded over turf in San Jose, where Pettigrew was the Hells Angels chapter president.
In new court filings, Rudnick claims he fabricated that story under pressure from prosecutors to get a plea deal that he thought would keep him out of prison and put him in the federal witness protection program.
His declaration is not dated, but Gonzalez’s lawyer, David Houston, told the AP it was signed May 17, 2016, in Las Vegas.
“He states that he lied and there was never any conspiracy or meeting to ‘green light’ a hit,” Houston said. “He says he was told he’d get probation if he testified the way the state wanted him to.”
In a handwritten note riddled with misspellings, Rudnick said “there was no conspiracy” to kill Pettigrew.
“It was just a fight between me and him,” he wrote in the document signed by two witnesses, including a private investigator hired by Houston.
Rudnick says the prosecutor, Karl Hall, now Reno’s city attorney, didn’t believe his original account.
“He told me ... what he wanted me to change to lie for him,” Rudnick wrote, suggesting he had no choice but to comply. “I was looking at 25 years in prison.”
Hall declined to comment.
Sean O’Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, Law School, said plea deals with co-conspirators raise questions about testimony that’s later withdrawn.
“There are incentives,” O’Brien said of agreements providing leniency. “It is bought-and-paid-for testimony.”
Houston, Gonzalez’s lawyer, said Rudnick’s reversal is significant because he apparently committed perjury and it’s unclear if he would show up if prosecutors tried to force him to take the stand again.
Houston declined to comment on where Rudnick is now, and prosecutors would not say if they know his whereabouts, intend to subpoena him to testify or might charge him with perjury.
Typically, in such situations — or when a witness dies — previous testimony can be re-entered into the record. But that’s not necessarily the case if there’s reason to believe it was false.
It’s a point of contention set for court hearings in May ahead of Gonzalez’s new trial.
“It is more likely that the recanting statement is false,” Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Amos Stege wrote this month. He declined further comment.
“Regarding the defense counsel’s questionably timed ‘affidavit,’ courts across the nation universally regard post-conviction recantations with extreme suspicion,” district attorney spokeswoman Michelle Bays said in an email. “The Vagos criminal enterprise is vast and they are known for violence, intimidation and extortion.”
Houston is trying to compel Rudnick’s public defender to testify about the plea agreement at Gonzalez’s new trial and bar the earlier testimony unless he reappears.
“If the sworn declaration is to be believed, the state would propose to obtain a conviction against Mr. Gonzalez based on perjured testimony,” Houston wrote in court documents last week. “Simply reading Mr. Rudnick’s testimony in, when we all know it was false ... invites a second reversal on this case.”
O’Brien said judges should be “very cautious of this type of evidence no matter who is using it.”
“But to me, it’s sort of counterintuitive when the prosecution says the testimony that we bought and paid for is more reliable than this gratuitous recantation,” the professor said.
O’Brien said former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff put it best: “The only thing we really know about these people is they are liars.”