Prosecutors want charges dropped against Vagos gang members | NevadaAppeal.com
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Prosecutors want charges dropped against Vagos gang members

Ken Ritter
Associated Press
FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2011, file photo, police officers keep an eye on handcuffed men at the east entrance to John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel-casino after a shooting in Sparks, Nev. Federal prosecutors who failed to convict eight current and former Vagos biker gang members on criminal racketeering charges stemming from a deadly casino shootout in 2011 are asking a judge to dismiss charges against 11 other defendants in the case. (The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)
AP | The Reno Gazette-Journal

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Federal prosecutors who failed to convict eight current and former Vagos biker gang members of racketeering charges stemming from a deadly casino shootout have asked a U.S. judge in Las Vegas to dismiss all counts against 11 other defendants in the case.

In court filings Friday, U.S. attorneys made a separate request to dismiss only a racketeering count against a 12th defendant, Jeremy Halgat, involving the 2011 shootout in Sparks with rival Hells Angels gang members. The government wants to leave in place drug and weapon charges that Halgat has been fighting since 2013.

Halgat’s attorney, Richard Tanasi, did not immediately respond Wednesday to messages seeking comment.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro in Las Vegas will decide on the prosecutors’ requests in coming weeks.

The government bid to drop the massive Vagos case was expected after a jury in February acquitted the first eight defendants to face trial, including Pastor Fausto Palafox, former international president of the Vagos Motorcycle Club, and acknowledged gunman Ernesto Manuel Gonzalez.

A 12-count indictment filed in 2017 accused Vagos members of conspiring since 2005 to deal drugs and commit violent crimes including killings, robberies, extortion and kidnappings in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Nevada. The defendants could have faced life in prison if convicted.

The troubled trial took more than five months and included a stunning admission by the key witness, former Vagos member Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick, that he fabricated a story about Palafox ordering the killing of Jeffrey Pettigrew, then-president of the Hells Angels chapter from San Jose, California, at the Nugget casino in Sparks.

“It’s amazing. It’s been seven years in the legal process before it reached acquittal,” said David Houston, a Reno attorney who defended Gonzalez in a previous trial that led a state court jury to find Gonzalez guilty of murder and other charges in August 2013. The Nevada Supreme Court overturned that conviction in December 2015 based on faulty instructions to the jury and ordered a new trial. Rudnick also recanted his testimony in the state case.

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks could prosecute Gonzalez again, but would face “double jeopardy” legal challenges because Gonzalez has won acquittal in federal court on the same set of facts, said Houston and Michael Kennedy, the attorney who represented Gonzalez in the federal trial in Las Vegas.

“The jury concluded that Ernesto acted in defense of others,” Kennedy said Wednesday. “Saving a life by shooting to stop two active shooters is not murder.”

The jury learned that Rudnick argued with Pettigrew, and that Pettigrew threw a first punch before pulling a gun and firing several shots while casino patrons dived under blackjack tables and behind slot machines. Pettigrew was shot as he and another armed Hells Angels member kicked a fallen Vagos member in the head and neck.

Hicks’ spokeswoman, Michelle Bays, said state prosecutors in Reno were evaluating options and plan to make a decision in the near future.