After a five-month trial, a jury in Las Vegas is expected to spend several days deliberating whether the biker gang behind a notorious 2011 killing on the gaming floor of the Nugget Casino in Sparks, Nevada is a “criminal enterprise,” or just a disorganized group of hoodlums.
Among those on trial from the California-based Vagos gang is Ernesto Gonzalez, who fired the shot that killed Hells Angels boss Angel Jeffrey Pettigrew at the Nugget over eight years ago.
In 2013, Gonzalez was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, although he always insisted he had acted in self-defense. In 2015, the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the conviction because it deemed instructions to the jury had been improper.
Gonzalez was awaiting a retrial when the feds took over. In 2017, he and seven of his fellow gang members were indicted by federal prosecutors on charges that included “racketeering, murder, robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and other violent crimes.”
Prosecutors argue these crimes were part of a collective criminal conspiracy among the gang members.
Key Witness Admits Lying
But while charges differ from defendant to defendant, much of this case hinges on what happened at the Nugget that day, and on the testimony of former Vagos member Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick.
Rudnick claimed that Vagos leader Pastor Fausto Palafox had ordered the assassination of Pettigrew, who was president of the San Jose chapter of the Hells Angels – an act consistent with that of an organized criminal enterprise.
But sensationally, in September, Rudnick admitted in court he had lied about Palofax ordering the hit on Pettigrew.
Defense attorney Michael Kennedy, representing Gonzalez, has argued the incident at the Nugget was nothing but a spontaneous mass brawl, and his client had a right to defend himself from Pettigrew.
It was Pettigrew who threw the first punch, pulled the first gun, and fired the first shots, the jury heard. Two Vagos members had already been wounded by bullets when Gonzalez shot Pettigrew, who was at the time stomping on a Vagos member with his gun drawn.
The three minutes of violence was captured on the casino’s security cameras and caught the attention of media around the world.
The Associated Press reports US Justice Department attorney John Han urged the jury to focus not just on the Nugget and the discredited testimony of the star prosecution witness, but on the wider picture.
This included wiretaps and recordings made by an undercover FBI agent had who spent 22 months posing as a Vagos member.
“The story doesn’t start at the Nugget, and it doesn’t end at the Nugget,” said Han. “This was a group of people associated together as part of the Vagos. The fact that defendants commit personal acts of violence is evidence of the criminal enterprise.”