Cesar Villagrana, who is accused of shooting two Vagos members during the Sept. 23 gun battle, won’t get a fair trial if the same jury decides his fate along with the two other Vagos members accused in the killing of Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, who was president of the Hells Angels chapter in San Jose, Calif., his lawyers said in court filings last week.
Attorney David Chesnoff of Las Vegas said a confidential witness who identified himself as a 27-year, high-ranking member of the Vagos testified before a Washoe County grand jury in November that the Vagos are a gang.
That witness, who has left the Vagos and now is in a protection program, said the Vagos were involved in significant criminal activities, including murder, rape, robbery and drug trafficking, Chesnoff noted.
“If this information is presented at trial,” Chesnoff wrote in a motion to sever the trial, “it would be clearly prejudicial to Mr. Villagrana because the jury may be led to believe that all motorcycle clubs operate the way the Vagos club does.”
However, Deputy District Attorney Karl Hall said the Hells Angels do operate that way.
“Each gang has relatively equal gang history,” he wrote in an opposition motion. “If anything, the Hells Angels criminality is more prolific.”
Chesnoff said Villagrana, 36, of Gilroy, Calif., “responded to an onslaught of violence in self-defense” at John Ascuaga’s hotel-casino in Sparks and was minimally involved compared to the other two men he’s scheduled to stand trial with on Oct. 29 before Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer.
Ernesto Gonzalez, 53, the president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua who lives in San Francisco, is accused of fatally shooting Pettigrew in the back. He’s the only one of three defendants formally charged with murder.
Villagrana and Gary Rudnick, the vice president of the Vagos Los Angeles chapter who is accused of instigating the fracas with his taunting of Pettigrew, both are charged with conspiracy to engage in an affray and challenge to fight resulting in death.
Under Nevada law, the challenge to fight charge is equivalent to first-degree murder and carries the same maximum possible penalty of life in prison.
Under conspiracy and aiding and abetting theories, Villagrana is responsible for the death of Pettigrew, Hall said.
Villagrana is free on a $300,000 bail bond, while the other two men remain jailed.
Hall said trying the three together would save time and money. With two trials, most of the same witnesses would have to testify twice and each trial would require costly, heavy security, he said.
Chesnoff said Villagrana can’t get a fair trial if his legal team has to sit at the same defense table with the public defenders representing the Vagos members because both sides inevitably will claim the other was responsible for the melee.
“For the jury to believe one version of events, it will necessarily have to disbelieve the other, thereby precluding acquittal of one of the defendants,” he said. “It will therefore be unnecessary for the prosecution to prove anything. The Vagos will prosecute the Hells Angels and the Hells Angels will prosecute the Vagos.”
The confidential witness told the grand jury that Rudnick, nicknamed “Jabbers,” was responsible for provoking a fight with Pettigrew that turned the casino floor into a shooting gallery.
Chesnoff said that while it may have appeared Rudnick initially was a one-on-one aggressor toward Pettigrew, “the ensuing altercation erupted into what was actually a larger-scale, pre-meditated attack by Vagos members on Hells Angels members.”
“The state’s theory that the Hells Angels and the Vagos somehow conspired together or aided and abetted each other in the commission of the fight makes no sense,” he said.
Hall said there was a conspiracy because Rudnick effectively invited Pettigrew to fight, Pettigrew accepted and members of each gang understood their obligation to join in.
“Steeped in gang culture,” Hall said, “each group willingly entered into battle.”