Ernesto Gonzalez, a Vagos member from San Francisco, is accused of fatally shooting the president of the rival Hells Angels’ San Jose chapter, Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, during the Sept. 23 melee at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.
Lawyers for Gonzalez and two other men charged in connection with the killing asked Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer to order prosecutors to release the name of another Vagos member who testified confidentially before the grand jury that indicted all three men in November.
But police testified Tuesday that the unidentified Vagos member fears for his life and is bound for a witness protection program.
“The Hells Angels are a well-known, outlaw motorcycle gang, as are the Vagos, and people are scared of them,” Deputy District Attorney Karl Hall said.
Police Sgt. Eric Bennett, an investigator from San Bernardino, Calif., said yet another Vagos member who was wounded during the casino shootout — Leonard Rameriz of Garden Grove, Calif. — met with a member of the Mafia in the weeks after the killing.
“We know a member of the Vagos met with the Mafia and gave him copies of affidavits for search warrants,” Bennett said. He said that while the confidential witness is identified only as a number in the grand jury transcripts made public, there may have been clues to his identity in the search warrants.
Rameriz, who was shot in the stomach but survived, also visited the residence of the secret witness and attempted to contact one of his friends, Bennett said.
“He’s afraid for his safety,” he said. “Some (Vagos) members do know who he is.”
Steinheimer said she would consider the arguments and rule in the coming days whether the names of the confidential witnesses should be provided to the defense lawyers.
Gonzalez, who police said is the president of a Vagos chapter in Nicaragua, appeared in court under heavy security Tuesday along with co-defendants who face the equivalent of murder charges for their role in the brawl that led to the fatal shooting.
Gary Rudnick, the vice president of the Vagos Los Angeles chapter, is accused of instigating the fight by provoking Pettigrew. Cesar Villagrana, a Hells Angel member and friend of Pettigrew’s, is accused of shooting Rameriz and another Vagos wounded that night.
Gonzalez and Rudnick, whose nickname is “Jabbers,” both wore bullet proof vests, shackles and handcuffs in court Tuesday. They’re being represented by public defenders and are being held in the Washoe County jail awaiting their trial set to begin Oct. 29.
Villagrana, who claims he was acting in self-defense and is free on $300,000 bail, is represented by David Chesnoff, a high-profile defense lawyer from Las Vegas.
Chesnoff said Villagrana’s rights are being violated because he doesn’t have a chance to question the witness whose name remains secret and whose testimony was key to the grand jury indictment.
He tried to make his point by asking two police officers testifying Tuesday whether they would want their defense lawyer to be able to question all the witnesses if they were accused of a crime they didn’t commit. The officers acknowledged they would.
“This isn’t done in secret,” Chesnoff said. “I want equal protection under the law here.”
The confidential witness told the grand jury he had been a member of the Vagos for 27 years and been part of its “higher echelon” of leadership “before this event.”
He said “Jabbers” is known for having a “big mouth” and was responsible for provoking a fight with Pettigrew that turned the casino floor into a shooting gallery.
Rudnick had refused to back down even after national Vagos officers were summoned and talks with Hells Angels’ leaders had calmed the volatile situation shortly after 10 p.m., the grand jury witness said.
But about an hour later, Rudnick again was taunting Pettigrew, who the witness said “in the Hells Angels world is one of the most important guys in the United States.” Finally, he said Pettigrew had enough and punched Rudnick in the face, touching off a series of fights that led to the gunfire.
“All hell broke loose,” the witness testified. “Just bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.”
Other witnesses who testified before the grand jury on condition of confidentiality included the director of security and the director of surveillance at the Nugget.
Gonzalez was arrested in San Francisco on Sept. 30. He told arresting officers that the Hells Angels were after him and asked them to get him out of the area as fast as possible when he was nabbed sitting in a rental car near campus police headquarters at the University of San Francisco, police said.