RENO, Nev. — Casino patrons dived for cover under blackjack tables as two rival gangs fired dozens of shots at each other during a deadly brawl on the floor of a northern Nevada casino five years ago this weekend.
The day after a Hells Angels boss died in the melee, a member of the Vagos gang was shot in retaliation, leading the mayor of Sparks to declare a state of emergency. FBI agents joined an extensive manhunt for the killer.
Ernesto Gonzalez, a Vagos leader, was caught a week later, telling police who found him cowering in his car in San Francisco that he was relieved to be caught. He had feared they were Hells Angels coming to kill him.
Gonzalez was convicted of the slaying and sentenced to life in prison but won an appeal before the Nevada Supreme Court in December and was granted a new trial.
The retrial doesn’t begin until next August, but his lawyer already filed motions arguing the killing was not an organized hit, as jurors decided in 2013. David Houston says the assassination plot was concocted by a co-defendant who actually started the fight.
He says Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick, former second in command of the Vagos in Los Angeles, already is out of prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder as part of a plea deal that Houston plans to attack during the retrial.
The brawl at John Ascuaga’s Nugget casino on Sept. 23, 2011, left Jeffrey Pettigrew, president of the Hells Angels’ San Jose, California, chapter, dead and two Vagos wounded. Investigators who retrieved bullet fragments from slot machines and a craps table said they were amazed no one else was killed.
Deputy District Attorney Amos Stege called it an orchestrated slaying motivated by a violent, longstanding feud between the gangs competing for territory, primarily in the San Jose area. A motorcycle festival drew the gangs to Nevada.
“The Vagos were prepared to start and enter this melee. It was a planned shooting of Pettigrew” by Gonzalez, who “fired seven shots at an unarmed man,” Stege said at the original trial.
Prosecutors didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Gonzalez, former president of the Vagos in Nicaragua, was convicted of seven counts, including murder with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder and challenging someone to a fight resulting in death.
He says he shot Pettigrew because Pettigrew and another Hells Angel were kicking a fellow Vagos member so hard in the head that he thought they’d kill him.
The Nevada Supreme Court overturned Gonzalez’s conviction based largely on faulty jury instructions.
The justices agreed the jury was confused when it sent out a note asking, “If a person has no knowledge of the conspiracy but their actions contribute to someone else’s plan, are they guilty of conspiracy?”
The high court said the judge should have provided clarification.
Houston, Gonzalez’s attorney, has filed motions urging the judge to clearly establish before the new trial that Gonzalez’s defense that he was acting to protect others carries a different legal burden than self-defense.
Nevada law says the initial instigator of violence cannot claim self-defense, but someone who is mistaken in their belief about who was the instigator can claim they were acting in the defense of others.
Rudnick was the lone witness to testify he and Gonzalez met earlier that night with the head of Vagos International, who approved Pettigrew’s assassination.
Houston said the original indictment was based largely on the deposition of a former longtime Vagos leader turned federal informant. The informant testified that the shooting wasn’t planned, rather the result of Rudnick acting outside the gang’s authority.
“The facts at the scene certainly do not support the proposition that Mr. Gonzalez started the fight, challenged any Hells Angel to fight, or was acting in concert with Rudnick when Rudnick started the fight,” Houston wrote in court documents.
Thousands of bikers started rolling in Friday for the 22nd annual Street Vibrations festival. After the 2011 shooting, area hotels and casinos banned wearing gang colors and there has since been no significant gang-related violence at the event.