A jury in Las Vegas heard two vastly different overviews Monday in the federal racketeering trial of eight accused Vagos biker gang members stemming from a shootout that killed a rival Hells Angels leader in a Northern Nevada casino nearly eight years ago.
Prosecutor John Han called the slaying of Jeffrey Pettigrew an orchestrated murder among criminal conspirators that received a "green light" go-ahead from the Vagos international president following a series of clashes between members of the two motorcycle clubs in San Jose, California.
Pettigrew, 51, was president of the Hells Angels San Jose chapter.
"His death was ordered by the leader of this organization, Pastor Palafox," Han said.
Defense attorney Michael Kennedy, representing Ernesto Gonzalez, said the Vagos San Jose club member who shot Pettigrew, responded bluntly.
"Shooting to stop two active shooters is not murder," Kennedy told the jury.
He repeated the same phrase several times, echoing but not directly invoking the Las Vegas Strip shooting that killed 58 people in 2017 just 7 miles from the downtown U.S. District Courthouse where the trial is taking place,
Gonzalez's conviction in state court and life-in-prison sentence for Pettigrew's death was overturned in 2015 when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that instructions to a state trial jury had been improper. His federal indictment came in 2017, while he was awaiting a retrial. State prosecutors then dismissed their case.
The federal prosecution added Palafox and 21 other accused Vagos members, incorporating broad accusations that the club itself is a criminal enterprise responsible for more than a decade of criminal activity dating to at least 2005 in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.
One co-defendant later died. Charges were dismissed against another.
Trial for the first eight co-defendants — also including Albert Lopez, Albert Perez, James Gillespie, Bradley Campos, Cesar Morales and Diego Garcia — is expected to take several months. Each could faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Han held up denim and leather jackets featuring a green Vagos logo on the back and said members earn patches and advance in rank through acts of murder, kidnapping, robbery, extortion, drug trafficking and witness intimidation.
Clashes with Hells Angels in San Jose were over territory and respect, the federal prosecutor said, "and to protect reputations in the motorcycle club underworld."
At the Nevada casino, Vagos plotted to kill Pettigrew, formed a "gauntlet" and attacked when they had a chance, Han said.
But Kennedy showed security camera video clips of Pettigrew talking amiably with some Vagos at a casino bar before throwing a first punch, pulling a handgun and hitting a man in the head with it.
Another Hells Angels member, Cesar Villagrana, also draws a handgun and shots are fired.
Two Vagos members were wounded, Kennedy said, and Pettigrew and Villagrana were "stomping" another man on the floor at gunpoint when Gonzalez shot Pettigrew.
"This was a crowded Nevada casino with gunfire and shooting for two minutes," Kennedy said.
Attorney Mark Fleming, representing Lopez, called the shooting "the justifiable defense of others."
"Being a member of the Vagos ... is not a criminal act," Fleming said.
Defense attorneys noted the prosecution relies on hundreds of recorded telephone conversations, reports by confidential informants and accounts by an undercover federal agent who posed as a Vagos member in 2011 and 2012.
Fleming asked jurors to be particularly skeptical of accounts from former Vagos member Gary "Jabbers" Rudnick, who the attorney said instigated the fight with Pettigrew. He became a government witness to avoid a possible 25-year prison sentence and instead served two years for conspiracy to commit murder.
Rudnick in 2017 recanted his "green light" testimony in Gonzalez's state court trial. Fleming derided the idea that Rudnick has returned to his original account of an assassination plot and "green light" order.
"Jabbers," Fleming said. "You're going to hear a lot about him."