Nevada Supreme Court orders new trial in biker club killing

Vagos motorcycle gang member Ernesto Gonzalez is led from district court under heavy security in Reno, Nevada, after pleading guilty in the shooting death of Hells Angels member Jeffrey "Jethrow" Pettigrew. (David B.Parker/Reno Gazette-Journal, AP)
Vagos motorcycle gang member Ernesto Gonzalez is led from district court under heavy security in Reno, Nevada, after pleading guilty in the shooting death of Hells Angels member Jeffrey "Jethrow" Pettigrew. (David B.Parker/Reno Gazette-Journal, AP)

Carson City – The Nevada Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of assassinating a Hells Angel leader in a 2011 shootout between rival motorcycle clubs at a Reno-area casino.

The high court issued its ruling on Thursday overturning the conviction of Ernesto Gonzalez, 57, saying the district court abused its discretion by not answering a jury question about a conspiracy charge.

Justices also said the lower court failed to split up decisions about guilt and whether Gonzalez should get a harsher penalty for gang involvement.

"The cumulative effect of these errors deprived appellant of his right to a fair trial," Justice Nancy Saitta wrote in the unanimous opinion.

Gonzalez is an ex-president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua. He was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder and other felonies in the killing of Jeffrey "Jethro" Pettigrew, 51, who was known as the "godfather" of the Hells Angels in San Jose, California.

Pettigrew's mother called Gonzalez a coward for shooting her son in the back before Judge Connie Steinheimer sentenced the San Francisco man to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

But the judge added a gang enhancement to the penalty, so Gonzalez was unlikely to get out of prison until he was at least 83. He's currently serving time in High Desert State Prison outside of Las Vegas

Gonzalez claimed he was acting in self-defense and defense of others after a brawl broke out on a crowded casino floor in Sparks in September 2011. He said he fired his gun because Pettigrew and another Hells Angel were kicking a fellow Vagos member so hard in the head he thought they would kill him.

"They left me no choice but to act as I did in defense of my brother," he told the judge before sentencing.

Prosecutors said the killing was part of an orchestrated hit on Pettigrew, stemming from a long-running feud between the rival gangs in California.

"There was a concerted attack that resulted in Mr Gonzalez sneaking up behind Mr Pettigrew and shooting him in the back," special prosecutor Karl Hall said at sentencing.

The appeal rose out of apparent juror confusion over what constitutes conspiracy to commit murder.

One of Gonzalez's lawyers said other Vagos members may have independently planned Pettigrew's death, but Gonzalez was not aware of that.

He said the jurors' confusion was evident when they sent out a note to the judge about four hours into their deliberations that asked, "If a person has no knowledge of the conspiracy but their actions contribute to someone else's plan, are they guilty of conspiracy?"

Steinheimer declined to answer the question.

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