Sentencing set in casino slaying of Hells Angel

RENO, Nev. — A motorcycle gang leader convicted of murder in a shootout with a rival biker gang at a Nevada casino will be sentenced this fall for killing the man known as the “godfather” of the Hells Angels in San Jose, Calif., but his lawyers have vowed to appeal after the jury deliberated only five hours before finding him guilty.

Ex-Vagos Nicaragua chapter president Ernesto Gonzalez was convicted Wednesday in the shooting death of Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, considered one of the five top Hells Angels in the country when the melee broke out in September 2011 on a busy Sparks casino floor.

On Thursday, Gonzalez’s lawyers waived his right to a jury sentencing hearing, and Washoe District Court Judge Connie Steinheimer set sentencing for Oct. 3. Gonzalez faces up to life in prison without parole after jurors found him guilty on seven felony counts.

“There definitely will be appeals,” said David Houston, Gonzalez lead attorney who said he was “flabbergasted” by the jury’s quick work. He said he expected jurors to deliberate at least into Thursday given the stacks of binders of evidence they took into the jury room, along with hours of surveillance videotape.

When the jury came back so soon, Houston said he felt comfortable Gonzalez would be acquitted.

“There simply wasn’t time,” Houston said. “We had some very serious concerns about this exact problem occurring where Mr. Gonzalez was lumped in with a group of people where the evidence clearly showed Mr. Gonzalez had nothing to do with them.”

Prosecutors said Gonzalez carried out a hit on Pettigrew as part of an orchestrated assassination plot stemming from a long-running feud between the two rival gangs competing for territory primarily in the San Jose and Santa Cruz area.

Gonzalez, 55, of San Francisco, claimed he shot Pettigrew, 51, in self-defense to save the life of a fellow Vagos who was being kicked on the ground by Pettigrew and another Hells Angel who had just shot another Vagos.

Steinheimer on Thursday agreed to combine three of the convictions — challenge to fight resulting in death, conspiracy to commit murder and open murder — into a single first-degree degree murder charge. A second-degree murder charge was dropped. Other charges include carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and discharging a firearm in a structure posing danger to the public.

The jury also agreed gang enhancement penalties should be added. That will make it difficult for Gonzalez to receive a sentence that adds up to anything short of life in prison.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Karl Hall said Thursday he is confident the convictions will stand.

“I thought all the verdicts were consistent with the evidence after careful consideration of two and a half weeks of trial,” Hall said.

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