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Ernesto Gonzalez

Other Washoe County, Nevada exonerations
On September 23, 2011, gunfire erupted in the Nugget Hotel and Casino in Sparks, Nevada, sending blackjack and slot machine players diving for cover. When the smoke had cleared, 51-year-old Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, president of the San Jose, California chapter of Hells Angels motorcycle club, was dead, shot multiple times.

Two members of the Vagos motorcycle club were wounded. Days later, on September 30, 2011, 53-year-old Ernesto “Romeo” Gonzalez, former president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua, was arrested in San Francisco based on a casino video that showed him shooting Pettigrew five times in the back.

The shooting occurred during an annual motorcycle festival, Street Vibrations, that brought tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to nearby Reno, Nevada. When a Vagos member was shot in retaliation the following day, the festival was cancelled. The mayor of Sparks declared a state of emergency and the FBI joined the manhunt for Gonzalez. When arrested, Gonzalez reportedly said he was relieved because he was afraid Hells Angels members were intent on killing him.

In July 2013, Gonzalez went to trial in Washoe County Second Judicial District Court. He was charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, challenging to fight resulting in death, illegally carrying a concealed weapon, and discharging a firearm inside a structure.

The prosecution’s case relied primarily on a video that captured the shooting and the testimony of Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick, an ex-Vagos vice-president from Los Angeles who earlier pled guilty to a charge of conspiring to commit murder.

Rudnick testified that the shooting was an orchestrated assassination that was planned and carried out on the crowded casino floor. Vagos motorcycle club was formed originally in San Bernardino, California and has about 4,000 members. Hells Angels motorcycle club was founded in 1948 and has about 2,500 members. Pettigrew was the fifth highest ranking Hells Angels member nationally.

The shooting occurred as Vagos members were holding their national convention at the casino during the festival. Rudnick said that a murder contract on Pettigrew was authorized that night by Pastor “Tata” Palafox, Vagos international president, and that Gonzalez agreed to do it.

Rudnick told the jury that a group of Vagos members was ordered to keep Hells Angels members from reaching the elevators as they headed to their hotel rooms, and he then approached Pettigrew.

“Pettigrew was walking up,” Rudnick said. “I approached him. I asked him if we were all cool and he said, ‘I don’t talk to bitches.’ I told him I’m not a bitch. I’m just asking if everything’s cool. And he took a swing at me.”

At that point, a brawl erupted, and ended with Pettigrew dead on the floor.

A casino surveillance video showed Gonzalez come around the corner of the fish-tank bar and shoot Pettigrew. Pettigrew, along with another Hells Angel, was kicking a Vagos member, Robert Wiggins, who was on the floor between two slot machines.

Gonzalez testified that he was acting in defense of Wiggins because he believed Pettigrew and the other Hells Angel were going to kill Wiggins. Gonzalez denied there was any plot to assassinate Pettigrew. Wiggins would later say that Gonzalez saved his life that night.

On August 7, 2013, the jury convicted Gonzalez of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, challenging to fight resulting in death, illegally carrying a concealed weapon, and discharging a firearm inside a structure. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 28 years.

After the trial, Rudnick was sentenced to two years in prison.

On December 31, 2015, the Nevada Supreme Court vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the trial judge failed to give the jury an instruction requested by the defense relating to uncorroborated testimony by an accomplice. The failure to give such an instruction relating to Rudnick’s testimony resulted in a constitutionally unfair trial, the court held.

The court said that while the video corroborated parts of Rudnick’s testimony, there was no corroboration for Rudnick’s testimony about the conspiracy to kill Pettigrew.

In 2016, while the case was awaiting a retrial, Rudnick recanted his trial testimony and said there was no conspiracy. In a defense court filing, Rudnick claimed he concocted that story under pressure from prosecutors to get a plea deal that he thought would keep him out of prison and put him in the federal witness protection program.

In June 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Gonzalez and 22 other members of the Vagos on a myriad of charges including racketeering, murder, robbery, and drug trafficking. Included in the crimes under the racketeering charge was Pettigrew’s murder.

In July, the Washoe County District Attorney’s office dismissed the state charges against Gonzalez.

In 2019, Gonzalez and seven co-defendants, including Palafox, the Vagos leader who Rudnick claimed had ordered the assassination of Pettigrew, went to trial in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. Rudnick testified at the trial and recanted his recantation. He also admitted that he had told numerous lies when he denied meeting with defense attorneys prior to the trial and asserting his recantation was truthful. During his testimony, Rudnick also invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination 75 times.

At one point, the federal prosecutors asked that all of Rudnick’s testimony be stricken as unreliable, but withdrew the motion before the judge ruled on it.

On February 24, 2020, after 77 days of trial, the jury acquitted Gonzalez and his co-defendants of all the charges.

In February 2023, Gonzalez filed a federal lawsuit against the federal government seeking compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/6/2020
Last Updated: 4/9/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2011
Age at the date of reported crime:53
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No