Murder retrial delayed a year in Nevada casino shootout

Aug 11, 2016

A Reno judge says a former motorcycle gang leader whose Nevada murder conviction was overturned in December will face a new trial next year

RENO, Nev. — An ex-motorcycle gang leader whose Nevada murder conviction was overturned in December will spend another year in jail before he's retried for the killing of a rival gang member during a casino shootout in 2011, a judge in Reno decided Thursday.

Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer entered not guilty pleas on behalf of Ernesto Gonzalez at the arraignment for the former president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua.

She cited lawyers' scheduling conflicts in setting the new trial for Aug. 28, 2017.

The Nevada Supreme Court threw out Gonzalez' conviction for the murder of Jeffrey Pettigrew, head of the Hells Angels in San Jose California, based partly on Steinheimer's faulty instructions to the jury during the original trial in 2013.

Prosecutors say the fatal shooting at a Sparks casino nearly five years ago was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Jeffrey Pettigrew.

Gonzalez claims he only was trying to protect a fellow Vagos who was nearly beat to death during a brawl that turned the casino floor into a shooting gallery at John Ascuaga's Nugget in September 2011.

Steinheimer entered the not guilty pleas on behalf of Gonzalez at the request of his lawyer, David Houston, who said he had advised Gonzalez to remain silent "based on my own reasons and further investigation that we are conducting."

Steinheimer said she wanted to make it clear that Houston waived Gonzalez' right to a speedy trial within 60 days, and Houston agreed.

"Unfortunately, we are where we are," he said in acknowledging the inability to set the retrial sooner.

Steinheimer asked Gonzalez if he understood what was going on.

"Yes, your honor," he said.

She asked if he had any questions.

"None, whatsoever," Gonzalez replied.

Houston hoped the trial could begin as soon as January, but prosecutors are tied up with other cases. They offered trial dates as early as April, but Houston has conflicts defending a Reno doctor, Dr. Robert Rand, accused in federal court of causing the overdose death of a patient while conspiring to operate an illegal prescription drug ring.

Gonzalez is being held on $2 billion bail in the county jail, where he was transported from state prison after the high court overturned his conviction on seven counts. He's charged again with the same offenses, including murder with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder, carrying a concealed weapon and challenging someone to a fight resulting in death.

In granting his appeal, the Supreme Court agreed confusion on the part of jurors was evident when they sent out a note to the judge 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 justices said Steinheimer should have provided clarification.

"One of the central issues in this case was whether Pettigrew's death was part of a premeditated conspiracy or occurred in the course of a spontaneous clash between two biker gangs," Justice Nancy Saitta wrote. "When a defendant does not know that he or she is acting in furtherance of an unlawful act, there can be no conspiracy."