LAS VEGAS — A Vagos biker club leader stood silently Thursday in a federal courtroom in Las Vegas while his lawyer urged a jury to acquit him of criminal racketeering charges so he can return to his family and his movie studio job in California.
“This is Al. He’s a good man,” attorney Mark Fleming said of Albert Lopez, a former U.S. Army Ranger, acknowledged Vagos international officer and married father of two who lives in the Los Angeles-area city of Santa Clarita.
Lopez didn’t testify during six months of trial, nor did seven other accused Vagos co-defendants who each face the possibility of life in prison in a broad conspiracy case stemming from a deadly casino gunfight in 2011 with rival Hells Angels in northern Nevada.
Jeffrey Pettigrew, then-president of the Hells Angels chapter in San Jose, California, was killed in the shooting. Two Vagos were wounded, including defendant Diego Garcia.
A sweeping criminal indictment accuses the Vagos of being part of a criminal enterprise that since 2005 relied on threats and violence to wage turf battles with Hells Angels and others in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.
Vagos members’ attorneys say prosecutors botched a flimsy case built upon accounts of unreliable witnesses, and they failed to prove Vagos did anything other than defend themselves in the shootout at the Nugget casino in Sparks.
“Defense of others and self. That is the singular simple truth of this case,” attorney Michael Kennedy told the jury on Wednesday. His client, admitted Vagos member Ernesto Gonzalez, shot Pettigrew after Pettigrew threw a first punch during an argument with former Vagos member Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick.
Casino security video showed Pettigrew pulled a gun and started shooting before being joined by gun-wielding Hells Angels member Cesar Villagrana.
The melee continued for almost two minutes before Kennedy said Gonzalez drew his own gun and shot at Pettigrew and Villagrana as they stood kicking the head and neck of a Vagos member on the floor. Villagrana was pointing his handgun at the man’s torso, and Kennedy said Gonzalez acted in a “sudden whirl” of action to stop two active shooters.
“This is a disgraceful prosecution,” Fleming said Thursday after reminding the jury that prosecutors themselves disavowed Rudnick in September as a liar. A month earlier, prosecutor John Han told the jury that Rudnick’s account that Vagos leader Pastor Fausto Palafox issued a “green light” go-ahead to kill Pettigrew was a key to the case.
Other co-defendants are Bradley Campos, James Gillespie, Albert Perez and Cesar Morales. Thirteen other accused Vagos defendants await trial.
Fleming urged the jury to also disregard testimony from Jefferson Martin, a witness who linked Lopez to the meeting at which the green-light order was supposed to have been given, but later admitted he lied.
“And that’s why we’re here. Because of lies by Jefferson Martin and Gary Rudnick,” the attorney said. “You have the power to send a message to the government: ‘We’re not falling for this stuff.’ ”
The jury could begin deliberating Friday after closing arguments from other defense attorneys and Han's final prosecution summary.