Retrial Hearings Begin for Man Convicted of Murder in a 2011 Nugget Casino Shooting
Ernesto Gonzales, the 58-year old man who was convicted of murder in a 2011 casino shootout, appeared in a Reno court on Thursday for preliminary hearings in his retrial. Gonzales had his murder conviction overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court in December 2015.
Ernesto Gonzales was convicted of murder and conspiracy charges in the 2011 shooting death of Jeffrey Pettigrew in the Nugget Casino in Sparks. Pettigrew was known to be the leader of the Hell’s Angels chapter in San Jose, California. Ernesto Gonzales is a known member of Vagos, a rival biker gang. The shooting happened in a showdown between the two biker groups, which have had a longstanding feud.
Gary Rudnick Was the Star Witness
In the original trial, Los Angeles-based Vagos member Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick was the star witness. Mr. Rudnick claimed that he and Ernesto Gonzales met in Los Angeles with an international leader of biker gang, and that man ordered the murder of Jeffrey Pettigrew. This made the killing of Pettigrew a coordinated hit, while Gonzales was convicted of murder, despite not pulling the trigger.
Ernesto Gonzales is said to be a leader of Vagos from Nicaragua. Gonzales qualifies as indigent, which is one of the reasons Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer has not set a trial date. Judge Steinheimer is considering whether to appoint a public defender, based on Gonzales’s new classification.
Overturned by Nevada Supreme Court
Judge Steinheimer originally sentenced Gonzales to life in prison. The Nevada Supreme Court overturned that decision last year, in part because the jury was uncertain what constituted “conspiracy” under Nevada Law. At present, Ernesto Gonzales is being held in Washoe County Jail under $2 million bail.
During the original trial, both the prosecution and defense agreed on certain facts. Both sides agreed that the conflict began when Gary Rudnick taunted Jeffrey Pettigrew, who then punched Rudnick in the face. Both sides acknowledged that the confrontation between Rudnick and Pettigrew led to a shootout inside the casino.
Convicted of Conspiracy to Commit Murder
The two sides differed on what happened before the fight. The prosecution tried to convince the jury that Rudnick and Gonzales had plotted to instigate a confrontation with Pettigrew, then murder him. That was the conclusion the jury and the judge arrived at in the original trial.
Gary Rudnick originally faced a first-degree murder charge in the August 2013 trial, but he pleaded guilty to a second-degree murder charge in order to obtain his testimony. He was sentenced to 2 to 7 years in the murder, but was released on parole in November 2015.
Lawyer Contends a Covert Deal Happened
David Houston represented Gonzales in the original trial, and is set to represent him in the new trial. Houston plans on calling Gary Rudnick’s public defender, Jennifer Lunt, to the stand in the retrial. He wants to ask Lunt about contradictory statements she made in the first trial.
According to David Houston, Lunt indicated Rudnick was “supposed to receive a benefit from the state in the form of a negotiated sentence if, in fact, Mr. Rudnick supported the theory of the state’s case against Mr. Gonzalez.”
Jailhouse Recordings Told Different Story
The prominent defense attorney claims that jailhouse recordings indicate that the prosecutors convinced Gary Rudnick to give testimony against Gonzales by offering a plea bargain, but that Rudnick’s testimony might have been made-up in order to get a lighter sentence.
David Houston has pointed out that no one else testified against Ernesto Gonzales and “Jabbers” represents a man whose testimony is quite doubtful. Without corroboration, the jury should have been quite leery of Rudnick’s testimony.
Houston told reporters, “No other witnesses testified to the conspiracy to kill Pettigrew.”
Public Defendant to be a Witness
In the original trial, Lunt filed an affidavit which stated, “There were absolutely no ‘covert’ deals made between the state and Mr. Rudnick.”
David Houston said that Jennifer Lunt contradicted that affidavit in the sentencing proceeding.
He said, “Ms. Lunt completely changed her position, indicating not only were there covert deals but at the same point in time, the state was engaged in a level of high treachery in failing to honor their wink and nod deal with Mr. Rudnick to provide him with probation in the event he did what he was supposed to do.“