RENO, Nev. (AP) — The star witness who helped convict the triggerman who killed a high-ranking Hells Angels’ boss at a Nevada casino in 2011 says he was lying when he testified that the shooting was an assassination plot orchestrated by a rival motorcycle gang, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Prosecutors think the recantation is a lie, but it could make it more difficult to get another murder conviction against Ernesto Gonzalez, a former Vagos gang member. He’s scheduled to be tried again in August after the Nevada Supreme Court threw out the conviction because of improper jury instructions.
Legal scholars say it’s hard to predict jurors’ reaction to recanted testimony, but it raises questions about the claims of suspects who make deals with prosecutors to take the stand in exchange for more lenient sentences, as Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick did.
His testimony helped put Gonzalez in prison for life for carrying out an organized hit on Jeffrey Pettigrew during a brawl on a crowded casino floor in Sparks that sent gamblers diving for cover under blackjack tables.
Gonzalez, 59, insists there was no plot. He said he opened fire because Pettigrew and another Hells Angel were kicking his partner so hard he thought they would kill him.
The only witness who claimed personal knowledge of the conspiracy was Rudnick, an ex-Vagos vice president from Los Angeles who provoked Pettigrew into fighting. He was released from prison in 2016 after serving two years for conspiracy to commit murder.
Rudnick testified that the Vagos international president gave Gonzalez the “green light” for the killing as the gangs feuded over turf in San Jose, where Pettigrew was the Hells Angels chapter president.
In new court filings, Rudnick claims he fabricated 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.
His declaration is not dated, but Gonzalez’s lawyer, David Houston, told the AP it was signed May 17, 2016, in Las Vegas.
“He states that he lied and there was never any conspiracy or meeting to ‘green light’ a hit,” Houston said. “He says he was told he’d get probation if he testified the way the state wanted him to.”
In a handwritten note riddled with misspellings, Rudnick said “there was no conspiracy” to kill Pettigrew.
“It was just a fight between me and him,” he wrote in the document signed by two witnesses, including a private investigator hired by Houston.
Rudnick says the prosecutor, Karl Hall, now Reno’s city attorney, didn’t believe his original account.
“He told me … what he wanted me to change to lie for him,” Rudnick wrote, suggesting he had no choice but to comply. “I was looking at 25 years in prison.”
Hall declined to comment.
Sean O’Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, Law School, said plea deals with co-conspirators raise questions about testimony that’s later withdrawn.
“There are incentives,” O’Brien said…