RENO, Nev. >> A California member of the Hells Angels pleaded not guilty Thursday to second-degree murder for his role in the death of his chapter president in a September shootout in a Nevada casino.
Cesar Villagrana of Gilroy also pleaded not guilty to shooting and wounding two members of the rival Vagos motorcycle gang in the melee.
Villagrana is not suspected of shooting his longtime friend and San Jose chapter leader Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew. However. authorities said he was charged with murder because he was a principal participant in the brawl the led to the death in Sparks on Sept. 23.
Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer set a tentative Jan. 17 trial date for Villagrana, the same day Ernesto Gonzalez of San Francisco — a Vagos member indicted for murder — is due to stand trial.
Authorities suspect Gonzalez fired the shots that killed Pettigrew
The judge, however, indicated the trial might not begin until the end of 2012.
Prosecutor Karl Hall expects suspect Gary Stuart Rudnick, who was arrested in Los Angeles in connection with Pettigrew’s killing, to be returned to Reno and arraigned before Dec. 7.
Rudnick, vice president of the Vagos Los Angeles chapter, was indicted on a second-degree murder charge.
Rudnick, who goes by the nickname “Jabbers,” is not accused of firing any shots, but police said he was to blame for starting the fight that turned the casino floor into a shooting gallery during a biker rally in Reno-Sparks.
Investigators later retrieved dozens of shell casings and bullets — one lodged in a slot machine, others in bar stools, a card table and a metal poker chip holder.
The two Vagos members shot that night survived. A third Vagos was shot near the casino the next morning and also survived. Police have no suspects in that shooting.
Villagrana’s defense attorney Richard Schonfeld said after Thursday’s arraignment that he intends to seek a separate trial for his client. He also plans to file motions challenging unspecified actions by the grand jury.
In court, Schonfeld objected when the judge said she intended to ban colors, patches, emblems or insignias showing gang affiliation in her courtroom during the trial.
The Hells Angels are a motorcycle club, not a gang, and should be referred to that way, Schonfeld said.
Schonfeld said there’s a difference between a leather jacket and red clothing associated with the Hells Angels and a ‘”nice button up shirt” with a subtle insignia bearing the club emblem. He asked one member in the audience to stand and display his black shirt with the club’s emblem about the size of the palm of his hand above his left pocket.
“It’s not offensive, per se,” Schonfeld said. “They are not ashamed of being members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club. They don’t want to appear they are hiding from it.”
Schonfeld said a federal judge in Las Vegas allowed full leather jackets with patches at a trial involving a deadly brawl between the Hells Angels and rival Mongols at a 2002 motorcycle rally in Laughlin, a resort town about 100 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
“I don’t want people identified as one motorcycle club against another motorcycle club when in the courtroom,” the judge said.