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US case against Vagos in Nevada ends; racketeering dismissed

April 15, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2011, file photo, police officers keep an eye on handcuffed men at the east entrance to John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel-casino after a shooting in Sparks, Nev. A long and troubled federal prosecution in Nevada of current and former Vagos biker gang members from California accused of running an international criminal enterprise and killing a rival Hells Angels leader in 2011 is over. U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro on Monday, April 14, 2020, approved the government's request to dismiss all charges against 11 defendants, bringing an end to the federal case filed in September 2016, after a state court conviction of the Vagos member responsible for the slaying was overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court. (The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2011, file photo, police officers keep an eye on handcuffed men at the east entrance to John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel-casino after a shooting in Sparks, Nev. A long and troubled federal prosecution in Nevada of current and former Vagos biker gang members from California accused of running an international criminal enterprise and killing a rival Hells Angels leader in 2011 is over. U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro on Monday, April 14, 2020, approved the government's request to dismiss all charges against 11 defendants, bringing an end to the federal case filed in September 2016, after a state court conviction of the Vagos member responsible for the slaying was overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court. (The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A long and troubled federal prosecution in Nevada of current and former Vagos biker gang members from California accused of running an international criminal enterprise and killing a rival Hells Angels leader in a 2011 casino shootout is over.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro in Las Vegas approved a government request Monday to dismiss all charges against 11 defendants, closing the federal racketeering case filed in September 2016 after a state court conviction of the Vagos member who acknowledges he was the shooter was overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court.

“Witnesses recanted and their racketeering theory was flawed,” defense attorney Kathleen Bliss said Tuesday of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors. “Yet they pressed on and gambled with the lives of these men.”

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Eight men stood trial in a massive and complicated prosecution that began with jury selection last July. Jurors heard stunning admissions from the key witness in September that he fabricated a story about a kill order leading to the fatal shooting at a casino in Sparks.

In February, the jury returned acquittals on all charges against defendants including Pastor Fausto Palafox, former international president of the Vagos Motorcycle Club, and acknowledged Vagos gunman Ernesto Manuel Gonzalez.

“This case was precipitated on lies,” said Joshua Tomsheck, lawyer for defendant Paul Voll, who was awaiting trial with a second group of seven defendants. Tomsheck called the result a vindication.

Attorney Chris Rasmussen noted that his client, John Siemer, spent three years in federal custody after pleading not guilty and was never brought to trial. Rasmussen called the dismissal “a momentous ending to a long saga.”

U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich said his office sought to end the case in the interest of justice.

Defendants could have faced life in prison if convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of conspiring since 2005 to deal drugs and commit violent crimes including killings, robberies, extortion and kidnappings in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

One defendant, Jeremy Halgat, still faces trial in June on drug and weapon charges that he has been fighting since 2013. Halgat’s attorney, Richard Tanasi, declined Tuesday to comment.

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks could prosecute Gonzalez again, but would face double-jeopardy legal challenges following Gonzalez’s acquittal in federal court. Gonzalez’s attorney, Michael Kennedy, said Tuesday that his client saved lives by stopping two Hells Angels from shooting others.

“Shooting to stop two active shooters is not murder,” Kennedy said, “and the Vagos MC is a motorcycle club and not a RICO enterprise.”

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