SAN FRANCISCO — A prospect for the Sonoma Hells Angels who lived a double life as an FBI informant, as well as two former members, will likely be the most significant of dozens of government witnesses in a racketeering trial expected to last months, prosecutors revealed Monday .
The case centers on the Sonoma chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, but the government’s theory behind the most significant charge involves painstaking events in New Hampshire, Boston, Fresno, Antioch, and Santa Rosa, where prosecutors allege several Hells Angels formed and carried out a plan to murder and illegally cremate one their own members. The result has been a body-less murder charge, the most significant count aimed at the group, which is also accused of several assaults, maiming a member for a rule violation, and operating the motorcycle club as a criminal organization that runs on violence.
On Monday, three men — Jonathan “Jon Jon” Nelson, Russell “Rusty” Ott, and Brian Wendt became the first to go on trial out of 11 Hells Angels charged in a case that originated nearly five years ago. At the start of trial, defense attorneys decried what they called an “unholy alliance” between “shady, disreputable felons” and law enforcement officials desperate to take down the Hells Angels after decades of trying, with mixed results.
Nelson’s attorney, Jai Gohel, spent much of his opening statement to jurors contrasting the government’s portrayal of the Hells Angels as a mafia-style gang. He said they’re a band of brothers who celebrate “freedom, love of the open road, and motorcycles” and pointed out the group’s original members were ex-World War II vets who traded in their crew cuts for long hair and beards and named themselves after an air force squadron.
“They do charity drives, toy drives, they do poker runs to raise money. It’s a key part of who they are,” Gohel said. “They work with their hands… They build our roads, they build our bridges.”
Nelson, Ott, and Wendt are accused of playing different roles what the FBIs calls a murder — but what the defense maintains is just the disappearance — of a man named Joel Silva, a former sergeant-at-arms of the Sonoma Hells Angels who went missing in July 2014. Assistant US Attorney Lina Peng told jurors Monday that after Silva’s erratic behavior got to the point where it couldn’t be ignored, Nelson authorized him to be killed, while Ott lured him to the group’s Fresno clubhouse, where Wendt shot him in the back of the head.
“Inside the clubhouse Wendt told Silva it was all good between them and he had some weed he wanted to sell,” Peng said. “When Silva went to go look at the weed, Wendt shot him in the back of the head. Wendt would later brag about how he had done it.”
The person he “bragged” to, according to Peng, is an Antioch resident and member of the Richmond Hells Angels who would later switch sides. After his arrest his on unspecified charges in Marin County, he requested a meeting with Contra Costa District Attorney Inspector Steve Lynn and then-Antioch police Det. Steve Aiello.
He claimed one of the meetings to plot Silva’s murder happened at his home, but defense attorneys say he’s told an “evolving” story with erratic changes, like claiming he was at the clubhouse when Silva was killed then changing his mind. Wendt’s attorney, John Philipsborn, said the inconsistent stories about Silva started when the FBI began sweating this informant about his relationship with a California man suspected of attempting to bomb a PG&E substation in a domestic terror investigation that was a top priority for Washington DC
A Bay Area man who prosecutors claim infiltrated the group as a prospect — while working for the FBI — was simply a “wannabe” who had no idea of the Hells Angels’ inner-working, Ott’s attorney, Marcia Morrissey, told the jury. She told jurors that in 2014 Ott was drinking so heavily it’s ludicrous that anyone would have brought him into a murder plot.
“The core club values are loyalty, brotherhood, family, and pride. Rusty is proud that he is a Hells Angel,” Morrisey said. “The government’s case is an effort to tarnish Rusty by tying him to events with which he was not involved.”
Another government witness is a former Sonoma Hells Angel who committed a cardinal sin — sleeping with the “old lady” of fellow Hells Angel Raymond Foakes, a co-defendant in this case and former Sonoma charter president. When Foakes returned from prison, he and others beat the man to a pulp for four hours inside the Sonoma clubhouse, forcibly tattooed his face, then Foakes left the clubhouse, lured the man’s wife to a secluded area, sexually assaulted her, then returned to the clubhouse and bragged about what he’d done, she said.
Outside the presence of the jury, US District Judge Edward Chen admonished Peng for referring to the painstaking sexual assault as if it were authorized by the Hells Angles, as opposed to for Foakes’ “personal gratification,” saying Peng ignored a court order limiting how that evidence could come in. Chen also denied several defense mistrial motions on Monday and Tuesday.
The first two government witnesses were alleged victims of beatdowns that prosecutors contend were led by Nelson. The first, a former member of the Ghost Warriors Motorcycle Club, refused to say “Hells Angels” on the stand or identify anyone in court. During cross-examination, he admitted to heavy methamphetamine use and denied he was testifying for leniency in a burglary case, for which he received three months of house arrest out of a potential six years in prison.