SAN FRANCISCO — After a two-month trial, a jury is set to decide the fate of three Hells Angels members accused of murdering a fellow club member who was later illegally cremated, a case largely based on the word of a dropout member who says he was recruited into the plot.
Jonathan Nelson, Russell Ott and Brian Wendt face charges of murdering Joel Silva, a sergeant-at-arms of the Sonoma Hells Angels who prosecutors contend was shot to death inside the biker gang’s Fresno charter clubhouse and brought to a nearby funeral home for a clandestine cremation the following day. The three are among a dozen Hells Angels members charged as part of a 2017 racketeering case targeting Hells Angels from coast to coast but centered on Sonoma and Fresno.
Wendt is accused of personally shooting Silva in the back of the head as he bent down to grab bags of marijuana that had been used to lure him to Fresno. Ott is accused of driving him to the clubhouse as part of the plot, and Nelson is accused of helping plan the murder, which a prosecution witness says never would have taken place without his authorization his.
Defense attorneys have responded by attacking the credibility of key prosecution witnesses, including FBI agents, and describing the case as the result of a biased probe by law enforcement desperate to take down the Hells Angels. They’ve also offered up an alternative theory, that Silva was murdered over a dispute involving marijuana trafficking, by a rogue Hells Angel who is now the prosecution’s primary informant.
“The government is asking you to read tea leaves,” said defense attorney Jai Gohel, who represents Nelson, and described the main prosecution witness as a “proven liar” who admitted on the stand that he told the FBI a false version of events that involved him being present for Silva’s murder.
In his final pitch to the jury, US Attorney Kevin Barry mocked the defense notion that the Hells Angels were just a motorcycle club, not the criminal organization the prosecution has made them out to be. He asked, sarcastically, if Moose Lodge members kept stashes of guns and knives at their clubhouses like those found during police raids in the investigation.
“The Lions don’t worry about drive-by shootings at their clubhouse. The Kiwanis don’t refer to hunting of rival members as big game hunting or small game hunting,” Barry said.
During trial, ex-Richmond chapter Hells Angels member Joseph Hardisty testified for the prosecution that he held a meeting at his Antioch home where several club members, including Nelson, planned Silva’s killing. He said Wendt later bragged about shooting Hardisty and that Ott and Silva drove to Fresno together in Ott’s truck the day that Silva was killed.
The motive, according to Hardisty, was Silva’s increasingly erratic behavior that culminated with him threatening a Hells Angel in Boston during a large motorcycle event on the East Coast. He said he was close friends with Silva and overwhelmed by guilt after the killing, leading to his decision his to defect and testify.
But the defense points out that Hardisty at first told FBI agents he was in Fresno, outside the clubhouse, when Silva was shot, then came clean and admitted to lying about that detail a short time later. They also picked apart an FBI agent’s testimony that phone records put the defendants exactly where Hardisty said they were, calling it speculative and exaggerated.
Gohel also presented an alternative theory: that Hardisty was the one who shot Silva inside Silva’s truck, which was later found burned in a remote part of Fresno County. He suggested that Robbie Huff, a fellow Hells Angel who went missing in February 2015, helped dispose of the body.
Barry called that theory “absurd” and questioned why there was no attempt to look for Silva after his disappearance, and why he never received an extravagant funeral that culminated with a large motorcycle run, like other prominent Hells Angels who die in good standing typically receive .
“Why would Joseph Hardisty put the spotlight on a murder that he committed?” Barry asked.