LAS VEGAS — A federal prosecutor used dramatic silent videotapes Tuesday to cast Hells Angels as members of a criminal racketeering ring who plotted and carried out a bloody attack on rival biker gang members at a southern Nevada casino in 2002.
“The Hells Angels are an enterprise engaged in racketeering, with members dedicated to responding to any disrespect with violence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Johnson told the jury as the trial of outlaw motorcycle gang members began.
“Ultimately what occurred was the Hells Angels went and decided to have a gang fight with their arch rivals at Harrah’s casino,” Johnson said.
Three people died and at least a dozen were injured the April 27, 2002, melee when leather-clad bikers wielded guns, knives, wrenches, hammers, fists, boots and chairs in a two-minute brawl that was recorded from at least a half-dozen angles by the Harrah’s Laughlin hotel-casino’s surveillance cameras.
Eleven men from California, Washington, Arizona, Alaska and Nevada were the first to go on trial in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. Thirty-one other Hells Angels await trial on federal charges, and separate state charges are pending against eight of the men.
Each of the 42 members of the Hells Angels faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted of the most serious federal charge, racketeering attempted murder. Each has pleaded not guilty.
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“Never have so many members of the most powerful motorcycle gang in the world been put on trial on such serious charges,” said Julian Sher, the Montreal co-author of a book, “Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gang’s Crime Empire.”
Johnson promised a broad prosecution of what he called “essentially a cult,” with a disciplined and merciless gang structure based on drug-running, turf warfare and violence.
The prosecutor said former Hells Angels members and undercover law enforcement officers will testify that gang rules and a culture that require “meeting any gesture of disrespect toward an individual or the club with an overwhelming response” led to brawl at the 20th annual Laughlin River Run motorcycle rally.
“This wasn’t self-defense,” Johnson declared, anticipating arguments that defense lawyers said they will make when trial resumes Wednesday and they offer opening statements. “Tensions were high. The Hells Angels, as a group, brought the fight to (the Mongols) at the hotel.”
The prosecutor relied heavily on repeated loops of video _ enhanced by zooming in and other special effects. Arrows were superimposed to follow individuals through the seething mass of leather vests who battled amid rows of glittering casino slot machines. Technical glitches interrupted him several times.
Gang members on both sides are shown pointing and firing guns. Others punch, stab and kick each other. One Hells Angels member wearing a black helmet and sunglasses clobbers a passing Mongols member in the head with a wrench.
Johnson promised to prove all 32 charges against each of the 11 Hells Angels, who sat quietly in court, most wearing shirts and ties and subtle gang markers. Some wore long hair in ponytails. One wore a belt bearing the words “Hells Angels.” Another wore an earring with the club’s trademark death’s head wing.
Several club members wearing vests and club insignia cleared metal detectors at the courthouse lobby and again at the courtroom door to view the proceedings.
Defense lawyer David Chesnoff, who represents defendant Calvin Schaefer of Chandler, Ariz., ended the day by imploring U.S. District Judge James Mahan to remind the jury of seven women, five men and six alternates to await testimony and evidence before making decisions about guilt.
“Openings are one-sided,” said another defense lawyer, Tom Pitaro, who showed colleagues outside court a poster-sized photo of Robert Emmet Tumelty, 50, a Hells Angel from Stockton, Calif., who was shot and killed in the casino brawl.
Another Hells Angel, Jeramie Dean Bell, 27, of Hughson, Calif., and Mongols member Anthony Salvador Barrera, 43, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., also died.
“In the next couple of days, we’ll answer,” Pitaro said. “We’ll explain everything.”