SAN FRANCISCO — It has been nearly five years since the FBI rounded up nearly a dozen Hells Angels members to face allegations of murder and mayhem from California’s wine country to the San Joaquin Valley.
Now, three of the defendants — including club chapter presidents in Fresno and Sonoma —` are set to go before a jury starting Monday, when prosecutors will finally publicly reveal the details of a case that has largely been kept a secret due to alleged security concerns. Even days before trial, the names of key witnesses that include at least one former member of the outlaw biker gang remain hidden from the public, and were only recently revealed to the defense.
The defendants, Jonathan “Jon Jon” Nelson, Russell “Rusty” Ott, and Brian Wendt, are accused of violating the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, through their involvement in the Hells Angels motorcycle club. The trial that is slated to start April 18 and end sometime in June. Attorneys for both sides spent this week trying to narrow down a jury pool of roughly 300 people to 12 main members and several alternates.
A trial memorandum written by prosecutors accuses Hells Angels members of taxing rivals, punishing offshoot groups and aspiring members through beatings, and one allegation that stands out: murdering a fellow member, then disposing of his body through an illegal cremation. The alleged murder victim, Joel Silva, was a sergeant-at-arms of the Hells Angels who had angered others due to his “drug use, erratic behavior, attacks on non-Hells Angels guests at the clubhouse, and bullying,” according to the memo.
Defense attorneys have not yet placed their cards on the table to describe exactly how they will push back against these allegations, but historically the Hells Angels have had better luck than most groups who find themselves staring down the barrel of a RICO case. In the early 1980s, an attempt to prosecute Hells Angel leader Sonny Barger and others in the Bay Area fell apart and resulted in two hung juries and dropped charges. Barger later wrote in his autobiography the biker club would never back down when the government tried to portray it as a gang.
There’s another burden on the prosecution that’s atypical of most murder cases: The U.S. Attorney’s office must convince jurors not only that Silva was murdered by the Hells Angels, but that he’s dead in the first place. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his disappearance may provide the defense an opportunity to argue that this supposed murder victim is simply in hiding.