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 alleged events in New Hampshire, Boston, Fresno, Antioch, and Santa Rosa, where prosecutors allege several Hells Angels formed and carried out a plan to kill 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 U.S. 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.