Plea deal ends federal trial for Hells Angels

Published 4:38 pm Thursday, October 12, 2006

The federal racketeering trial of 11 Hells Angels motorcycle club members was drawing to an unexpected close Wednesday after six defendants pleaded guilty to reduced charges in a parallel state criminal case stemming from a deadly casino brawl.

The federal jury was sent home in the morning, while the defendants went to state court and pleaded guilty to felony battery or challenge to fight charges, which carry the possibility of no more than 2 1/2 years in prison. The state’s charges of murder and attempted murder were dropped.

Later in the day, the same six defendants went back to federal court, where they were expected to plead guilty to reduced federal charges of battery in aid of racketeering, according to defense lawyers.

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All federal charges were to be dropped against the remaining five defendants, defense lawyers said.

The cases against the 31 other members of Hells Angles charged in the brawl were pending.

The Hells Angels members had faced life in prison if convicted in the brawl with rival Mongols biker gang members at a 2002 motorcycle rally in Laughlin.

Two Hells Angels and a Mongols member died and at least a dozen people were injured in the bloody brawl. Videotape images showed the rival motorcycle gang members battling with guns, knives, wrenches and chairs on the casino floor at Harrah’s Laughlin hotel-casino in the Colorado River resort town some 100 miles south of Las Vegas.

The collapse of the federal case came after two weeks of trial during which defense lawyers accused government agents and prosecutors of flagrant misconduct and withholding crucial evidence.

Defense lawyers noted the settlement of the federal and state cases would clear the Hells Angels of federal claims that it constitutes a criminal enterprise like the Mafia.

“It’s the individuals, not the club,” said Peter Christiansen, who represents Hells Angels member James Hannigan, 39, of Mountain View, Calif. Hannigan declined comment outside Clark County District Court.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Las Vegas declined comment.

“The most significant fact is the Hells Angels motorcycle club has once again been found not to be a criminal enterprise,” said lawyer David Chesnoff, who represents Calvin Schaefer of Chandler, Ariz.

Schaefer, 37, who is seen on casino surveillance videotapes shooting at Mongols, faces the stiffest sentence of the group — five years in prison.

No Mongols members were charged in the federal case, though six face state charges.