Sunday, June 19, 2011

CALIFORNIA: Motorcycle gang murder case goes to jury

Hell's Angel Michael Pena and his associate, Joseph Soto, were painted as victims of an ambush by a vengeful rival motorcycle gang during closing arguments of a murder trial Friday in Kern County Superior Court.

Pena has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder and gang charges. His friend, Soto, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, assault with a deadly weapon, accessory and gang participation.

The charges stem from the May 30, 2010 stabbing death of 18-year-old Vagos motorcycle gang member Roger Anthony Violano and the wounding of Nerl Rinehart, 69, another Vagos member. The victims were stabbed in front of the Pirate Tattoo Shop at 1905 North Chester Ave., according to deputies' reports.

The Vagos have a rivalry with the Hell's Angels, deputies said. Pena has a Hell's Angels tattoo on his right arm.

Pena's defense attorney, Peter Kang, said in court Friday that the fatal altercation at the tattoo shop followed previous encounters on other days at the Tilted Kilt and Kern River Inn.

At a Vagos birthday party the day of Violano's death, Kang argued, it was announced that Pena had been spotted outside the tattoo shop alone, and 20 to 30 gang members raced out in the middle of the performance of a Marilyn Monroe impersonator for the express purpose of attacking Pena.

There was no eyewitness testimony or murder weapon, so the prosecution's case is circumstantial.

Deputy district attorney Nicholas Palmisano argued that Vagos members had not set out to attack Pena, but had, themselves, been ambushed by Pena and members of a third gang that was lying in wait when they arrived at the shop. When Vagos arrived, helmets and motorcycle parts were hurled at them, he said.

In response to defense assertions that there was no evidence of the third gang at the shop, Palmisano said, "How does a guy with a knife survive with 20 against two...and how does Nerl Rinehart get stabbed in the back" if Pena and Soto were merely defending themselves?

There were conflicting accounts of where Soto and Pena were during the fight. The defense said Soto was trapped in the shop, its door guarded by Vagos members, and Pena had been by a bench outside.

The prosecution said both men actively engaged in the fighting, and offered a witness who was not there but said Pena told him afterward that he stabbed Violano and then washed the knife to remove incriminating evidence.

The jury began deliberating at 1:30 p.m. Friday. Deliberations continue Monday.

The trial began May 11 and is taking place with extra security beyond the usual screening at the entrance of the courthouse. Sheriff's deputies are stationed outside the courtroom and search everyone who enters with a hand-held metal detector. A video camera points in the direction of people being screened, and no one wearing gang insignia or carrying gang paraphernalia is admitted.

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