SAN JOSE -- An ex-Hells Angels member charged with killing another biker at a huge San Jose funeral pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter Tuesday in a deal that limits his sentence to three years and eight months in prison.
Prosecutors had charged Steve Ruiz, 40, with fatally shooting Steve Tausan at Oak Hill Cemetery, where more than 3,000 people gathered on Oct. 15, 2011, for the funeral of the president of the San Jose chapter of the outlaw motorcycle club. The shooting -- and the fight that led up to it -- was captured on a blurry video by cemetery surveillance cameras.
But Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Chuck Gillingham Jr. reduced the original murder charge on the brink of the preliminary hearing Tuesday, citing the reluctance of other biker witnesses to testify, concerns about their credibility and the risk that the killer might be acquitted. In addition to voluntary manslaughter, Ruiz pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon.
"There was a significant lack of cooperation from the public in this motorcycle gang case," Gillingham said. "San Jose police did a great job with what little we had," he added, crediting sergeants Brian Spears and Dave Gutierrez.
The few witnesses who did come forward had extensive criminal backgrounds, Gillingham said. And although Ruiz used "too much force," Gillingham said, it could be argued by his lawyer that he was acting in the "good-faith belief" that he needed to defend himself from Tausan. Moments earlier, Tausan had punched Ruiz in one of the cemetery parking lots hard enough to draw blood, prompting Ruiz to pull out a handgun, shoot him and flee.
The risk for the District Attorney's Office was a jury may well have acquitted Ruiz altogether. At 6 feet 2 inches, Tausan towered over Ruiz. Built like a linebacker with flowing white hair, Tausan also had long been a Hells Angels legend, an ex-boxer who beat a man to death at the Pink Poodle strip club in 1997, only to have a jury acquit him after he claimed self-defense. He even called himself "Mr. 187," after the California penal code section for murder.
Several aspects of the case clearly show that the Hells Angels is a criminal organization, not a mere men's group or motorcyle club, as its members like to profess, Gillingham said.
The funeral was for Jeff "Jethro" Pettigrew, 54, president of the Hells Angels' San Jose chapter, who was killed in September 2011 at a Sparks, Nevada, casino by a member of the rival Vagos gang.
In a scene worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie, members of the Hells Angels, or "HA," as they are known, had been selling T-shirts with their logo on it in the foyer of the Nevada casino when Pettigrew was shot to death.
Tausan, who was Pettigrew's best friend, was irate that Ruiz had not accompanied the club to Nevada, where he might have been able to help protect Pettigrew. Ruiz claimed he didn't go because the club had put him on "probation" for using methamphetamines and he had to work.
At a subsequent party in San Jose, Ruiz threatened to kill Tausan the next time he saw him, which turned out to be at the funeral.
Tausan, in turn, was going to retaliate by stripping Ruiz of his vest and beating him up after the funeral service.
The surveillance video clearly shows Tausan punching Ruiz, but the two are then surrounded by men who post themselves in a circle, making it difficult but not impossible to see Ruiz reach into his vest for his gun.
Immediately after the shooting, several burly club members began picking up shell casings. They also confiscated a cooler filled with melting ice and water, which they sloshed over the blood in an attempt to erase any evidence, Gillingham said.
Even more chillingly, they also tried to steal the surveillance video, forcing cemetery employees to barricade themselves inside a building to prevent them from seizing it.
The incident has had unusual ripple effects. As a direct result of the investigation into the killing, criminal defense lawyer Michael Edward Hingle was indicted on federal charges of obstructing justice and lying to federal agents about his role in tipping off a target of a major drug investigation in Gilroy. Authorities believe Hingle disclosed the probe to Pettigrew in a text message, shortly before Ruiz shot him. Hingle, who has served as a judge pro tem for the local bench, denies the charges.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport