At a Reno restaurant Saturday evening, the owner told a customer, “I’m going to close in about an hour. I don’t want to deal with this.”
It was only 7:30. One of her bartenders said there was a “confirmed” report that 500 motorcyclists were headed to Northern Nevada from Los Angeles to “even the score.”
A Renoite who was driving one of her friends home near downtown Sparks said, “This is really risky.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Residents all over the valley avoided the downtowns. Other businesses, particularly in Sparks, closed early.
These were scenes that followed a Friday, Sept. 23, shooting at John Ascuaga’s Nugget that left one person—a Hells Angels chapter president—dead and others injured.
That was followed by a second incident on Saturday morning. A vehicle pulled up alongside a motorcyclist. Someone in the vehicle shot the biker in the stomach. Both of these incidents occurred during “Street Vibrations,” a special tourism event in Reno, Sparks and Virginia City that event officials say is the fourth largest motorcycle event in the nation.
The tragedies associated with Street Vibrations come on the heels of a Sept. 16 plane crash at another special tourism event, the Reno Air Races. Eleven people died as a result of that crash, and the rest of the races were cancelled.
Though the Street Vibrations festival went on in Reno and Virginia City, it was cancelled in Sparks and a state of emergency declared by the mayor. A statement was released by the city: “In light of a shooting involving rival members of motorcycle clubs at a Sparks casino Friday night, and a subsequent drive-by shooting on Victorian Avenue in Sparks this morning, a state of emergency has been declared by the City. It is expected the Governor will also declare a state-of-emergency on behalf of the City of Sparks. Pursuant to the police powers vested in the City of Sparks, the Street Vibrations motorcycle event in Sparks will be cancelled for the remainder of the weekend.”
There is always a level of tension surrounding Street Vibrations. Last week even before the Nugget shooting, there was at least one SWAT team at the ready in downtown Reno and the Eldorado Casino had signs posted on its doors: “WEAPONS PROHIBITED IN THIS ESTABLISHMENT.”
Most bikers were dismayed by the Nugget events. One said, “Everything we do that’s normal will be swallowed up by this freaky thing.” But some of them also argued that the public reaction was class-oriented. “When was the last time a hospital shut down because a patient’s friends showed up?” asked one, a reference to Renown Hospital going into lockdown after Vagos bike club members appeared at the hospital, where two Vagos men wounded at the Nugget incident were hospitalized.
“Are you going to tell me the air races will be ended because there was a crash?” asked another biker. “Those rich bastards will keep their event.”
Setting aside the shaky analogy between an accident and a homicide, the Nugget shooting is reminiscent of a 2002 incident when Mongols and Hells Angels clubs had a fight at the Laughlin Harrah’s Casino. Three people were killed in that incident. Two Hells Angels members served time in prison for their actions.
The dead man in Sparks was Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew of San Jose. The San Jose Mercury reported that Pettigrew “worked for 20 years as a heavy equipment operator for the city’s Department of Transportation. But San Jose police know him as the charismatic local leader of the notorious biker club that law enforcement has long identified as one of the most powerful and influential criminal motorcycle gangs.”
The newspaper quoted San Jose police Sgt. Larry Day: “In the outlaw motorcycle gang culture, Jeff Pettigrew was a local icon in San Jose, a very well-respected member within the ranks of the Hells Angels. This incident could definitely result in retaliation against the Vagos, and a full-blown war that may result in deadly violence in San Jose and throughout California.”
The editor of biker magazine Ride Rag, known by the name Yve, said, “Unfortunate events are prevalent in every culture and subculture. As a motorcycle club advocate, it is our position that motorcycle clubs are, in essence, families, and as such our respective ‘communities’ should be able to exercise the right to reserve comment and reflect on the situation without outside opinion or condemnation.”
Mayor Martini made a similar observation: “The individuals who engaged in the violence do not in any way reflect the majority of the event attendees.”
Merchants tended to agree that most Street Vibrations participants bent over backwards to try to disprove the stereotype of bikers.
“I think that 99.99 percent are bankers by day, bikers by night,” said Great Basin Brewing Company co-owner Tom Young, whose Sparks business gets a lot of benefit from special tourism events. “It’s just that one element, a small, small element.”
Young said he lost money after the cancellation of the motorcycle event and that attendance at a Jimmy Webb concert at Great Basin on Sunday night was lower than expected.
Asked about whether Street Vibrations should continue, Young said, “I have mixed feelings about it myself. Public safety comes first. I would hope that it would continue, but I think there is a public safety issue that has to be addressed.”
He also said, “I was angry more than anything else. Can’t these people grow up? … When I was younger, Hells Angels only beat people up.”
Special tourism events are, if anything, held less for the public than for businesses. So when a special event ceases to be a money maker for local merchants, that reason for it ceases to exist. one former state legislator boiled the issues at stake down in pretty raw terms: “Air crashes will drive up attendance next time. Gang shootings will not.”
After revoking the state of emergency on Sunday, Mayor Martini said, “The special event held in Sparks was intended for motorcycle enthusiasts and attracts thousands of people annually, including families with children. The safety and security of event attendees in Sparks is a priority. … We appreciate the understanding of our residents and businesses throughout the last 24 hours.”
The story about 500 bikers leaving Los Angeles for Reno didn’t surprise anyone familiar with such tense situations, which are a fertile growth medium for outlandish rumors. During the 1964 Watts riots in Los Angeles, a report circulated in Las Vegas that busloads of armed African-Americans were headed for that Nevada city. The state’s governor, Grant Sawyer, flew to Las Vegas and walked through black neighborhoods and a casino to keep things cool.
After a shooting at the IHOP restaurant in Carson City on Sept. 6, rumors swept the capital. “The tsunami is gone,” Carson Sheriff Ken Furlong told the Nevada Appeal a day after the shooting. “Now I’m just fighting waves of misinformation.”