BY: Scott Herhold
If you're trying to make sense of a month of bloodshed involving San Jose's Hells Angels, it helps to measure the essential currency of motorcycle gangs -- respect.Put another way, you should understand that when their code of respect is violated, consequences follow, often expressed through violence.
That doesn't make it right or just or admirable. Nobody is suggesting that the Angels are about to publish a book of ethics, even on Amazon.
But just as baseball players operate with unwritten codes -- don't steal a base when you're 10 runs up -- gangs cling to their own rules.
So let me offer a primer that will give context to the deaths of San Jose Hells Angels president Jeffrey "Jethro" Pettigrew and his good friend, fellow Hells Angel Steve Tausan.
The story begins in August 1997, when a drunken carpenter named Kevin Sullivan badgered a dancer at the Pink Poodle and made derogatory comments about the Angels.
Dispatched to deal with the situation, Tausan got into an argument with Sullivan -- and, by the ex-Marine's testimony, punched him twice in self-defense. Sullivan later died.
Tausan was acquitted of homicide charges, but not before sheriff's deputies and San Jose police committed their own act of disrespect in a big 1998 raid.
Killing the dogs
Seeking to bolster the case against Tausan, the cops jackhammered a driveway, carted away Harley-Davidson motorcycles and, worst of all, killed three dogs. The Angels won a $1.8 million settlement from various public agencies.
Now jump forward to the events at the Nugget casino in Sparks on Sept. 23, when the one-legged Pettigrew was shot to death.
In his friends' eyes, the killing leached insult. Pettigrew took four bullets in the back. His alleged shooter, a member of the Vagos gang, was lucky cops arrested him before he was the victim of retaliation.
What came afterward at Pettigrew's funeral last Saturday at Oak Hill Cemetery, however, was even more sensational, an eruption of violence before thousands of mourners.
Tausan, a 52-year-old bail bondsman and lifelong friend of Pettigrew, was shot dead after he reportedly punched another man near the graveside.
The cops are looking for the man they have identified as the shooter, a 33-year-old Hells Angel named Steven Ruiz. One bystander said Tausan believed Ruiz failed to protect Pettigrew -- though the cops have not confirmed that report.
Unearthing a grave
Later, the cops unearthed Pettigrew's grave -- without opening the casket -- to be sure no evidence had been tossed in. To investigators, it was essential. To Pettigrew's friends, it was an act of disrespect.It's no surprise that an organization built on the nuances of respect faces problems. Its members can become fixated on violations of the code. A perceived insult easily can beget a chain of deadly retaliation.
You might shrug at the bloodshed, figuring that violence in a gang shocks no one. Yet that isn't the whole story.
While the Angels are no saints, they're not one-dimensional, either. Pettigrew was a valued back hoe operator for the city. Tausan was a father of four. The shooter unquestionably has family and friends.
We don't have to mourn them. But we should fret when violence unspools at a cemetery. In a place meant for respect, it's the ultimate affront.
Contact Scott Herhold at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-275-0917.