SAN FRANCISCO — In the conclusion to the Bay Area’s biggest federal prosecution in recent memory, three Hells Angels have been convicted of murdering one of their own in a plot that centered on a charter of the notorious biker gang located in California’s wine country.
Jonathan “Jon Jon” Nelson, Brian Wendt, and Russell “Rusty” Ott, were all found guilty of racketeering and murder related to their roles in a plot to lure Joel “Dough Boy” Silva to the Hells Angels Fresno clubhouse, shoot him in the back of the head, and dispose of his body through an illegal cremation at a nearby funeral home. The jury deliberated for little more than a day before returning the verdicts.
The verdicts bring to an end a two-month trial that centered on the words of three informants who’d served various roles in the Hells Angels, including two former members who became informants after they were severely beaten by members of the club. A third man infiltrated the club as a prospect, while secretly working for the FBI.
The case was part of a massive FBI probe that targeted 13 Hells Angels — though one died in a motorcycle crash shortly after the indictment was filed in 2017 — including some of the Bay Area’s most prominent members, as well as the president of the club’s Boston chapter. Nine others are still awaiting trial on charges pertaining to Silva’s murder as well as unrelated assaults.
Most of the defendants belong to the club’s Sonoma charter, including Silva, who authorities say was targeted for murder due to his increasingly erratic behavior. Silva disappeared in 2014; he was one of three Hells Angels members to vanish from the Fresno area around that time, according to prosecutors.
Attorneys for Nelson, Wendt, and Ott all attacked the government’s case as a flimsy hodgepodge of unreliable witnesses coupled with inconsequential FBI testimony designed to smear the Hells Angels and make mountains out of molehills. For instance, attorneys countered testimony that the defendants’ phones placed them in the area of Silva’s killing by saying the group made frequent trips to the Fresno clubhouse all the time.
Wendt has been in jail since the indictment, while Nelson and Ott have been out of custody. They were both remanded to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on Wednesday, where they remaining pending sentencing. All three face possible life sentences, to be determined by U.S. District Judge Edward Chen.
Silva was a former sergeant-at-arms of the Hells Angels who prosecutors say crossed a line when he threatened to kill another club member named Sweeney, during a trip to New Hampshire for a major motorcycle event. Consequently, several others including Nelson, Wendt, Boston’s charter president Christopher “Rain Man” Ranieri, and others plotted to kill him, according to the prosecution’s lead witness, a former member of the Richmond clubhouse.
The witness, Joseph Hardisty, told investigators he hosted the meeting at his Antioch home, where Nelson agreed that Silva needed to be eliminated. The plan was for Ott to lure him to Fresno, where Wendt shot him in the back of the head, Hardisty testified. Defense attorneys seized on the fact that Hardisty admitted to lying in one version of that story, telling authorities he was present for the shooting when he wasn’t.
Hardisty left the group the following year, still haunted by the role he played in his friend Silva’s death, he testified. When he left, he was beaten severely and his motorcycle was taken back, he said.
During trial, prosecutors delved into the history of the Hells Angels, noting the group had held major funeral events when other members died, but made no such effort to do so when Silva disappeared. Instead, he was quietly voted out of the club at a meeting more than a month after his disappearance.
Another alleged member of the Silva murder plot — who burned Silva’s pickup truck afterwards, according to authorities — was a man named Robbie Huff. He disappeared the following year and is still considered a missing person.
During trial, the owner of a Fresno funeral home testified that a Fresno charter Hells Angel, Merl Hefferman, pressured him to do an illegal cremation for months before Silva’s murder and called him the day after Silva was allegedly shot to tell him some guys were bringing a body over. He said two young men, including one of Hefferman’s relatives, proceeded to bring a body and placed it into a cremation oven while he was walking to a convenience store.
The owner testified he didn’t tell anyone the story until eventually confiding in his wife, months later. He said he was terrified to stop the cremation but took steps to ensure the body’s remains didn’t mix with those of another cremation already in progress.
Hefferman still faces unresolved obstruction of justice charges alleging he played a role in Silva’s cremation.
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Three Hells Angels convicted of murder, RICO charges in major FBI probe