August 2010 biker battle - Judge: Informant incident was the starting point
PRESCOTT - A gun battle nearly two years ago in Chino Valley between two rival motorcycle gangs was touched off by a phone call made to gang members by a police informant, a judge has ruled.
During the shootout, more than 50 shots were fired and five people were injured.
Seven men - all allegedly members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club - were, until Tuesday, under indictment in the case. The incident happened when members of the Hell's Angels and the rival Vagos motorcycle club shot it out at a Yuma Drive house owned by a member of the Hell's Angels.
How and why that shootout began was the focus of a motion to dismiss the case.
Richard Gaxiola, lawyer for one of the seven defendants, Michael Koepke, filed the motion because, he said, the prosecution never disclosed to either of two grand juries or to the defense that a key player in the run-up to the confrontation, Alfred Lewis Azevedo Jr., was working for law enforcement as a paid confidential informant (CI) and that he had previously been "rebuffed" in an attempt to infiltrate the Hell's Angels. He then became a "hangaround" with the Vagos.
The other six men - John Bernard, Kevin Christiansen, Kiley Hill, Larry Scott Jr., Robert Kittredge and Bruce Schweigert - joined in the motion.
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Cele Hancock, in her Tuesday ruling in favor of the motion to dismiss, listed facts of the shooting that she said were "undisputed as the parties stipulated to their foundation, authenticity and accuracy":
On Aug. 21, 2010, at approximately 11:30 a.m., Azevedo was sent to the Chino Valley Circle K on Highway 89 by the tri-state President of the Vagos, Ruben Lopez. He went to the store with Clay Messina.
While Azevedo was at the Circle K, several Hell's Angels arrived. As he was leaving, Larry Scott Jr., who was wearing a Hell's Angels vest with patches, allegedly asked Azevedo, who was wearing a Vagos T-shirt, about his support for the Vagos.
Azevedo reported feeling intimidated by Scott and felt as if Scott was trying to start a fight.
A detective said Azevedo called back to the Vagos house and told member Mike Diecks about the confrontation. Azevedo was told to wait there and that there were more Vagos on the way to assist him.
Azevedo and Messina moved to the adjacent Alco store's parking lot to watch the Hell's Angels. When the Vagos arrived on motorcycles, Azevedo got lost as he tried to follow them and arrived at the Vagos house after the shooting.
In her analysis of the facts, Hancock restated those points and said, "(YCSO Det. David) Zavos again and again characterized the event at the Circle K as the starting point for the entire shooting."
In his argument to Hancock last month, Gaxiola said the fact that Azevedo was working for GIITEM, the statewide Gang Intelligence Information Team Enforcement Mission task force, that he was paid to inform, and that he had tried to join the Hell's Angels but was turned away, all should have been disclosed to the two grand juries that indicted the men as well as to the defense.
Hancock had to decide who knew what and when they knew it.
Yavapai County Sheriff's Sgt. Don Raiss' supplemental report, filed Aug. 31, 2010, includes a section in which he recounts having interviewed Azevedo after the shootout. That report makes no mention of Azevedo being a CI, and Hancock wrote, "It is unknown whether Sergeant Raiss was aware Azevedo was an informant."
Hancock said that DPS Detective John Morris certainly knew he was, pointing out that Morris was assigned to GIITEM at the time. She said Azevedo "was working directly with Morris as a paid informant" and that he had worked with Morris on a case in Mohave County.
Zavos knew Azevedo's status sometime prior to the second grand jury presentation, in December 2010, Hancock noted.
The case was originally being prosecuted by Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Steve Young before fellow prosecutor Dana Owens took it over.
Morris gave Owens a report that included the information one week before an evidentiary hearing in February 2011, but she did not pass it along to the defense, which was preparing to argue for a remand to the grand jury.
"At the very least," Hancock wrote, "this information should have been disclosed upon receipt of the report on Feb. 14, 2011."
"I didn't place the significance on it that (the defense attorneys) do," Owens told Hancock.
Owens said Azevedo was not "the flashpoint. He did not see who fired the first shot. What he has to say is not material."
But Hancock disagreed, because he had first tried to join the Hell's Angels, "which gives rise to possible issues of bias and veracity."
She decided that the prosecution knew "that Azevedo was a paid informant in this case and the lack of disclosure deprived the first and second grand juries, the defense, and the court of information necessary to a full and fair hearing."
O'Haver argued for dismissal with prejudice, so the charges could not be re-filed. He claimed Owens had intentionally kept the information under wraps, which was, in his words, "a crime."
Owens said, "To say I deliberately withheld it, that I had some strategic plan is wrong. I'm not the lawyer these men are. I'm not that crafty."
Hancock decided that Owens didn't know Azevedo was a CI until February 2011, and that she had not acted "in bad faith," although she was "negligent" in not disclosing it before the last February hearing.
Hancock dismissed the charges without prejudice. The county attorney's office has indicated it will re-file the charges.
All seven defendants have been free on bond since shortly after the incident.