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Three Hells Angels sentenced to life in case that centered on murder, betrayals and deeply-guarded secrets

SAN FRANCISCO — Three prominent members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club have been sentenced to life in prison in a case full of murder, mayhem, clandestine cremations and secret government informants.

Santa Rosa residents Jonathan “Jon Jon” Nelson, 46, and Russell “Rusty” Ott, 70, along with Brian Wendt, 45, of Tulare, were all given life sentences for their roles in the murder of Joel Silva, a Hells Angels sergeant-at-arms who disappeared 10 years ago. Prosecutors contend Silva was lured to Fresno, shot in the back of the head by Wendt and illegally cremated at a nearby funeral home.

The three men were convicted in 2022 in a trial that rested on the word of two former Hells Angels who left after receiving beatings that have become emblematic of the biker gang. Other key government witnesses included former associates and members of subsidiary biker clubs, as well as the Fresno funeral home director who claimed he was intimidated into burning multiple bodies of murder victims at the behest of a Fresno Hells Angel.

Nelson, the former president of the club’s Sonoma chapter, was convicted of helping lead the plot to kill Silva, whose increasingly erratic behavior and drug use was becoming a source of concern among the club. The tipping point came when Silva threatened a friend of Salem/Boston chapter president Christopher “Rain Man” Ranieri, who was convicted of his role in the murder plot in a separate trial last year.

Wendt — a Fresno Hells Angel who has a “Filthy Few” tattoo that prosecutors claim is a symbol of murder — shot Silva inside the Fresno clubhouse under the guise of showing him some marijuana, according to prosecution witnesses. He allegedly later called it “one of my better kills.” Before Wendt was sentenced, a friend of his named James Arce wrote a letter to the court describing him as a warm and generous man, full of empathy for others.

“Brian’s caring nature has created a positive ripple effect in my life, and I am immensely grateful for his presence. In both good times and bad, Brian stands as a pillar of reliability and warmth,” Arce’s letter says. “His friendship is a treasure, and I feel fortunate to have him by my side.”

Ott was convicted of helping lure Silva to his death, since he was one of the only men Silva trusted at that point. His defense, in a nutshell, was that he was too drunk to have been involved in a murder conspiracy.

Last year, a Fresno chapter member named Merl Hefferman was sentenced to four years in prison for cremating Silva’s body. Prosecutors contended that he was in charge of disposing of murder victims’ bodies for the Hells Angels and was responsible for extorting the funeral home director. They blamed him for three other clandestine cremations of missing persons: Robbie Huff, Arthur Carasis and Juan Guevara, who were all fellow club members. Hefferman denied he’d taken part in more than one.

Ranieri, along with Raymond “Ray Ray” Foakes, are still awaiting sentencing. Foakes was convicted of racketeering and mayhem for beating a former member who later testified for prosecutors, but was not involved in the plot to kill Silva.

The U.S. Attorney’s office announced the sentences in a news release Friday.

“The record in this case describes a brutal brotherhood whose deeds should shock the conscience of us all,” said U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey in a written statement. “While the life sentences cannot reverse the harm done to the defendants’ victims, it should bring some comfort to our communities to know these three defendants will never again have the ability to continue their destructive activities on our streets.”

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Three Hells Angels sentenced to life in case that centered on murder, betrayals and deeply-guarded secrets