The leader of the Sonoma chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was ordered released from jail on $1 million bail this week by a federal judge overseeing a RICO prosecution involving multiple club members. The decision is being appealed.
Jonathan “Jon Jon” Nelson is accused along with several other Hells Angels in the most sinister of a series of charges made in a wide-ranging federal complaint from 2017. As the Mercury News reported in July, Nelson is believed to have signed off on and arranged the 2014 murder of fellow club member Joel Silva, a sergeant-at-arms in the gang who had fallen out of favor with the leadership due to an alleged drug problem. According to federal prosecutors, Silva was snuffed out at the Fresno clubhouse of the Hells Angels after being driven there by Sonoma chapter member and former president Russell Ott.
According to investigators, Silva was shot in the head on July 15, 2014 by Brian Wendt, the president of the Fresno chapter, over a grievance involving a death threat against another chapter president from Boston. Silva's body has never been found, and at trial federal prosecutors say they will establish that his remains were illegally cremated at a nearby crematorium in Fresno.
Nelson's defense attorneys have argued that, far from being a hardened criminal and the mastermind of this plot, he's a well respected member of the community in Sonoma and a "father, son, coach, and small business owner." As the Mercury News reports today, U.S. Magistrate Judge Virginia K. DeMarchi approved his release on $1 million bond, and now he remains in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin as the U.S. Attorney’s office appeals the ruling.
Nelson, 44, was one of 11 Hells Angels members named in the three-year-old federal indictment, which also included charges of bank fraud, money laundering, home invasion robbery, and illegal possession of weapons and drugs. As SF Weekly reported when the charges came down, Windsor resident Russell Allen Lyles, 39, was briefly considered a fugitive — but he was eventually arrested and was listed with legal representation in prosecution documents in April of last year.
Nelson previously spent a number of months out of jail following the November 2017 indictment, and was arrested again in September 2018 when the feds suggested they would be pursuing the death penalty in the Silva murder. Prosecutors have since decided not to pursue the death penalty, at which point Nelson's lawyers moved to have him released.
"I believe one important fact in Mr. Nelson’s favor was his previous good performance while released in this case for over nine months on the previous indictment," said attorney Jai Gohel, speaking to the Mercury News. "Also, it is clear that the fact that Mr. Nelson no longer faces the death penalty was enough to tip the balance towards his release."
Nine of the 11 men indicted face conspiracy charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. And as the Mercury News noted in July, RICO prosecutions rarely fail, but "the Hells Angels have had extraordinary success fending them off." Most notably, members of the Oakland chapter — considered the "mother chapter" of the motorcycle club — were charged with multiple serious offenses in the 1970s and 80s, only to have many the charges ultimately dropped.
In one noted case, an incarcerated club member offered to lead authorities to a Hells Angels burial ground in Ukiah in 1972, which led to the discovery of three bodies and the conviction of Richmond chapter president "Rotten" Richard Allen Barker for first-degree murder.
This Wikipedia page is a catalog of the many criminal charges and convictions against Hells Angels members around the globe.
Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images