BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — SALEM — Frustrated Essex County prosecutors were forced yesterday to drop all charges against a group of reputed Hells Angels members set to stand trial on charges of kidnapping and extortion.
That’s because prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s office refused to obey a judge’s order to turn over evidence they were holding in the case.
Instead of complying with the Salem Superior Court judge’s order to provide reports of interviews of witnesses in the case, the U.S. Attorney’s office on Friday filed its own charges — a decision that stunned both local prosecutors and the lawyers for the four defendants scheduled to stand trial yesterday.
Federal prosecutors had decided in May that they did not have sufficient evidence to pursue federal charges, a decision revealed last week in court by the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation.
But when Essex County prosecutors pursued the case, that appears to have given federal prosecutors some leverage in convincing one of the defendants to cooperate in an ongoing federal investigation, lawyers for the defense suggested.
Opening statements in the case had been set to get underway yesterday morning, following two weeks of jury selection and other pretrial matters, all of which took place under daily, heavy security.
Instead, prosecutors filed a motion to cease prosecution of the case, and the jury, which took nearly two weeks to select, was sent home.
Sean “Big Sean” Barr, 48, of Lynn; Robert A. Defronzo, 45, of Saugus; Marc Eliason, 36, a former Danvers man now living in Lynn; and Brian Weymouth, 41, of Danvers, who is said to be a member of an affiliated group called the Red Devils, were whisked to the federal courthouse in Boston, where they and a fifth man, George Brown, 49, of Salem, an alleged Red Devil, made an initial appearance on charges of racketeering, court records show.
“They should have been here,” said Judge David Lowy, who expressed concern that the defendants were not present for a significant proceeding in their case.
A.J. Camelio, the assistant district attorney handling the case, told the judge that his office had no say in the decision by federal prosecutors, and said he was “frustrated” with that decision.
“After much preparation and effort, the Commonwealth was ready to try this case today to a verdict,” Camelio wrote in a filing with the court.
The U.S. Attorney’s decision “has resulted in the waste of countless man-hours and tens of thousands of dollars by the court, by the defense counsel, by the citizens of Essex County who were called for jury duty in this case, by the Salem Police Department, by the State Police officers who have worked this case for months, and by the District Attorney’s office.”
Behind Camelio in the courtroom were several top Essex prosecutors, including first assistant district attorney Jack Dawley.
And while Essex prosecutors were upset by the 11th-hour decision by the feds, so were the lawyers for the four men, who have been held without bail since their arrests last spring.
“The Essex District Attorney’s office got tooled,” said Defronzo’s attorney, Mark Miliotis, who suggested that federal prosecutors had “manipulated” their state counterparts to gain an advantage in what they hoped to turn into a larger case.
In his statement filed with the court, Camelio said federal prosecutors were “fully aware” that their failure to provide the FBI reports would prevent state prosecutors from trying their case, which besides kidnapping and extortion also included charges of mayhem, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and larceny of a motor vehicle.
The judge had given prosecutors until Friday afternoon to release the reports.
The reports, known as “302s,” include statements by Brown, who had struck a deal with prosecutors to testify in the state court case and who was also cooperating with federal prosecutors, as well as another witness. Under the Massachusetts rules of evidence, attorneys for the co-defendants were legally entitled to be provided with that information.
A message left for a U.S. Attorney’s office spokeswoman was not returned by yesterday’s Salem News deadline.
Michael Phelan, the lawyer representing Barr, said his client was disappointed that the trial was canceled. “He has been adamant since day one that he is not guilty,” said Phelan. “Just because he’s a member of the Hells Angels doesn’t mean he did something.”
Now, the attorneys said, their clients may end up spending additional time in custody as a new, federal, case works its way to trial.
The defendants were charged earlier this year with luring a former member of the Red Devils, an affiliated biker club, to a “clubhouse” on Fruit Street in the Byfield section of Newbury, where they beat him, knocked him unconscious, and smashed his hand with a ball-peen hammer.
The alleged victim, who is from Revere, was “put out bad” from the Red Devils for failing to beat up a former Hells Angel.
The alleged victim testified earlier this year at a hearing that he was also forced to quit his construction job, then summoned to a meeting with Nikolas Avelis, 54, of Gloucester, the president of the local Red Devils chapter, and Brown, the man who has since agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. (Avelis pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault and battery two weeks ago and is on two years of probation).
The alleged victim said Avelis and Brown directed him to the Byfield clubhouse because there had been rumors of him badmouthing the Hells Angels. The man went, saying he wanted to clear his name, and was confronted by Barr, Eliason, Weymouth and Defronzo, he said. During that meeting, the man said, he was knocked unconscious and robbed of the keys to his motorcycle, then was given a choice of whether to have his hand or knee smashed.
The man opted for his hand, he testified in March, still wearing a plaster cast that covered most of his hand and forearm.
Months later, Eliason was caught on a hidden camera worn by the victim, taking the title to the victim’s motorcycle.
The case drew heavy security to the courthouse during each proceeding. Salem police had both uniformed and plainclothes officers at the courthouse each day during jury selection.
Chief Paul Tucker said he hasn’t calculated the total cost to the department.
“My feeling was security had to be paramount in a trial of this nature,” said Tucker. “It’s our city.”
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.