Hells Angels member who used illegal cremations to make 4 murder victims disappear is sentenced

Merl Heferman sentencing

Merl Hefferman, a Hells Angels Motorcycle Club member seen here promoting the organization’s 2018 toy run in Fresno, California, admitted to organizing the illegal cremation of four murder victims to get rid of their bodies, federal prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. (KMPH)

A Hells Angels member who arranged to have the bodies of four murder victims incinerated at a crematory facility in California will spend the next four years behind bars, federal prosecutors said.

Merl Hefferman, 54, had previously pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced by a judge on Friday. Prosecutors say three Hells Angels members — Brian Wendt, Jonathan Nelson and Russell Ott — murdered former member Joel Silva in July 2014 at the Fresno Hells Angels clubhouse.

Hefferman was one of 11 Hells Angels members named in a 2018 superseding indictment alleging racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. Jeremy Greer, 43, was sentenced on Friday to seven years in prison for committing multiple assaults, armed robbery, home invasion robbery and witness intimidation, according to prosecutors.

The sentencings bring the total number of sentenced defendants to five, out of 10 convictions — five by jury verdicts in two separate trials and five by guilty pleas. Along with Silva’s murder, the defendants were convicted of narcotics distribution, assault, robbery, extortion, illegal firearms possession, obstruction of justice and witness intimidation.

“Hefferman used his connection at a funeral home to order the illegal cremation of a member of his own gang as part of the Hells Angels’ efforts to cover up a murder. For eight years, the victim’s family grieved without a body to mourn or certainty about what had happened to their loved one,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert K. Tripp said in a statement. “Hefferman, Greer, and other members of their criminal enterprise attempted to use fear and intimidation to get away with their crimes. I commend the witnesses for their courage. Without them, these men may not have pleaded guilty. Now, they have been brought to justice.”

As Law&Crime previously reported, Levi Phipps, crematory manager at the Yost & Webb Funeral Home in Fresno, testified at the trial of Hefferman’s co-defendants that the day after Silva was murdered, Hefferman called him to say he “better be” at the crematory. Later that day, two men, one of whom Phipps identified as Hefferman’s stepson, came to the crematory, threatened him with a gun and loaded Silva’s body into the incinerator, prosecutors wrote.

The next day, Hefferman called Phipps to tell him to keep quiet about the illegal cremation. Cellphone records corroborated Phipps’ story, according to prosecutors.

A jury last year found Wendt, Nelson and Ott guilty of Silva’s murder. They are awaiting sentencing.

Phipps testified that three other cremations were carried out in a similar fashion. Several months after Silva’s murder, Hefferman facilitated another cremation, this one later identified as Robbie Huff, a former Hells Angels member who went missing on Feb. 11, 2015. Prosecutors say Huff was involved in Silva’s murder and coverup.

Cellphone records show Hefferman contacted Phipps several times the day Huff went missing. This time Hefferman “personally delivered” the body to the crematory to have the body incinerated, prosecutors allege.

The third body to be incinerated was Art Carasis, who was last seen at the Fresno Hells Angels clubhouse on July 7, 2016. Finally, a fourth body was cremated, but this body has yet to be publicly identified. Phipps testified two men arrived at the facility and unloaded a body wrapped in plastic and duct tape. All four bodies that were incinerated are believed to have been murdered, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors allege one of the most “chilling” aspects of Silva’s murder was he was planning his daughter’s 15th birthday party when he was killed at the Fresno Hells Angels clubhouse.

Silva’s mother wrote in an impact statement that her son’s death has “impacted us to the point of sleepless nights, nightmares and a huge financial loss for myself and daughter-in-law Stacy Silva.”

“Not knowing where our son was for years was difficult and extremely emotional,” his mother wrote.

Hefferman’s attorney James Bustamante wrote in a sentencing memo that his client had a “tumultuous and violent upbringing” and was thrown out of a second-story window and then down two flights of stairs when he was 6 months old. His mother became romantically involved with his father’s best friend who threw the father out of a car and ran over his legs. Bustamante also alleged that Hefferman’s stepfather was abusive to him and his mother.

“When Mr. Hefferman was seven years old, he came home from school to find his stepfather dragging his mother around the house by her hair. His stepfather then pulled out a gun and shot at Mr. Hefferman four times,” Bustamante wrote. “As a result of this incident, Mr. Hefferman packed up his belongings, including a sleeping bag, and left home.”

Bustamante also wrote that Hefferman has complied with all the court’s requirements since his 2018 arrest. They had asked Hefferman to be sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Prosecutors had asked for 7 years.

Several friends wrote character letters to the judge about Hefferman’s charitable work in the Fresno community including bicycle and toy giveaways.

In December 2016, just months after he allegedly had Carasis’ body illegally cremated, Hefferman went on local Fox affiliate KMPH to promote the 18th annual Fresno Hells Angels Toy Run. He described all the support as “awesome.”

“The need is so great for these kids,” he said.

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