A judge ruled Thursday that three teenagers will stand trial on murder charges in the shooting death of a 21-year-old man killed in August during an apparent attempted carjacking outside a Riverbank convenience store.
Defendants Daniel Pantoja, Jah-Kari Phyall and Turlock Diaz have been charged with murder and attempted carjacking in the death of Chaz Bettencourt of Riverbank. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Attorneys on both sides gave their closing arguments Thursday morning in the preliminary hearing, which lasted seven days.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan argued that Bettencourt was gunned down "at close range" about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5 outside the am-pm minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads. The prosecutor believes Diaz fired the gun as Pantoja and Phyall stood nearby.
Brennan argued the defendants can be seen in a store surveillance video confronting Bettencourt and his friend, David Gomez, in the parking lot.
"These are three defendants on the prowl," Brennan argued. "And what ends up happening: an attempted carjacking."
Gomez testified the defendants approached him as he walked to his parked Honda Accord, Diaz pointed a gun to his head and asked for the car keys. He said he walked away and struggled briefly with Phyall before going back into the store to call 911.
Brennan played a surveillance video of the shooting scene in court. It shows Diaz holding a gun to Gomez's head. The actual shooting is not visible, but Bettencourt can be seen after he was shot. He "runs a short distance, collapses and dies," Brennan said.
Robert Winston, Pantoja's defense attorney, said the defendants were at the crime scene, but there is no evidence they committed the shooting.
"Other than that, there really isn't anything," Winston argued.
The defendants are seen in the surveillance video before the shooting, Winston argued, but that doesn't mean they had sinister intentions, and it's "far too speculative."
A witness told investigators she saw three suspects running from the area, but she didn't identify the defendants. The suspects she saw, however, had clothing similar to what the defendants were wearing in the video.
The defendants also have gang enhancements added to their charges, which can lengthen prison sentences. They are added when authorities believe a crime was committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang.
Froilan Mariscal, a gang expert from the district attorney's office, testified Diaz and Pantoja are Nor- teño gang members, and Phyall is associated with the gang.
Martin Baker, Diaz's defense attorney, argued Mari- scal's methodology to determine whether someone is a gang member is "flawed," since it's based on clothing, tattoos and associations.
Frank Carson, Phyall's defense attorney, argued it's clear his client is not affiliated with the Norteños and only found himself running with the wrong people.
"What you have here is a young man hanging around maybe with a couple of idiots," Carson argued.
The three defense attorneys asked Judge Scott Steffen to remove the gang enhancements, a motion he denied.
During his closing argument, Carson pointed to drug paraphernalia, including baggies and weight scales, found in the trunk of Gomez's car as an indication that drug sales were a motivating factor in the shooting.
Carson speculated that Gomez hid the drug paraphernalia in the car's trunk after the shooting. He raised questions about why Gomez and Bettencourt decided to go to the convenience store to get soft drinks so late at night.
"What (Gomez) was really worried about was losing those drugs," Carson argued. "If you look at the video, (Gomez and Bettencourt) are on a business trip."
Authorities did not find any drugs inside the car, and Gomez testified he remained at Bettencourt's side.
After hearing the arguments, Steffen ruled there was enough evidence to proceed to a jury trial. He scheduled the defendants to return to court June 23 for an arraignment.
Diaz and Phyall, both of Turlock, are minors but are being charged as adults. They are being held at Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall.
Pantoja, 19, of Riverbank, is being held at the Stanislaus County Jail.
Bail for Pantoja and Diaz has been set at $4 million. Phyall's was set at $1 million.
If convicted, the teens each face 75 years to life in prison.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.