Trial for Riverbank convenience store murder delayed

rahumada@modbee.comJuly 25, 2013 

It's not likely a trial will start as scheduled next month for three defendants accused of murder in the shooting of a 21-year-old man killed during what police called a botched carjacking at a Riverbank convenience store three years ago.

And it's unclear when the trial will start for defendants Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall, who have been charged with murder and attempted carjacking in the death of Chaz Bettencourt of Riverbank.

Bettencourt was gunned down "at close range" about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, outside the am-pm minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads. The prosecutor has said in court that Diaz fired the gun as Pantoja and Phyall stood nearby.

The trial was scheduled to start with jury selection Aug. 5, but Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen said Thursday it's clear to him that a pool of potential jurors won't be needed that day.

Frank Carson, Phyall's defense attorney, is in the middle of a trial in Merced County, which makes the Aug. 5 start unlikely for the Stanislaus County murder trial.

The judge, however, said he would rather not cancel the trial and have to once again reschedule the trial, which could delay it for several months. Before deciding what to do with the case, the judge said he wants to hear from Carson himself, who did not appear in court for Thursday's pretrial hearing because he was in court in Merced County.

One option, the judge said, was to delay the trial's start a few days.

"My goal is to start the trial as soon as (Carson is) ready," Judge Steffen told the other attorneys.

The judge scheduled the defendants and the attorneys to return to court Aug. 5 to determine when the trial will start.

The two other defense attorneys, Martin Baker and Robert Winston, appeared ready to proceed with the trial next month.

Diaz and Phyall, both from Turlock, were minors when the shooting occurred but are being prosecuted as adults. They are being held at Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall. Pantoja, 21, of Riverbank, is being held at the Stanislaus County Jail.

Gang enhancements have been added to the defendants' charges, which can lengthen prison sentences. They are added when authorities believe a crime was committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.

If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 75 years to life in prison.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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