Details emerge as son, suspected of killing parents, appears in court

rahumada@modbee.comAugust 20, 2013 

— Brandon Pettit appeared in court Tuesday afternoon for the first time since he was arrested on suspicion of murder in the death of his parents, who were found inside their burned north Modesto home.

Pettit’s sister, Lauren, sat in the courtroom during her brother’s arraignment hearing. She had her head bowed, her face in her hands, as the judge recited the charges against her brother.

Prosecutors allege that Pettit and his co-defendant, Felix Valverde, committed the murders of Scott and Janet Pettit for financial gain, according to a criminal complaint filed in court Tuesday. The document doesn’t provide any further details about the alleged financial motive. (Read criminal complaint.)

The criminal complaint also indicates the Pettits were shot in their home.

Pettit, 25, of Modesto, and Valverde, 26, of Oakdale, could face the death penalty if convicted as charged. Special circumstance allegations of committing the crimes for financial gain while committing arson make the case eligible for the death penalty.

But the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office has not decided whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

Two women attended the hearing with Pettit’s sister and tried to console her. She declined to comment after the arraignment.

Some of Valverde’s family attended the hearing, including his father, Felix Valverde Sr. He said his son had never before been in trouble with the law, and he didn’t know Pettit was friends with his son.

“We don’t even know what’s going on,” Valverde’s father said outside the courtroom. “I didn’t know who my son’s friends were."

A police spokesman has said the defendants were friends, but declined to elaborate.

Valverde’s grandmother, Eva Valverde, wept as she walked out of the courtroom, telling reporters that she was shocked and that her grandson was a hard worker.

Both men never before have faced more serious charges than traffic violations in Stanislaus County. Court records indicate Pettit has been cited for speeding and driving without a valid license, and Valverde has been cited for driving without headlights and speeding.

The defendants did not enter a plea Tuesday.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Dawna Reeves postponed the arraignment until Sept. 4 so defense attorneys have time to review the charges and evidence provided by prosecutors.

Scott and Janet Pettit were found by firefighters battling a blaze in the bedroom of their home in the early morning hours of Aug. 8. Police announced the following day that the well-known couple were murdered, and investigators arrested Pettit and Valverde eight days later.

Pettit and Valverde are each charged with two counts of premeditated murder, along with one count of arson and first-degree burglary.

It’s unclear who was in the home when the Pettits were killed and the fire started. Only Valverde has been charged with an enhancement, alleging he used a gun in the Pettits’ deaths.

Modesto police have said Brandon Pettit was at work when the fire started at his parents’ home, but there is evidence of both men conspiring to commit the crimes. Authorities have not said what role the defendants had in the homicide or fire.

Investigators have said they believe the fire at the Divan Court home was started to cover up the murders. They also have confirmed the victims were dead before the fire started.

Janet Pettit was a neonatal nurse practitioner and clinical nurse at Doctors Medical Center. She also worked as assistant nurse manager in maternal and child health at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center.

Scott Pettit taught martial arts to hundreds of children and adults. He owned Riverbank Black Belt Academy on Santa Fe Street for nearly 10 years and previously had other locations throughout the county. He was Riverbank’s citizen of the year in 2007.

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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