Two juries hearing case in Riverbank slaying

rahumada@modbee.comSeptember 3, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    Rosalio Ahumada
    Title: Courts reporter
    Coverage areas: Criminal cases, breaking news
    Bio: Rosalio Ahumada has been a reporter at The Bee for more than seven years, previously covering crime and public safety issues. He also has worked at the Merced Sun-Star, covering education.
    Recent stories written by Rosalio
    On Twitter: @ModBeeCourts
    E-mail: rahumada@modbee.com

Chaz Bettencourt was shot twice in his chest and staggered for about 20 yards before he collapsed. One of the bullets ripped through his heart and lungs, a prosecutor told a jury Tuesday.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan said defendants Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall are responsible for Bettencourt's death. Defense attorneys told the jurors that others are to blame for the shooting.

The 21-year-old man was gunned down at close range about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, outside the am-pm minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads in Riverbank. Authorities have said the defendants tried to carjack Bettencourt's friend, David Gomez, at the convenience store.

The defendants' trial began Tuesday with opening statements. Two juries will participate in the trial. One jury will decide Pantoja's fate, while the other decides what happens to Phyall and Diaz.

The prosecutor told jurors that once they hear all the testimony, "you're going to know all three defendants are guilty as charged."

Robert Winston, Pantoja's defense attorney, said store security camera footage shows his client at the shooting scene, but that's it. He argued that the video shows Diaz holding a gun to Gomez's face and Phyall trying to stop Gomez from escaping into the convenience store.

"It's chilling, let me be very clear what's happening," Winston said about the video footage.

Gomez had parked his Honda at the am-pm minimarket. He and Bettencourt had gone to the store for soft drinks. Three suspects confronted them when they walked out of the store.

Brennan told the jury that Diaz held the gun under Gomez's chin, telling him to hand over the car keys. The prosecutor said Diaz told Gomez, "This is real" as he held him at gunpoint.

Gomez, who had been to the minimarket before, thought he was going to die and moved into the view of the security cameras "so the cameras would catch his killing," the prosecutor argued.

Then, Gomez ran for the store's front doors, but Brennan said Phyall tried to stop him. A struggle ensued, according to the prosecutor, before Gomez escaped into the store. Gomez screamed at the store clerk to call 911, then he heard two gunshots.

Pantoja, Diaz and Phyall are accused of murder and attempted carjacking. Prosecutors have added enhancements, claiming the crimes were committed for the benefit of the Norteño street gang. If convicted, the enhancements could increase punishment.

Pair found at gang house

Brennan told jurors that Pantoja and Diaz were gang members and arrested at a Norteño gang house in Redding about a month after the shooting. The prosecutor said Phyall was an associate of the Norteño gang.

Diaz and Phyall were minors when the shooting occurred but are being prosecuted as adults. Diaz was 14, Phyall was 15 and Pantoja was 18.

Frank Carson, Phyall's attorney, told the jury that what happened the night Bettencourt was shot wasn't planned. He said the prosecutor's conclusions are "not gospel."

"It's important for you to wait until you hear both sides," Carson told the jurors.

The defense attorney argued that Gomez pushed past Phyall, who was standing there. He said the video doesn't show Phyall trying to chase down Gomez.

Carson said Phyall and Diaz were not involved in gangs and that Phyall didn't have any gang tattoos, didn't wear gang clothing and had never vandalized anything with gang graffiti. Phyall met Diaz a few months before the shooting, he said, because they played basketball at the same park.

The defense attorney called into question the testimony of the surviving witness, Gomez. Carson said Gomez's statements have evolved and he is probably consumed with guilt for not giving up the car keys.

Carson insinuated that Gomez wasn't willing to give up his car. During the 2011 preliminary hearing, Carson speculated that drug paraphernalia, including baggies and weight scales was found in the trunk of Gomez's car, an indication drugs sales were a motivating factor in the shooting.

Martin Baker, Diaz's attorney, kept his opening statement very short in comparison to the other attorneys. He said there are three young men who are responsible for Bettencourt's death, and the defendants are neither of them.

He didn't tell the jurors anything else Tuesday.

Baker is expected to introduce at trial Phyall's statements to authorities, which indicate Pantoja and Diaz drank Four Loko, a mixture of alcohol and energy stimulants in a can.

In a pretrial hearing last month, Baker said he will call an expert to the witness stand who will testify that the Four Loko drinks could have resulted in "increased impulsivity" in Diaz on the night of the shooting.

The trial, which is expected to last about a month, will continue today with testimony. The defendants remain in custody.

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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