Expert testifies about alcoholic energy drinks in Riverbank murder trial

10/07/2013 6:56 PM

10/07/2013 9:51 PM

Testimony on Monday focused on alcoholic energy drinks in a trial for three defendants accused of murder in the death of a man gunned down during a botched carjacking in Riverbank.

A defense expert told the jury that such alcoholic mixtures “disguise” intoxication symptoms but produce the same kind of mental impairment involved with binge drinking. A defense attorney has argued that his client’s consumption of the alcohol and energy stimulants resulted in “increased impulsivity” on the night of the shooting.

Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall are charged with murder and attempted carjacking in the death of 21-year-old Chaz Bettencourt. He was shot about 12:40a.m. Aug.5, 2010, outside the AM-PM minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads in Riverbank.

Testimony in the trial has indicated that Diaz held Bettencourt’s friend at gunpoint and demanded the keys to the car before shots were fired. The prosecutor has told jurors that Diaz shot Bettencourt twice in his chest with a .22 caliber handgun.

Cecile Marczinski is an associate professor at Northern Kentucky University with expertise in psychopharmacology, studying the effects of commonly used psychoactive drugs on the brain, including alcohol and caffeine. She’s done extensive research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, on the effects of alcohol and energy drinks.

Martin Baker, Diaz’s attorney, called Marczinski to the witness stand Monday. The defense attorney says his client consumed Four Loko, a mixture of alcohol and energy stimulants in a can, before the encounter with Bettencourt.

Marczinski reviewed details about the case, security camera footage collected by investigators, probation reports and a transcript of Phyall speaking to authorities while in custody at Juvenile Hall.

Diaz and Pantoja each drank about three 23.5-ounce cans of Four Loko in a span of four hours before the shooting. The professor said each can has 12 percent alcohol and the equivalent of 4.7 cans of a standard beer.

To demonstrate the quantity Diaz drank on the night of the shooting, Marczinski placed three empty cans of Four Loko on the ledge in front of the jury. Then she placed 14 empty cans of Budweiser and three cups Starbucks coffee, the equivalent of the alcohol and caffeine mixture Diaz drank that night in 2010.

Marczinski testified with one empty can of Four Loko on the witness stand next to her. The can has been stored as evidence for three years and is believed to be one of the cans of Four Loko the defendants drank that night and tossed at a nearby Riverbank school.

The professor pointed to the empty can and said, “You would need to consume this over four hours for it to be safe.”

Four Loko in the form it was produced in August 2010 no longer can be found on store shelves anywhere in this country. A representative for the makers of Four Loko says the company has voluntarily removed the caffeine, guarana, and taurine from its products.

Marczinski testified that the energy stimulants were removed from Four Loko to comply with a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration. Had the company not complied, federal officials would have seized its inventory of Four Loko.

Phusion Projects, which makes Four Loko, says it reformulated Four Loko before they received the FDA’s letter.

Marczinski’s testimony also revealed details about Phyall’s statements to authorities. She said it appeared that Pantoja was in charge when the three defendants arrived in Riverbank on a bus from Turlock several hours before the shooting.

Phyall told authorities that Pantoja initially had the gun that day and robbed a wallet from an ice cream vendor at gunpoint while Phyall and Diaz watched, according to the professor. She said it did not appear Phyall and Diaz were involved in the robbery.

Marczinski testified that it was Pantoja’s stepfather who bought the first four cans of Four Loko for the three teenagers, and that the defendants later got two more cans from a Riverbank market with the help of another adult. Phyall did not drink Four Loko that night.

The professor told the jury that Pantoja tried to enlist Diaz’s help in robbing two elderly women later that day, but that Diaz declined and the robbery didn’t happen. She said it was Diaz who later demonstrated curiosity about the gun, and that Pantoja handed him the gun to hold.

Judge Scott Steffen has decided that Marczinski’s testimony might prevent Pantoja from receiving a fair trial, so he ruled that a separate jury will decide Pantoja’s fate. Those jurors were not in the courtroom Monday.

Marczinski is expected to testify under cross-examination today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

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