Defendant testifies in Riverbank murder trial

10/09/2013 6:54 PM

10/09/2013 10:54 PM

A defendant accused of murder testified Wednesday that he thought he was going to a party on the night authorities say he and two other teens were involved in a fatal shooting during a botched carjacking in Riverbank.

Jah-Kari Phyall said on the witness stand that he and his co-defendants never discussed committing any crimes while riding a bus from Turlock to Riverbank in August 2010.

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

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.

Phyall testified that he had met Diaz a few months before the shooting. Diaz lived across the street from Columbia Park, where he and Phyall played basketball together. Phyall said he later met Pantoja through Diaz, and they hung out from time to time, playing basketball at the park or smoking marijuana together.

On the afternoon before the shooting, Phyall was on his way with another friend to Modesto. He ran into Diaz and Pantoja at the bus stop, and he said they told him about a party in Riverbank. During the bus ride, Phyall decided to join Diaz and Pantoja on their trip to Riverbank, while his other friend declined.

Before getting on the bus, Phyall said he had smoked a hollowed-out small cigar filled with marijuana called a “blunt.” He said he smoked another blunt with Diaz and Pantoja after they arrived in Riverbank. He said Diaz and Pantoja drank alcoholic energy drinks that night, and that he didn’t drink any alcohol.

Shortly after arriving in Riverbank, the trio encountered a vendor pushing an ice cream cart. He said that’s when Pantoja told Diaz, “Watch this.”

Phyall said Pantoja pulled a gun from his waistband and “pointed it at the ice cream man and told him to give him the money.” Phyall testified that he didn’t know Pantoja had a gun, which had been tucked away with his shirt over it.

Pantoja then reached into the vendor’s pocket and pulled out the cash before riding away on his bicycle, Phyall testified. The robbery occurred a few blocks from Pantoja’s mother’s home.

Phyall testified that he and Diaz did not participate in the robbery of the vendor. He said the vendor didn’t do anything during or after the robbery.

“He just looked stunned,” Phyall said about the vendor. “He just stood there.”

Phyall said in court that there was no discussion about robbing the vendor before they saw him or what to do after the robbery. He said he and Diaz continued walking to Pantoja’s mother’s home.

Pantoja stole about $70 or $80 from the ice cream vendor, according to Phyall, but he didn’t share any of it with the two other teens.

David Gomez has testified that he was with Bettencourt later that night at the convenience store when Diaz held him at gunpoint and demanded his car keys. Gomez said he got away from Diaz and was momentarily stalled by Phyall, who tried to stop him from escaping before Gomez made it back into the store.

Moments later, Gomez said, he heard shots coming from the parking lot. Gomez testified that he found Bettencourt injured on the ground and the defendants gone.

Phyall’s testimony began Wednesday afternoon and is expected to continue today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

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