A defendant in a murder trial on Thursday described for jurors the moment he saw a co-defendant shoot a man at close range during a botched carjacking outside a Riverbank convenience store.
Jah-Kari 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 12:40 a.m. Aug.5, 2010, outside the AM-PM minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads in Riverbank.
Phyall testified that Diaz was holding Bettencourt at gunpoint, and that Bettencourt took money from his pocket and tossed the cash at Diaz’s face. “Then, I saw Diaz shoot Bettencourt,” Phyall said.
Diaz then picked up Bettencourt’s cash before all three defendants ran away, Phyall said, but he didn’t receive a share of the stolen cash.
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.
Several hours before the shooting, the defendants rode a bus from Turlock and arrived in Riverbank. Phyall testified that they got off the bus and that Pantoja said, “Watch this, I’m about to get the ice cream man.” Phyall said Pantoja held the ice cream vendor at gunpoint and took his cash.
During cross-examination, Phyall said he stayed with Pantoja and Diaz, even though he didn’t condone robbing the ice cream vendor. He said “I can’t control what other people do or decide to do.”
Later that night, Phyall said, Pantoja asked him and Diaz to help him rob two elderly women. Phyall said he and Diaz declined, telling Pantoja that it was a stupid idea.
The prosecutor asked Phyall why he didn’t also tell Pantoja it was a bad idea to rob the ice cream vendor several hours earlier. Phyall answered that it was a different situation with women, and “I didn’t want to watch women get robbed.”
The three teens didn’t plan or have any discussions about robbing or carjacking someone as they walked up to the AM-PM store, according to Phyall. He said they were supposed to buy cigars at the store. They were going to hollow out the cigars and fill them with marijuana to smoke.
At that point, Phyall said Pantoja had handed the gun to Diaz, who was curious about the firearm. Phyall told the jurors that Diaz had the gun tucked away in his waistband with his shirt over it when they arrived at the store.
Bettencourt and his friend, David Gomez, went to the store to get some drinks. Security camera footage shows them arriving at the store and walking inside. The three defendants are seen walking behind them.
The defendants never entered the store because Phyall hadn’t given Pantoja money for the cigars, Phyall said.
Bettencourt and Gomez had walked out of the store and headed toward the car when Diaz came from behind and pointed the gun at Gomez, Phyall said. He testified that he was getting ready to give Pantoja money for the cigars when Diaz brandished the gun.
The security camera footage shows Phyall and Pantoja following closely behind Diaz as he raises the gun and points it at Gomez. Diaz demanded the car keys from Gomez, who refused, Phyall said.
Gomez backed away from Diaz and dashed for the store’s front doors. Phyall told the jurors that Diaz then directed the gun at him and Pantoja, telling them to “Get the doors.” Phyall said he didn’t want to rob anyone, and that he had never before had a gun pointed at him and was scared.
The prosecutor asked Phyall why didn’t he run into the store with Gomez if he was so afraid of Diaz. Phyall answered, “I don’t know.”
Instead, he stood at the store’s entrance, blocking Gomez’s escape into the store. Phyall testified that he didn’t say anything to Gomez, never grabbed Gomez and didn’t pretend to have a gun.
Gomez has testified that Phyall told him he was armed before he reached into his pocket and shook it like he was going to pull out a gun. Gomez made it past Phyall and got inside the store.
Phyall told the jurors that Bettencourt was near Gomez’s car when Diaz shot him. Authorities say Diaz shot Bettencourt twice in his chest with a .22 caliber handgun.
The three defendants ran from the convenience store, and Pantoja directed them to a friend’s home nearby, according to Phyall. Pantoja told his friend that they had been shot at and needed a ride to his house. Phyall said they got a ride to Pantoja’s home, and that Pantoja’s mother drove them to Turlock.
After that day, the three defendants didn’t see each other again until their first appearance in court. Phyall testified that he turned himself in about a week after the shooting. Diaz and Pantoja were found and taken into custody about a month later at a home in Redding.
The trial is expected to continue next week in Stanislaus County Superior Court.