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October 16, 2013

Closing arguments begin in Riverbank murder, carjacking trial

Closing arguments began Wednesday afternoon in a trial for three defendants accused of murder and attempted carjacking in the shooting death of a man fatally wounded outside a Riverbank convenience store three years ago.

A prosecutor on Wednesday told a jury it’s clear from security camera footage what led to the deadly shooting of 21-year-old Chaz Bettencourt outside a Riverbank convenience store. “This case is all about an attempted carjacking on video,” Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan argued.

Closing arguments began Wednesday afternoon in the trial of defendants Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall. They are charged with murder and attempted carjacking in Bettencourt’s death.

About 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, Bettencourt and friend David Gomez had just arrived at the AM-PM minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads. Investigators believe the defendants were trying to steal Gomez’s car when Bettencourt was shot.

Jurors have listened to six weeks’ worth of testimony, and Brennan said nothing has changed about the circumstances that led to the shooting.

The prosecutor told the jury the three defendants likely planned the carjacking as soon as they arrived at the AM-PM and spotted the victims, because the video shows the defendants walking up to the store and waiting for Bettencourt and Gomez to walk out.

Footage seen throughout trial

The jurors have seen the store’s security camera footage throughout the trial. The video shows the shooter aiming the gun at the back of Gomez’s head as Gomez walks out of the store.

Brennan argued that Diaz then told Gomez, “Give me your f------ keys.” Gomez testified that he thought the gun looked fake, and Diaz told him, “This is real. I will blast you,” as he pulled back the slide on top of the handgun to insert a bullet in the chamber.

The prosecutor said Diaz’s actions at that moment clearly indicate he was not so intoxicated that he didn’t know what he was doing. “The intoxication defense is dead on arrival,” Brennan argued.

Testimony has indicated that Pantoja and Diaz drank Four Loko, which was then a mixture of alcohol and energy stimulants in a can. Martin Baker, Diaz’s attorney, has said in court that the Four Loko drinks could have resulted in “increased impulsivity” in Diaz on the night of the shooting.

A defense expert testified that Diaz and Pantoja drank the caffeine and alcohol mixture – the equivalent of 14 cans of Budweiser and three cups of Starbucks coffee for each. The expert said the energy stimulants can mask visible intoxication symptoms.

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.

The prosecutor told the jurors that they shouldn’t let their emotions about two teenage boys involved with an attempted carjacking interfere with their duty as jurors. He argued that Phyall and Pantoja are just as guilty of murder as Diaz, who fired the gun, because they assisted, encouraged, facilitated or promoted the commission of the crime. “This is not Turlock Diaz operating solo,” Brennan said in court.

Phyall has testified that Pantoja initially had the gun and used it to rob an ice cream vendor several hours earlier. The defendant also said Pantoja later suggested they rob two elderly women, but the two other defendants refused.

Pantoja later handed the gun to Diaz, who showed interest in the loaded weapon, according to Phyall.

Gomez testified that Phyall tried to stop him from escaping into the convenience store moments before he got inside and Bettencourt was shot in the parking lot. Brennan argued that this carjacking attempt was a concerted effort by the three defendants. “That’s directly participating in an attempted carjacking,” he told the jury.

Phyall testified that he was scared and that Diaz pointed the gun at him and Pantoja, telling them to stop Gomez from escaping. Robert Winston, Pantoja’s defense attorney, has argued that the store security camera footage shows his client at the shooting scene, but nothing else.

Woman saw shooting

The prosecutor told the jury that a woman testified that she drove up to the convenience store and saw the shooter fire the gun at close range, while the two others watched from the store’s sidewalk in front of Gomez’s car. Bettencourt was shot twice in the chest while standing near the car’s passenger side.

Two juries have participated in this trial, and the prosecutor on Wednesday spoke to the jury deciding the fate of Phyall and Diaz. Their defense attorneys will give their closing arguments today. Then, Brennan and Winston will give their closing arguments to the jury deciding Pantoja’s fate.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen decided that having two juries was the best way to ensure that potentially prejudicial testimony won’t prevent Pantoja from receiving a fair trial.

Both juries have sat in the courtroom, listening to most of the testimony in the trial. One jury sat in the jury box, while the other sat in a few front rows of the courtroom’s audience seats. When it came time for the potentially prejudicial testimony, Pantoja’s jury was asked to leave the courtroom.

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