A defense gang expert on Thursday testified that a suspected botched carjacking which left a man shot to death outside a Riverbank convenience store had no link to criminal gang activity.
Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall are on trial, accused of murder and attempted carjacking, in the death of 21-year-old Chaz Bettencourt of Riverbank. The prosecution claims the defendants’ actions that night were for the benefit of the Norteño street gang.
Gang enhancements have been added to the defendants’ charges, which could lengthen a prison sentence if convicted.
Jesse De La Cruz, an author and gang expert witness, said he reviewed the preliminary hearing transcript and the police reports in the case. He called the prosecution’s allegations of gang involvement false.
“This has nothing to do with gangs at all,” De La Cruz testified. “You can try to make it fit, because jurors don’t know. They only know what you tell them.”
De La Cruz is a former gang member. He was a member of the Nuestra Familia prison gang while incarcerated at Folsom State Prison, but left behind the criminal lifestyle after his release and ditched a heroin addiction. He documented his story in a memoir called “Detoured: My Journey From Darkness To Light.”
Aside from earning college degrees in sociology and social work, De La Cruz told the jurors that he has done extensive research into criminal gang activity. He said his opinions are based not only on his experience in a prison gang, but also his interviews with gang members he tries to reform.
De La Cruz said he founded a criminals and gang members anonymous group and helped create a halfway house for inmates trying to transition to a crime-free life out of custody.
The prosecution claims the defendants were trying to promote fear and intimidation on behalf of the Norteños, so they attempted the carjacking about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, at the AM-PM minimart at Patterson and Oakdale roads.
Diaz and Phyall were minors when the shooting occurred but all are being prosecuted as adults. Diaz was 14, Phyall was 15 and Pantoja was 18.
During cross-examination, De La Cruz said youths are attracted to the gang lifestyle by the rhetoric gang members use, how gang members act in public and how other people react to gang members.
“The way other individuals get out of their way when they walk down the street,” De La Cruz told the jurors.
He also said it would be generally important to street gang members to have a violent reputation to scare off rival gang members and protect their turf.
De La Cruz was called to the witness stand by Frank Carson, Phyall’s defense attorney. The gang expert said he interviewed Phyall at the Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall, where the defendant is housed. He said Phyall is not a Norteño gang associate, as the prosecution claims.
Phyall told De La Cruz that he met Diaz at a neighborhood park where they used to play basketball. The park was known to be frequented by gang members, and Diaz lived across the street. De La Cruz indicated that Diaz and Phyall’s friendship had nothing to do with gangs, and Phyall never claimed to be a Norteño.
The prosecution’s gang allegations are based on testimony from gang expert Froilan Mariscal, an investigator for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. Mariscal has had extensive experience investigating gang-related crimes, is a member of a countywide anti-gang task force and was one of the architects of the county’s only gang injunction, which restricts the activities of documented gang members in a south Modesto neighborhood.
Mariscal has testified that Diaz and Pantoja are Norteño gang members and that Phyall is associated with the gang. Another gang investigator has testified that Pantoja has ties to the Norteño gang, and that Pantoja and Diaz were found hiding at a Norteño’s home in Redding.
De La Cruz told the jurors that he doesn’t consider Mariscal a liar, but said the gang investigator is receiving unreliable information from people being investigated or who are already incarcerated. He said these are people who have a lot to gain by telling Mariscal what he wants to hear.
“The information that he relies on is somewhat tainted,” De La Cruz testified.
Testimony in the murder trial is expected to continue next week in Stanislaus Superior Court.