Testimony in a trial Thursday focused on the claimed gang ties of one of three defendants accused of murder in the shooting of a man during a suspected carjacking outside a Riverbank convenience store.
A gang investigator testified that Daniel Pantoja was one of two people who attacked a rival gang member inside a Redding convenience store, two months before Chaz Bettencourt was shot to death Aug. 5, 2010, outside an am-pm minimarket in Riverbank.
Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall are on trial in Stanislaus County, charged with murder and attempted carjacking in Bettencourt’s death in Riverbank.
The prosecution says the defendants committed the attempted carjacking that resulted in Bettencourt’s death to further promote the criminal activities of the Norteño street gang, whose membership is sprawled throughout Northern California.
Thursday’s testimony came from Redding police Cpl. Rex Barry, who said he has 20 years of experience investigating gangs in Southern California and Shasta County near California’s border with Oregon.
Defense attorneys questioned Barry’s ability to identify who is a gang member, suggesting that his methods were arbitrary. The investigator said his gang-expert opinion is based on his experience and training, as well as facts gathered through investigation.
His testimony about the Redding assault did not have any direct connection to the Riverbank shooting.
Barry told the jurors about a June 6, 2010, assault inside a Circle K convenience store in Redding. The victim told the investigator he was a member of the Sureño gang, rivals of the Norteños.
The victim told Barry that the same people who attacked him committed a drive-by shooting about an hour after the Circle K incident. Barry testified that authorities later learned that Pantoja and Justin Plimpton were the people believed to have attacked the Sureño member in the store.
The investigator told the jurors the getaway vehicle in the store assault also was used to commit the drive-by shooting. Barry said authorities discovered the vehicle belonged to a Norteño gang regiment commander named Jacinto Valdovino.
Barry said Valdovino was in “Nuestra Raza,” a status given to certain Norteño gang members that puts them above street-level Norteños.
Nuestra Raza is commonly referred to by law enforcement officials as “Northern Structure.” Nuestra Raza follows orders from its leaders in “Nuestra Familia,” the state prison gang that oversees all Norteño gang activity throughout California.
The Redding gang investigator testified that Valdovino was sent to Shasta County to establish a Norteño gang regiment.
Pantoja was identified as one of the suspects in the Circle K assault, but Redding authorities didn’t find him until Sept. 13, 2010, about a month after Bettencourt was shot in Riverbank.
Barry told the jurors that a Shasta County sheriff’s deputy spotted Pantoja, who fled from her. Barry and other investigators responded and searched the nearby home of Manuel Ortiz, a known Norteño gang member.
“As a Norteño, you would most likely seek refuge from a fellow gang member,” Barry testified.
Inside Ortiz’s home, the investigators found Pantoja and Diaz, both of whom had been identified as suspects in Bettencourt’s death. Phyall, the third suspect in the Riverbank shooting, was apprehended Aug. 12, 2010, in Modesto.
Barry questioned Pantoja about the Circle K assault. He testified that Pantoja said he was one of the people seen in the store’s security camera footage attacking the victim. Pantoja also told the investigator he didn’t like the Redding assault victim, Barry said.
When the investigator asked Pantoja if he assaulted the victim because he was a “Scrap,” which is a Norteño slur for Sureños, “He chuckled and said, ‘Yeah, that too,’ ” Barry testified.
Testimony in the murder trial is expected to continue Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.