Teen found guilty, another set free in Riverbank store shooting

10/28/2013 6:45 PM

10/29/2013 6:50 AM

A jury on Monday found one teenager guilty of murder and acquitted another in a Riverbank shooting in which a 21-year-old man was killed during a 2010 botched robbery outside a convenience store.

The jurors deliberated for a few hours before returning with a guilty verdict for Turlock Diaz, who was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted carjacking in the shooting death of Chaz Bettencourt.

The jury, however, acquitted Jah-Kari Phyall of all charges related to the shooting in front of the AM-PM minimart at Patterson and Oakdale roads.

Initially, Diaz, Phyall and Daniel Pantoja all were charged with murder and attempted carjacking in the convenience store shooting. The defendants faced trial together, but two juries listened to testimony.

The jury deciding Pantoja’s fate will continue deliberations today.

Phyall’s family members cried and hugged one another in the courthouse hallway after the judge announced that Phyall would be released from Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall, where he had been held since his arrest a few weeks after the shooting.

Dewey Bedford, Phyall’s cousin, spoke to Bettencourt’s family after the verdict. With tears in his eyes, he said his cousin was going to make the most of this second chance in life. “We just really feel bad for the victim’s family,” Bedford said before he approached them.

It was an emotional afternoon for Bettencourt’s family, as well. His mother, Michelle Bettencourt, said she didn’t want to comment because she still was trying to process the verdict. Before speaking publicly, she also wanted to wait until the other jury finishes deliberating.

Diaz and Phyall were minors at the time of the shooting, but were prosecuted as adults. Diaz was 14, Phyall was 15 and Pantoja was 18. Diaz and Phyall are now 18, and Pantoja is 21.

Phyall testified that he went with Diaz and Pantoja to Riverbank that day to attend a party. Pantoja and Diaz did not testify in the trial.

Phyall said Pantoja initially had the gun and used it to rob an ice cream vendor several hours before the attempted carjacking. He 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, Phyall said.

About 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, Bettencourt and friend David Gomez were leaving the minimart when they were accosted at gunpoint. Authorities said the defendants were trying to steal Gomez’s car when Bettencourt was shot.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan argued in the trial that Diaz shot Bettencourt twice in the chest at close range, while Phyall stood nearby and did nothing to stop it. The prosecutor said he accepts this verdict, as he does all others.

“In hindsight, there is nothing I would do differently in presenting the case to a jury,” Brennan said after the verdict was announced. “Phyall should consider this a wake-up call to change his behavior, and I sincerely hope he listens.”

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 and that Phyall directly participated.

Phyall testified that he was scared and that Diaz pointed the gun at him and Pantoja, telling them to stop Gomez from escaping.

Frank Carson, Phyall’s attorney, said he and his client’s family were gratified with the verdict and appreciated the jury’s efforts in a trial that lasted nearly two months.

“They (the jurors) realized early on that this wasn’t a gang case,” Carson said after hugging Phyall’s mother in the courthouse hallway. “It was just a terrible tragedy that my client didn’t set out to do.”

The three defendants were charged with gang enhancements, alleging the crimes were committed for the benefit of the Norteño criminal street gang. The jury on Monday decided that Diaz’s crimes were not for the benefit of the Norteños.

Martin Baker, Diaz’s attorney, declined to comment about the verdict. Baker argued in the trial that his client was under the influence of a canned drink – a potent mixture of alcohol and energy stimulants – that could have resulted in “increased impulsivity” on the night of the shooting.

The jurors saw 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 ordered Gomez to give him his 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.

Phyall testified that Diaz shot Bettencourt moments after the victim flung cash at Diaz. The prosecutor told the jurors that Bettencourt staggered for about 20 yards before he collapsed. One of the bullets ripped through his heart and lungs.

Brennan said Monday that he has “zero sympathy” for Diaz. He argued in the trial that Diaz and Pantoja were Norteño gang members, and Phyall was a Norteño associate.

“Diaz will spend the rest of his life in prison, joining the hundreds of Norteños who chose the same path in life Diaz took,” Brennan said.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova told Diaz to return to court Nov. 8 to schedule his sentencing hearing. He remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.

Brennan said Diaz faces a maximum sentence of 50 years to life in prison.

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