Three teenagers, two of whom are not even old enough to drive, will stand trial on murder charges and face the possibility of spending the majority of their lives behind bars if convicted for the shooting death of a 21-year-old Riverbank man.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen ruled on Thursday that the prosecution had established enough probable cause to hold Daniel Pantoja, 19, of Riverbank; Turlock Diaz, 14, and Jai-Kari Phyall, 15, both of Turlock, over on charges of murder and attempted carjacking. Steffen also ruled there was enough probable evidence presented to apply the gang enhancement charges.
The three teenagers are accused of gunning down Chaz Bettencourt during an attempted carjacking on Aug. 5, 2010, outside an AM/PM store in Riverbank. The district attorney’s office contends the crimes were committed to benefit the Norteno criminal street gang by enhancing their reputation as a gang to be feared.
Froilan Mariscal, an investigator with the district attorney’s office and a gang expert, testified that from his investigation it was his opinion that Diaz and Pantoja are Norteno gang members, while Phyall is a gang associate.
The three defense attorneys argued vigorously during the preliminary hearing that Mariscal’s testimony should not be considered as that of an expert.
“There is a significant difference between an expert opinion and an expert’s opinion,” said defense attorney Martin Baker, who represents Diaz.
Baker called Mariscal’s methodology for establishing gang classification “pseudo-scientific.”
Judge Steffen said in his ruling that Mariscal’s “findings were reasonable conclusions.”
Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan, who is prosecuting the case, said he has no intentions of offering any of the defendants a plea deal.
“I vow to the family of Chaz Bettencourt and to anyone else in the community that I will show defendant Pantoja, defendant Diaz and defendant Phyall the same mercy they showed Chaz Bettencourt, which is none,” Brennan said.
“Regardless of age, there is no question this was one of the most violent crimes committed in our community. This could have happened to anyone who wondered into the kill zone of gang members on the prowl,” Brennan said.
During the hearing Brennan presented video surveillance footage from the store that shows Diaz putting a gun to the head of David Gomez, a friend of Bettencourt’s. Gomez testified at the hearing that he was able to get away and ran into the store to call the police, which is when two shots rang out. The prosecution contends Diaz fired the fatal shots at Bettencourt.
“Chaz Bettencourt was assassinated at close range,” Brennan said.
Defense attorney Robert Winston argued the prosecution’s case was far “too speculative” to hold the teens over for murder. Winston, who represents Pantoja, said it was just as likely that his client was in the bathroom when the shooting went down.
Defense attorney Frank Carson, who represents Phyall, said his client was not aware of any carjacking plot and was “at worse, hanging out with a couple of idiots.”
Carson also attempted to discredit Gomez’s testimony by saying he was at the store to conduct a drug transaction. Investigators did find scales and packaging material in the trunk of Gomez’s car at the crime scene. “He is inventing things after the fact to assuage his own guilt,” Carson said of Gomez.
The ruling to hold the three teens over for trial was met with relief for the Bettencourt family.
“I knew we had it, but it’s like getting a new home — you don’t feel secure until the keys are in your hand,” Michelle Bettencourt, the victim’s mother, said of the ruling.
Throughout the last day of the hearing Bettencourt clutched her son’s driver’s license, running her fingers over his photo as if she were stroking his cheeks.
The high emotions continued outside of the courtroom where Bettencourt was approached by some of Phyall’s family members, who offered her their sympathies and gave her tearful hugs.
“That meant a lot to me,” Bettencourt said.
The three teens are scheduled for an arraignment June 23.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.