The final days of testimony in the preliminary hearing of three teenagers accused of gunning down a man outside a convenience store focused on the allegations of their gang affiliation and if the shooting benefited the gang.
A preliminary hearing for Daniel Pantoja, 19, of Riverbank, Turlock Diaz, 14, and Jah-Kari Phyall, 15, both of Turlock, is being held to determine if they should stand trial on murder charges in the death of 21-year-old Chaz Bettencourt, who was shot to death outside an AM/PM in Riverbank in August.
According to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, the suspects were attempting to take the vehicle from Bettencourt’s friend, David Gomez, when the shooting occurred.
In addition to the murder charges lodged against all three, the defendants are also accused of attempted carjacking. The prosecution is also laying out the claim that the alleged crimes were carried out for the benefit of the Norteno criminal street gang.
The two sides will make their closing arguments Thursday morning.
Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan has called Froilan Mariscal, an investigator with the district attorney’s office, to testify as a gang expert.
Mariscal testified that his investigation into the shooting and background checks of the three defendants, has led him to believe that Diaz and Pantoja are members of the Norteno criminal street gang, while Phyall is an associate.
In investigating Pantoja, Mariscal testified he found several incidents in Redding in which Pantoja was either identified as a gang member by the police or by his own admission as a gang member.
One element the prosecution has used to try and prove Pantoja’s gang involvement is his MySpace page, which contained several gang images and symbols, as well to a video link of surveillance footage from outside a Redding store of a man being severely beaten. Pantoja is a suspect in the beating and on the MySpace page a comment with the link reads: “Me and the homie (expletive) a scrap.” Scrap is a term used by Nortenos to refer to their rivals, the Surenos.
Pantoja’s defense attorney argues that it is impossible to know if Pantoja actually created the MySpace page or if someone else did it using his name.
Mariscal testified he found a Turlock Police Department report that implicated Diaz in the theft of a Honda. He also said he found a report of Diaz being forced to leave the Stanislaus County Fair last year after being seen throwing gang signs. Diaz was also suspended once from junior high school for throwing gang signs in class, Mariscal said.
During a search of Diaz’s home, investigators found several photographs, some framed and on the wall, depicting Diaz living a gang lifestyle, according to the prosecution.
For Phyall, Mariscal found a Turlock Police Department report accusing Phyall of robbing a teenage girl outside a coffee shop. The case was later closed out as a misdemeanor. There was also an arrest for possession of marijuana at Columbia Park last year.
Mariscal stated he developed a list of 12 criteria for the documentation of gang affiliation. The criteria list includes: sporting gang symbols, colors or tattoos; responses to field interview questions; past crimes; and having been identified on a gang’s roster. According to Mariscal’s investigation, Diaz met six of the 12 criteria and Pantoja met eight of the 12. Mariscal stated he believed Phyall was not a gang member, but he was an associate and met four of the 12 criteria.
The three defense attorneys have raised several objections to Mariscal being allowed to testify as an expert. They have also questioned him at length on the methodology he employs to determine gang affiliation.
All three defense attorneys made arguments that Mariscal’s criteria makes it too easy to classify a person as a gang member.
Defense attorney Martin Baker, who is representing Diaz called Mariscal’s criteria “new science” and said that the court as a “gatekeeper” should not allow it into the record.
“It’s being used to determine a very important issue in this case and that is if these defendants here are gang members,” Baker said.
Judge Scott Steffen said in court that he was inclined to let in Mariscal’s testimony as an expert.
To contact Sabra Stafford e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.