In a videotaped interview, an Army National Guard soldier told two Fresno police detectives that she stabbed an unarmed fellow soldier on New Year’s Day 2014 because she feared for her life.
“I wasn’t going to die tonight. He was coming at me,” Jessica Wills told Detectives Andre Benson and Leonard Cabrera.
Jessica Wills’ wife, Jacqueline Benavides Wills, a fellow Army National Guard soldier, gave the two police detectives a similar account of how a drunken Brian Santos was stabbed to death.
They contend Santos started the altercation by hitting his girlfriend, Tessie Laulu, another fellow soldier. They told police Wills killed Santos in self-defense because he became so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and choked her. When the pair tried to intervened, they said, Santos pushed them to the ground and swung at them.
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But Benson and Cabrera didn’t believe them. Benson told Benavides Wills in the videotaped interview that Wills killed Santos because he cursed her lesbian lifestyle.
The two detectives also reminded Benavides Wills that she told a 911 operator: “I have a knife and I’m going to stab that (expletive).”
Wills also could be heard on the 911 call saying the same thing, the detectives said.
But in the interview, Benavides Wills denies holding a knife that fatal night. She also said she never saw Wills stab Santos.
The videotaped police interviews took center stage Tuesday, the second day of a preliminary hearing that will determine whether Wills and Benavides Wills should stand trial for killing the 32-year-old Santos. Wednesday, prosecutor Gabriel Brickey plans wrap up his case by playing Laulu’s videotaped interview with police and Benavides Wills’ two 911 calls.
Brickey contends the pair committed murder because Laulu has told police detectives that she didn’t need any help from the defendants in her disagreement with Santos. In addition, Benson and Cabrera accused Benavides Wills in the videotaped interview of being deceptive in talking to the 911 operator, and giving a confusing account of what was happening.
If convicted of murder, Wills, 25, and Benavides Wills, 24, face a potential sentence of life in prison. Wills and Benavides are represented by Fresno defense lawyers Michael Aed, Serita Rios and Amy Guerra. They have told Judge Houry Sanderson that Santos has a prior misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence in 2005 and an infraction for being drunk in public when he tried start a fight in a bar in 2013, just months before he was fatally stabbed.
Wills and Benavides Wills, who are married and free on $50,000 bail apiece, have no prior criminal records.
Before the tapes were played, forensic pathologist Dr. Venu Gopal testified Tuesday that Santos’ blood-alcohol level at the time of his death was .21, or nearly three times the legal limit of .08 to drive.
Gopal also testified that Santos was stabbed in the left chest and right bicep with one knife, and stabbed three times in the back with a different knife. Gopal said the only fatal wound was to Santos’ chest because the blade pierced his heart. Santos died within a few minutes of his stabbing, Gopal said.
Police found two knives shortly after the killing. A 10-inch hunting knife was located at the crime scene; a bloody 15-inch knife was found inside the defendant’s home, hidden under a bed mattress. DNA and a fingerprint found on the 15-inch knife belonged to Wills, Fresno police crime scene specialist Michael Burrow testified.
But Gopal testified that he could not say whether police had collected the murder weapon.
The killing happened outside Wills and Benavides Wills’ condo on Shields Avenue near Fowler Avenue. Benavides Wills called 911 around 1:40 a.m. and when police didn’t arrive, she called again at 2:05 a.m. When police arrived at 2:12 a.m., officers discovered Wills giving Santos CPR on the roadway. He was pronounced dead shortly after an emergency medical crew arrived.
Afterward, Wills and Benavides Wills were taken to police headquarters and read their Miranda rights. They then talked to police without the aid of a lawyer.
In her interview, Wills told the detectives said she still had Santos’ blood on her. She said Laulu and Santos had come from Southern California to attend a New Year’s party at the home of Benavides Will’s brother. But sometime past midnight, Santos became drunk and hit Laulu three times. They foursome then decided to return to the defendants’ two-story condo.
I didn’t mean to do what happened. But my life was threatened.
Jessica Wills, who is charged with murder
Wills gave this account:
Inside the condo, Laulu fell down the stairs, and the two defendants accused Santos of pushing her. Upset, Santos left the condo and wanted to leave, but Laulu wouldn’t let him drive, so she took his car keys. It was around this time that Benavides Wills made her first 911 call and Wills said she grabbed a knife from inside the condo and put it in her back pocket.
When Santos got rough with Laulu, Wills said she told Santos to leave. That’s when he started to curse her and tried to kill Laulu.
“He throws Tessia to the ground, gets on top of her and chokes her. We tried to get him off, but couldn’t,” Wills told the detectives.
During the struggle, Wills said Santos punched her three times in the face and threatened to kill her, too.
Wills said Santos continued to fight with Laulu and when Benavides Wills intervened, he hit her and threw her to the ground.
“He then comes at me,” Wills told the detectives.
Wills said she stabbed Santos after he used his right hand to grab her throat. “I had a knife on me and I hit him with it,” she said.
After she stabbed him a second time, she threw the knife to the ground. Santos then turned toward Laulu, walked into the street and collapsed, Wills said.
“I didn’t mean to do what happened,” she told the detectives. “But my life was threatened.”
She then reminds the detective that she had told the 911 operator that “I have a knife and I’m going to use it (because) he is coming at me.”
Benavides Wills gave a similar account, but it differed slightly when she told detectives that Wills went into the condo to get a knife when she made her second 911 call. At that moment Laulu and Santos were leaving the area toward Melody Park, she told the detectives. But then they came back toward the condo and continued to fight.
In her interview, Benavides Wills said she remembered Santos telling Wills that if she wanted to act like a man, he would fight her like a man. That’s when Benson accused Wills of killling Santos because he had cursed her lesbian lifetyle. But Benavides Wills said she and Wills ignoresuch comments.
Benson asked her why didn’t she and Wills go into the condo and wait for police to arrive. “He wanted to leave and you had every opportunity to go in the house and difuse the situation,” Benson told Benavides Wills.
But a defiant Benaavides Wills said she wasn’t going to leave Laulu and let Santos beat her. “You wouldn’t leave your friend to get beat on, ” she told Benson and Cabrera.