Defense lawyers for two Army National Guard soldiers accused of killing a fellow soldier went on the offensive Wednesday, accusing two Fresno police detectives of pressuring a key witness to change her story.
In addition, the lawyers contend the fatal stabbing wouldn’t have happened if the Fresno Police Department had responded to the first 911 call made by one of the defendants. Twenty-three minutes after making the first 911 call, Jacqueline Benavides Wills made a second 911 call. But by the time police arrived, Brian Santos was sprawled on the roadway, mortally wounded from multiple stab wounds to his chest and back.
Benavides Wills, 24, and her wife, Jessica Wills, 25, are accused of killing an unarmed Brian Santos outside the couple’s home on Shields Avenue in east Fresno during the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014. If convicted of murder, they face a potential sentence of life in prison.
They are currently in a preliminary hearing before a Superior Court judge, who will decide if they should stand trial.
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The defendants contend a drunken Santos started the altercation by hitting his girlfriend, Tessie Laulu, another fellow soldier. They told police Santos became so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and choked her. When Wills intervened, Santos attacked her, the defendants contend.
Wills has confessed to stabbing Santos in the chest in self-defense, saying she feared for her life.
On the third day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether Wills and Benavides Wills should stand trial on a murder charge, prosecutor Gabriel Brickey continued to paint a picture that the pair intended to kill Santos. Wednesday, Brickey played the 911 calls in which Wills and Benavides Wills told police dispatch that they are both armed with knives and threatened to stab Santos if police don’t arrive soon to quell the domestic violence disturbance.
Because Laulu is currently deployed to the Middle East, Brickey played her two taped interviews with Benson and Cabrera. In the recordings, Laulu comes to the conclusion that she didn’t need help from Wills or Benavides Wills in her disagreement with Santos.
Defense lawyers Michael Aed, Serita Rios and Amy Guerra cried foul, contending that Benson and Cabrera took advantage of a distraught Laulu and pressured her into changing her account. They point out that in Laulu’s first interview with police (hours after Santos was killed) she tells the two detectives that Santos acts crazy when he gets drunk (pathologist Dr. Venu Gopal has already testified that Santos’ blood alcohol that fatal night was .21, or nearly three times the legal limit to drive). She also tells the detectives that Benavides Wills and Wills were just trying to protect her because Santos “is really strong.”
In addition, she told the detectives that after she and Santos wrestled on the ground, Santos got up and started walking toward Wills.
“Is Jessica in danger?” Benson asked Laulu.
“He’s mad,” she replied.
Laulu said she never saw Wills stab Santos. She said she was too busy trying to keep him away from his car keys because he wanted to drive home in his drunken state.
In the initial police interview, Laulu cried as she told her account. She said she was friends with Wills and Benavides Wills and that she and Santos drove up from Southern California to attend a New Year’s party at the home of Benavides Wills’ brother. But at the party, Santos got drunk and became hostile toward her, she told the detectives. At one point, he pushed her face, hit her, and called her by his ex-wife’s name, she said, explaining that Santos had just ended an eight-year relationship in which his ex-wife cheated on him.
Laulu said she was crying when she told Santos: “Please don’t treat me like her.”
Because he was embarrassing her among her friends, she asked Wills to call her mother to give them a ride to the couple’s condo on Shields Avenue near Fowler Avenue.
At the condo, Laulu said she and Santos continued to argue and at one point he pulled her hair.
Santos wanted to drive home after, but Laulu told him no and took his car keys from him. “He’s been in a car crash when he was drunk,” she told the detectives.
Because they were fighting in public, Wills and Benavides wantd to intervene, but Laulu told them to leave Santos alone, saying she would handle him. Around this time, Wills and Benavides Wills say Santos has to leave, Laulu told the detectives.
Laulu said she and Santos walk to nearby Melody Park, unsure where they would stay the night. They soon end up back near the condo, where they continue to fight over the car keys. There, Laulu said Santos pushed her to the ground and got on top of her.
Wills started punching Santos and yelling at him to quit hitting his girlfriend. But Laulu told Wills: “Please leave Brian alone. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Laulu told the detectives she was also intoxicated, so she doesn’t exactly what happened next. But she recalled Santos getting out of her hold and going toward Wills. She said she threw the keys in the street and both she and Santos went after them. A short time later, he collapsed in the street.
In the taped interview, Benson reminds Laulu repeatedly that her friends had just thrown her out on the streets. Benson also keeps on the theme that if Wills and Benavides Wills had gone into their condo and waited for police, Santos would not have been stabbed.
“Jessica shouldn’t have killed him because he wanted to leave,” Benson said, pointing out that Laulu and Santos had walked to Melody Park.
Crying, Laulu agreed with the detective, muttering through her tears, “She didn’t.”
In her second interview at police headquarters two days after the killing, Laulu is more convinced that Wills and Benavides Wills didn’t have to intervene in her fight with Santos. The interview was the product of telephone calls between Laulu and Benson, the defense lawyers said.
In that interview, Laulu tells the two detectives that her disagreement with Santos “wasn’t even serious.”
In fact, she said that Santos was dancing with Benavides Wills before they left the New Year’s party.
Laulu said Santos never hit her, but “pushed her.”
At the condo, Laulu said Wills argued with Santos while Benavides Wills him. She told her friends, “Leave him alone or you will make him mad. I got it under control.”
After Santos was stabbed she remembered something strange happening. As Santos lied bleeding in the street, Laulu put pressure on his chest wound and begged Wills for help. But Wills just stood there, Laulu told detectives. “Jessica had to look at (Benavides Wills) to get her permission to help.” Once Benavides Wills gave her approval, Wills started CPR on Santos, Laulu told the detectives.
Benavides Wills was on the phone to the 911 operator when Santos was stabbed. Police records show she called 911 at 1:42 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.
In the first 911 call, Benavides Wills reports a drunken man is chasing his girlfriend “like a crazy person” and says he wants to drive drunk.
In the second 911 call, she complains that an intoxicated man is beating three women. “You said you would be here but you’re not,” she tells the 911 operator. She then says she has a knife and is going to stab the man. The operator asks if the man is armed. Benavides Wills replies: “He has his fists.”
Before the calls ends, Benavides Wills tells police dispatch: “Somebody else stabbed him.”
The prosecution expects to wrap up its case Thursday.