Two Army National Guard soldiers will face murder charges in the stabbing death of a fellow soldier in Fresno during the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014, a judge ruled Friday.
Jessica Wills, 25, and her wife, Jacqueline Benavides Wills, 24, cried when Judge Houry Sanderson made the ruling in Fresno County Superior Court. Their two dozen supporters sat in stunned silence.
In making her ruling, Sanderson, who listened to four days of testimony, said she didn’t believe the two defendants’ accounts that Jessica Wills stabbed a drunken, unarmed Brian Santos in self-defense.
Sanderson said there is probable cause to believe Wills, who confessed quickly to stabbing Santos, committed second-degree murder because she acted impulsively and made a rash decision.
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The judge had harsher words for Benavides Wills, who denied stabbing Santos, though a pathologist testified the victim was stabbed in the chest and bicep with one knife and three times in the back with another knife. Sanderson said there was probable cause to believe Benavides Wills committed a “cold and calculated attack on Santos,” and therefore was guilty of first-degree murder.
The pair will be arraigned on murder charges Sept. 3. They remain free on $50,000 bail.
Timeline of a killing
The killing happened after a night of drinking.
Santos and his girlfriend, Tessia Laulu, a fellow soldier and close friend of the two defendants, drove from Southern California to attend a party at the home of Benavides Wills’ brother. But sometime after midnight, Santos got drunk from a bottle of Jägermeister and shots of tequila, his girlfriend told police.
In a taped interview, Laulu told police Santos pushed her in the face and hit her at the party. Laulu asked Wills to call her mother so she could take the four soldiers back to the defendants’ condo on Shields Avenue near Fowler Avenue in east Fresno.
At the condo, Santos got into a fight with his girlfriend and Wills told him to leave. What happened next is in dispute.
Ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide if their actions were reasonable and justified.
Defense attorney Michael Aed
The defendants contend Santos became so enraged that he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and choked her. When Wills and Benavides Wills intervened, Santos attacked them, they told police. After Santos collapsed and died in the street, Wills confessed to stabbing Santos, saying she feared for her life.
In closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Gabriel Brickey said two 911 calls made by Benavides Wills clearly show the two defendants intended to commit first-degree, premeditated murder.
Police records show Benavides Wills 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, a calm Benavides Wills reports a drunken man is chasing his girlfriend “like a crazy person.” Wills, however, can be heard in the background of the 911 call, saying she’s going to stab Santos, Brickey said.
In the second 911 call to police, Benavides Wills, clearly angry, says, “You said you would be here, but you’re not.” She then tells the 911 operator she has a knife and is going to stab the man. Before the calls ends, Benavides Wills tells police dispatch: “Somebody else stabbed him.”
In his argument, Brickey noted that photographs taken by police showed that neither the defendants nor Laulu suffered injuries or bruises.
Judge didn’t believe account
Friday, the judge also said she didn’t believe the defendants’ account of the killing. Sanderson also ruled that the defendants didn’t stab Santos in self-defense or in defense of another because he had stopped fighting with his girlfriend and he “had no weapon and was shoeless, sockless and shirtless.”
The use of deadly force, Sanderson said, “was not reasonable.”
Though Wills confessed to stabbing Santos in the chest, which the coroner said was the fatal blow, Sanderson said it will be up to a jury to determine if Wills was telling the truth.
Sanderson said she was leery of Wills’ account because she demonstrated to police that she used her right hand to stab Santos, even though she is left-handed.
The judge also said it will be up to a jury to figure out if Benavides Wills committed first-degree murder.
In her ruling, Sanderson said Benavides Wills was “untruthful” when she told police she didn’t stab Santos.
The judge said Benavides Wills first stood back and watched the events unfold. Then she made a conscious decision to get involved.
Arraignment in the case set for Sept. 3
Sanderson said the second 911 call was “most telling” because Benavides Wills says she is chasing Santos with a knife and that “I’m going to stab him.” Soon after, there’s a distinct grunt, then someone curses as if something went wrong. Laulu starts to scream and Benavides Wills blurts out: “And he’s bleeding.”
Sanderson said the evidence shows Benavides Wills was “frustrated, angry and outraged” at Santos because he was rude and had embarrassed her at her brother’s party.
After the ruling, Wills and Benavides Wills hugged supporters and left the courthouse.
“We are disappointed in the ruling, but not surprised,” said defense attorney Michael Aed, who represents Wills.
Aed said Sanderson’s ruling “quite frankly is not supported by the evidence.”
Regarding the truthfulness of the defendants, Aed said every criminal case has “inconsistencies and unknowns.”
“Ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide if their actions were reasonable and justified,” Aed said.