Killing of Army National Guard reservist to be probed in Fresno court hearing

Sixteen months after they allegedly knifed a fellow soldier to death, two Army National Guard reservists from Fresno will have a preliminary hearing in Superior Court to determine whether there is enough evidence to order them to stand trial on a charge of murder.

Jacqueline Benavides Wills and Jessica Wills contend they killed Brian Santos, 32, on New Year’s Day 2014 outside their Fresno home after Santos brutally attacked his girlfriend, Tessia Laulu, who also is in the Army National Guard.

Fresno attorneys Michael Aed, Serita Rios and Amy Guerra, who represent the defendants, contend the law allows people to use deadly force in self-defense and in defense of another.

The preliminary hearing will start Monday in Judge W. Kent Hamlin’s courtroom.

But before the hearing begins, Hamlin said Wednesday, he has to clear up some legal issues. One involves the defendants’ military records that prosecutor William “Billy” Terrence has in his possession but has yet to turn over to defense attorneys.

The other issue involves a report by Terrance’s investigator, Shari Hall, who recently interviewed Laulu, a key witness for the prosecution. Defense lawyers contend Hall’s report has few details of her interview.

Hamlin will hold a hearing regarding the two issues Thursday.

The case got messy before Hamlin took over.

On Wednesday morning, defense lawyers complained to Judge Don Penner about Hall’s report and accused Terrence of withholding notes that Hall had taken in her April 8 interview with Laulu.

Terrence, however, told the judge that Hall told him she destroyed her notes after she wrote the report, saying it was normal protocol. He also told Penner that Hall’s report satisfies the rules of evidence.

Regarding the military records, Terrence said he had just received them and hadn’t had time to review them to determine whether they are evidence. He also told the judge that if the defense wanted the records, they could have subpoenaed them from the military.

Penner ruled that Terrence didn’t have to turn over the military records. If the defense wants them, Penner said, they could file a motion to compel the prosecution to turn them over.

Hamlin could overrule Penner.

Outside court, defense lawyers said the case is tragic for both sides.

“There are no winners in this case,” Aed said, noting that the defendants, Santos and Laulu served together in the Army National Guard and were friends.

They also complained about the prosecution withholding potential evidence.

“We’re dealing with two people’s lives,” Rios said, noting that if convicted of murder, the two defendants, who are married, face life behind bars.

According to Fresno police, Laulu, Santos, Wills and Benavides Wills went out together for a New Year’s celebration. The night turned deadly when a dispute started between Santos and his girlfriend about 2 a.m. outside the defendants’ home on Shields Avenue, east of Clovis Avenue, police said.

Wills told police she stabbed Santos after he allegedly attacked his girlfriend. Benavides Wills was arrested after an autopsy showed that two different weapons were used to kill Santos, police said.

In court papers, defense lawyers say Santos had prior convictions for drunken driving and domestic violence. They also say Santos started a physical altercation with Laulu inside the house, then attacked her outside. He was so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and challenged the defendants to a fight, the lawyers said.

At the time of his death, Santos’ blood alcohol was .21, or nearly three times the legal limit of .08 to drive, court records show.

The records also say Benavides Wills made two 911 calls and Wills performed CPR on Santos.

But at a previous hearing, prosecutors contended Laulu had told police that she didn’t need any assistance from the defendants in her disagreement with Santos. Benavides Wills also was deceptive in talking to the 911 operator, prosecutors said, since she gave a confusing account of what was happening to the operator.

Court records say Wills used a buck knife to kill Santos. The knife was found outside the couple’s home. A second bloody knife was found inside the home, hidden under a mattress.

Since the killing, the two defendants, both 24, have been free on $50,000 bail each after a judge ruled that they are neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk.