Murder hearing for 2 Fresno soldiers postponed

The preliminary hearing for two Army National Guard soldiers accused of killing a fellow soldier 16 months ago in Fresno was delayed Monday after the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office abruptly announced it has switched prosecutors.

Prosecutor William “Billy” Terrance is out; prosecutor Gabriel Brickey is in.

The decision came out of the blue, said Michael Aed, one of three lawyers representing Jacqueline Benavides Wills, 24, and Jessica Wills, 25, who are charged with murdering 32-year-old Brian Santos on New Year’s Day last year.

Aed said he and defense attorneys Serita Rios and Amy Guerra were ready to put on evidence that allegedly showed the defendants killed in self-defense and in defense of Tessia Laulu, who was allegedly being assaulted by Santos. Laulu was Santos’ girlfriend and also in the Army National Guard.

About three dozen of the defendants’ family and friends showed up for Monday’s hearing. But when Terrence and Laulu and Santos’ family didn’t arrive, Aed said he knew something was up.

Instead of Terrence, Chris Gularte, a chief deputy district attorney who is head of the homicide unit, appeared in Judge W. Kent Hamlin’s courtroom. After talking to both sides privately, Hamlin granted Gularte’s motion to continue the case. A new date for the preliminary hearing has yet to be set.

Afterwards, Aed said it is not immediately known when the preliminary hearing will happen; Brickey has to get up to speed on the evidence and Laulu is scheduled to be deployed soon, he said.

Though the defense agreed to the delay, Aed was clearly upset with the District Attorney’s Office. “They have a habit of keeping us in the dark,” Aed said after the hearing.

Last week, Aed complained in court that the prosecution has been reluctant to turn over potential evidence, including Santos’ and the defendants’ military records. But after Hamlin met privately with both sides, the judge said Terrence had agreed to turn over the military records prior to the preliminary hearing. Hamlin also said Terrence’s investigator, Shari Hall, would rewrite a report of her recent interview with Laulu. Defense lawyers had complained that Hall’s report lacked details.

Rios said Monday the prosecution has turned over the military records and Hall’s revised report to the defense. Still, “it would have been nice to know the hearing was going to be canceled,” Rios said, because many of their supporters came from out of town.

After Monday’s hearing, Gularte said he could not comment because the case is active. His boss, Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright, said it’s office policy not to talk about pending cases, but he wanted to assure the public that Terrence did nothing wrong and that the switch in prosecutors had nothing to do with the defense complaint about withholding military records.

“I can’t get into specifics, but it (the reason for the switch) might come out later (as the case progresses),” Wright said.

In making the switch, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp turned to one of her best prosecutors.

While Terrence is new to the homicide team, Brickey has been on it for years, filling his resume with an impressive list of convictions, including the October guilty verdict of a Fresno man who killed his lover with a dumbbell and the March conviction of a Fresno gang member who killed a rival.

Prosecuting Benavides Wills and Wills, who are married, will be challenging.

The two defendants, along with Laulu and Santos, served together in the Army National Guard and were friends. Benevides and Wills also have no prior criminal history, while Santos has convictions for domestic violence and drunken driving, court records say.

According to Fresno police, the foursome went out together in Fresno 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 contend 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.

Since the killing, the two defendants 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. If convicted of murder, they face a possibile sentence of life in prison.