It was supposed to be a fun night of partying for the four Army National Guard soldiers.
Instead, the New Year’s Day celebration in 2014 went horribly wrong. Police found soldier Brian Santos lying on Shields Avenue in east Fresno stabbed to death.
Nearly 20 months later, two of Santos’ fellow soldiers — Jessica Wills, 25, and Jacqueline Benavides Wills, 24 — are in Fresno County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing to determine whether they should stand trial for killing the 32-year-old Santos.
Wills and Benavides Wills, who are married, were arrested shortly after the killing of Santos. They are free on $50,000 bail each.
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They contend Santos started the altercation by hitting his girlfriend, Tessie Laulu, a fellow soldier. They told police they killed a drunken Santos in self-defense because he became so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and choked her.
At the time of his death, Santos’ blood-alcohol level was .21, or nearly three times the legal limit of .08 to drive, court records show.
Prosecutor Gabriel Brickey, however, contends the pair committed murder because Laulu has told police that she didn’t need any help from the defendants in her disagreement with Santos. Police said Benavides Wills also was deceptive in talking to the 911 operator, and gave a confusing account of what was happening.
I’m not going to lie. I feared for my life and I stabbed him in self-defense
Jessica Wills, who is charged with murder
Police found two knives. A bloody, 10-inch hunting knife was located at the crime scene; a second bloody knife was found inside the home, hidden under a mattress, court records say.
If convicted of murder, Wills and Benavides Wills, who have no prior criminal record, face a potential sentence of life in prison.
On the first day of the hearing, supporters of Wills and Benavides Wills packed one side of the courtroom. On the side sat Santos’ mother and ex-wife.
In starting the hearing, defense lawyers Michael Aed, Serita Rios and Amy Guerra informed Judge Houry Sanderson that Santos has a prior misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence in 2005 and a drunk-in-public infraction in 2013.
Brickey then called Fresno police officer Christopher Hinojos, who responded to the crime scene on Shields Avenue near Fowler Avenue.
When Hinojos arrived around 2:12 a.m., he testified he saw Wills administering CPR to Santos in the roadway. He then assisted Wills until an emergency medical crew arrived.
Once the emergency medical crew took over, Hinojos said he talked to Wills and Benavides Wills. He said Wills told him: “I’m not going to lie. I feared for my life and I stabbed him in self-defense.”
Hinojos testified he talked to Benavides Wills at length. He said Benavides Wills gave this account:
Santos and Laulu drove up from Southern California to attend a New Year’s party with Wills and Benavides Wills.
At the party, the four soldiers drank, but Santos became drunk and started to fight with Laulu, hitting her three times.
Laulu then wanted to leave the party, so Wills’ mother drove them to Wills’ and Benavides Wills’ condo on Shields Avenue. On the way there, Santos elbowed his girlfriend and distracted the driver by pulling on her seat belt.
The foursome were dropped off at the condo. While Santos and Laulu went inside to talk, Wills and Benavides Wills remained outside. When they heard a loud crash, Wills and Benavides Wills rushed into the condo and found Laulu at the bottom of the stairs. Wills and Benavides Wills then accused Santos of pushing his girlfriend down the stairs.
An angry Santos then demanded the key to his car so he could drive home, but Laulu wouldn’t give it to him, so Santos started to hit her. That’s when Wills and Benavides Wills intervened. “They tried to get him off her but couldn’t,” Hinojos testified.
At one point, a shirtless Santos got on top of his girlfriend and choked her. He also swung a punch at Wills, but missed her. Instead, he hit his girlfriend.
While Wills continued to fight with Santos, Benavides Wills called 911. She called around 1:40 a.m. and when police didn’t arrive, she called again around 2:05 a.m.
Hinojos testified that Benavides Wills told him that she saw Wills stab Santos.
The hearing will resume Tuesday, when Brickey plans to call pathologist Dr. Venu Gopal, who did the autopsy. Gopal is expected to testify that Santos was stabbed in the front torso and in the back.