Judge Questions DA after Lengthy Prelim in Attack of Tree Trimmers

By Christopher Datu

SACRAMENTO, CA – Judge Ernest W. Sawtelle put the District Attorney’s Office in the hot seat this past week, noting factual inconsistencies and overly drawn out witness testimonies that could have easily been avoided during a preliminary hearing in Dept. 10 of the Sacramento County Superior Court.

The case involves an alleged attack on tree trimmers.

Randy Bettencourt and Kristina Newelle were charged with aggravated assault after an altercation on Feb. 26, 2020, in the Sacramento area. The victims were landscaping employees trimming trees at the residence adjacent to Bettencourt and Newelle.

Some of the trimmings had fallen off the original property and onto their neighboring lawn. Aggravated by the trimmings, Bettencourt initially confronted one of the victims alone, yelling at him and spraying him with a hose.

An argument proceeded and eventually escalated as Newelle and John Bettencourt came out to aid Randy Bettencourt.

One of the victims was tasered multiple times and beaten, resulting in lacerations on the calf, a gash on the back that required six stitches, and a fractured nose. The other was chased and tasered multiple times.

Deputy District Attorney Jordan Avey started by calling Officer Israel Montreuil, who recalled arriving on scene to find the medics already applying gauze to the first victim’s wounded back and informing him he would need stitches.

Officer Montreuil proceeded to take this first victim’s statement. The victim recalled cleaning the tree trimmings at the residence neighboring the house where Bettencourt and Newell stayed.

When asked by Montreuil how he got his injuries, the victim recalled Randy Bettencourt pushing him over the trailer hitch of his truck where protruding screws gave him lacerations on his calf. He also remembered his back came in contact with the hitch hard before falling to the pavement.

At this point, the victim allegedly told Montreuil that Newelle was tasing his legs as she asked, “You want to hit a girl?” taunting the victim and prompting him to get up and hit her.

When he tried to get up, Randy Bettencourt reportedly struck the victim across the face with what the victim thought was a flashlight, fracturing his nose.

The cross-examination began as Bettencourt’s public defender asked the witness, “Did [the first victim] ever report hitting Randy, or anyone else for that matter?” Montreuil claimed, “I don’t know if he did or not, but he did not say he hit anyone.”

Officer Montreuil was then asked, “And what was the extent of your investigation?” He responded, saying, “I only took [the first victim]’s statement.”

Deputy Laura Mueller was then brought to the stand as DDA Avey’s second witness.

Mueller had taken the second victim’s statement, who claimed he noticed the confrontation while atop a ladder trimming a tree as his coworker, the first victim, was “shouting loudly with a bald white man.”

The second victim recalled getting off the ladder and running as he saw John Bettencourt walking toward them with a Taser. While running, the second victim reported being tased in the back, falling, and “being tased again and again while on the ground.”

Cross-examination opened with Bettencourt’s public defender asking, “Did [the second victim] ever tell you they hit either Randy or John Bettencourt?” Mueller answered that “[the second victim] did not tell me anything like that.”

The public defender continued, asking if Deputy Mueller took any other statements. She quickly responded “No, I did not.”

DDA Avey called in the third witness, Detective Nick Sheehan, to the stand.

Sheehan conducted a follow-up investigation, where he clarified “[the first victim] made some changes to his original statement.”

During their phone call, the first victim reportedly told Detective Sheehan that he believed it could have been John Bettencourt who struck him across the face with “maybe a Taser, or flashlight, I’m not sure.”

During cross-examination, Bettencourt’s public defender asked, “Did [the first victim] ever mention that he kicked Randy Bettencourt?” Detective Sheehan stated, “He said he swung a few punches but none of them connected.”

Before calling the fourth witness, Judge Sawtelle remarked, “How come you have so many witnesses? Why did you not just bring the victims in to testify?”

He implied the process was cumbersome in light of the “obvious case of self-defense the defense is trying to make,” with defendants’ counsel often referring to specific acts of violence none of the officer-recorded statements could corroborate.

He went on, saying, “Someone at the DA’s should have looked into this case more closely before it got too far.”

Judge Sawtelle motioned for the prosecution to bring in the fourth witness, Detective Richard Hamilton, who had administered the blind administrative photo line-up during the follow up investigation where both victims “correctly identified the proper suspects.”

The closing arguments were then presented, with Bettencourt’s public defender moving to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence or, if not, to at least reduce the charges to misdemeanors. Newelle’s public defender argued his client was not identified by the prosecution and should not be held responsible.

First addressing the motion to reduce the charges, the prosecution asserted that the injuries sustained “met the level of harm indicative of aggravated assault.” DDA Avey also asserted there was an element of personal infliction met by the first victim being shoved over the trailer hitch.

Judge Sawtelle quickly agreed, noting the violent “felonious conduct” that overruled the fact neither Bettencourt nor Newelle had a record.

The preliminary hearing ended with Judge Sawtelle denying the defense motions and stating there was sufficient evidence to find Randy Bettencourt and Newelle guilty.

Both the defense and prosecution sought resolution and set a tentative settlement conference for July 12.

Christopher Datu is a 4th year Political Science major at UC Davis. He is originally from Corona, California.

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