Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday for the second-degree murder trial of a repeat DUI offender accused of running down a pedestrian in Desert Hot Springs and fleeing the scene.
Michael Bettasso, 41, of Yucca Valley, is accused in the July 2, 2016, crash that killed 63-year-old Richard Helton of Desert Hot Springs, whose truck had broken down along North Indian Canyon Drive that night.
Prosecutors allege Bettasso was driving northbound on Indian Canyon Drive, north of Dillon Road, about 7:30 p.m. when his 2014 Nissan Sentra struck Helton, who was walking on the east side of the roadway.
Court documents state that Bettasso has amassed three Riverside County misdemeanor DUI convictions and one San Bernardino County misdemeanor DUI conviction since 2001. He was on probation and had a suspended license at the time of the crash, according to prosecutors.
During his shift as a bartender at the Hair of the Dog pub in Palm Springs during the afternoon of July 2, Bettasso “drank several mixed drinks and shots,” then drank more after work at a different bar, according to the prosecution’s trial brief. Co-workers advised him not to drive home, but he allegedly told them “I’m fine.”
Just after 8 p.m., several witnesses drove past the crash scene and saw Bettasso standing near his car, which had sustained front-end damage, allegedly as a result of striking Helton. Bettasso allegedly refused assistance from bystanders, and left the scene on foot. He told family members and others that he thought he struck a dog or coyote, the brief states.
Helton’s body was found the following morning by a pair of bicyclists. His 1988 Chevrolet pickup truck was found about 200 feet south of the crash scene, indicating the vehicle broke down and he had walked down the road for assistance.
Bettasso’s car was identified as the crash vehicle through photographs that a bystander took while it was at the scene, according to the brief. Investigators found the car, which was towed to Bettasso’s home, in the driveway of his residence the following day, “with damage consistent with the traffic collision,” according to the prosecution.
Bettasso stated that he’d been encouraged to drink while at work, but declined, then struck what he believed to be an animal, and was picked up by a family member from the crash scene, according to the brief, which also states that he denied speaking to any witnesses at the scene, despite bystanders alleging otherwise.
Bettasso remains in custody in lieu of $1 million bail.