A repeat DUI offender fatally struck a pedestrian in Desert Hot Springs while drunk, despite numerous prior convictions for drunk driving, a prosecutor said Tuesday, while a defense attorney said his client’s actions did not rise to the level of the second-degree murder charge he is facing.
Testimony began in the trial of Michael Bettasso of Yucca Valley, 41, who is accused in the July 2, 2016 crash that killed 63-year-old Richard Helton of Desert Hot Springs.
Prosecutors say Bettasso was driving northbound on Indian Canyon Drive, north of Dillon Road, when at around 8 p.m. his 2014 Nissan Sentra struck Helton, who was walking on the east side of the roadway. Helton’s truck had broken down along North Indian Canyon Drive that night, and he was struck while walking along the road to get help.
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.
“In this trial, you will learn that (Helton’s) tragic death was entirely preventable,” Deputy District Attorney Kristi Kirk told jurors in her opening statement. “You will learn through the course of this trial that Mr. Helton died because the defendant felt he was `fine.”’
Kirk was citing Bettasso’s alleged comments to coworkers, after they advised him not to drive home following an afternoon shift as a bartender at the Hair of the Dog pub in Palm Springs, during which he “drank several mixed drinks and shots,” then drank more after work at a different bar, according to the prosecution’s trial brief. He allegedly told his co-workers “I’m fine,” after they warned him not to get behind the wheel.
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. He told family members and others that he thought he struck a dog or coyote, but also allegedly told a tow truck driver that his mother had been driving the car, 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 the Nissan 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’s attorney, Alex Hallowell, acknowledged that his client was responsible for Helton’s death, but said he didn’t display a “conscious disregard for human life” necessary for a second-degree murder conviction.
Hallowell said Bettasso was not overly intoxicated that day, despite the drinks he had during his shift, and that there wasn’t any evidence that his driving was reckless, or that he believed he was too drunk to drive, but chose to do so anyway.
“Nothing happened that day to give Mr. Bettasso any reason to believe that he would be an unsafe driver,” Hallowell told the jury. “Nothing happened that day to give Mr. Bettasso any reason to believe that he may kill somebody that night.”
Bettasso remains in custody in lieu of $1 million bail.
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: