A repeat DUI offender who struck and fatally injured a pedestrian in Desert Hot Springs is facing 15 years to life in state prison.
Michael Bettasso 41, of Yucca Valley, is slated to be sentenced in February for the July 2, 2016, crash that killed 63-year-old Richard Helton of Desert Hot Springs. Jurors deliberated for several hours Monday afternoon before finding him guilty of second-degree murder, drunken driving and hit-and- run, along with a misdemeanor count of driving on a suspended license, according to the Riverside County District Attorney’s office.
Bettasso was driving northbound on Indian Canyon Drive, north of Dillon Road, when 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 misdemeanor DUI convictions in Riverside County and one in San Bernardino County since 2001. He was on probation and had a suspended license at the time of the crash, according to prosecutors.
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, Bettasso told multiple co- workers “I’m fine” after they advised him not to drive home.
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 as a result of striking Helton. Bettasso refused assistance from bystanders and left the scene, according to prosecutors. He told family members and others that he thought he struck a dog or coyote, but also told a tow truck driver that his mother had been driving the car, according to the prosecution.
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. 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 told investigators 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. He also denied speaking to any witnesses at the scene, despite bystanders saying otherwise.
“Richard Helton lost his life because of (Bettasso’s) selfish actions,” Deputy District Attorney Kristi Kirk told the jury Monday in her closing argument. “Richard Helton lost his life because of his conduct. We’re here today because of his conduct.”
Bettasso’s attorney, Alex Hallowell, acknowledged that his client was responsible for Helton’s death, but argued that he didn’t display a “conscious disregard for human life” necessary for a second-degree murder conviction.
Hallowell said Bettasso believed he was competent enough to drive. Citing his assurances that he was “fine” to co-workers, Hallowell said those comments showed his client was not conscious of the danger he posed behind the wheel. The attorney contrasted the circumstances behind the crash with other examples of second-degree murder, including firing gunshots at an inhabited building or dropping objects off of freeway overpasses.
“(In those instances), it’s unmistakable that they know what they’re doing is highly dangerous and can kill someone, and they made the determination that they don’t care,” Hallowell said. “In this case, you have to believe that Mr. Bettasso made that same determination, that he made the determination that he did not care if he killed someone. The evidence in this case shows a lot, but it doesn’t show that.”
Hallowell conceded that his client was guilty of a felony count of driving under the influence causing death, but also alleged that Bettasso was not overly intoxicated that day, despite the drinks he had during his shift, and thus had little to no reason to consider himself too drunk to drive.
“There was no indication that Mr. Bettasso appreciated that he was a risk to people that day,” Hallowell said. “He was wrong, and him being wrong cost Mr. Helton his life. But that is driving intoxicated and killing Mr. Helton — that’s not murder.”