Oct 18, 2013

Key witness in the Flores trial talks about his testimony

Fontaine murder trial: Jury Deliberations Day 5

Will Sands
It's Friday afternoon and bartender Will Sands is getting ready for a big football weekend at The Roadhouse. Most current and former Oxford residents know Will from the times they've stopped in for a drink or a meal or both.

He's the guy behind the bar with the quick service, a welcoming smile, and a willing ear, whether you want to pour out your troubles, analyze the latest Ole Miss injuries, or just share that great joke you heard today.

The Roadhouse is always busy and Will is used to coping with chaos, but this month, he's also been caught up in a different kind of chaos over at the Yoknapatawpha County Courthouse.

As usual, Will's first thought is how to make the experience a little easier on everyone else.


Will never expected to be a witness in a murder trial, but that's where he found himself last week when prosecutor Calvin Dollarhide called him to the stand in the Benito Flores trial.

Twenty-one months ago, it was just another Saturday night at The Roadhouse. Customers filled every table and barstool, and Will was behind the bar. But it turned out that one of those customers that night was Benito Flores, who's now on trial for murdering Philip Fontaine.

Will has a bartender's gift for remembering faces, and he was able to give detectives enough information about a man he saw that night who looked like he'd been in a fight that the investigators were able to identify that man as Benito Flores.

Now, almost two years later, Will was at a different kind of bar, testifying as a prosecution witness in the Flores trial.

Crime Beat got a chance to talk to Will about his role in the case over a burger and a beer at The Roadhouse.

Crime Beat: So, Will, what can you tell me about Benito Flores?

Will Sands: Now, Kemper, you don't want to talk about that. It's almost the weekend. Why don't you take the rest of the day off? Can I get you another beer?

CB: No, thanks. Come on, Will. Did you know Benito Flores before all this happened?

WS: Well, now, I wouldn't say I knew him, but I'd seen him around.

CB: I was in court for your testimony, and it sounded like Benito had been causing problems for The Roadhouse for a while.

WS: That's all old news. We don't have trouble like that around here anymore.

CB: So drug dealers aren't hanging out in the parking lot anymore?

WS: That's right. You saw it when you came in. Did you see any of those characters out there?

CB: No.

WS: No, you didn't. The sheriff's department did a real good job taking care of that. Real good.

CB: Did they get it cleaned up around the same time as they needed you to be a witness in the Flores trial?

WS: Now, Kemper, don't go creating trouble where there isn't any. They did their job, same as I'm doing mine and you're doing yours.

CB: If you say so. So how did you end up telling the detectives about Benito being here the night Philip Fontaine was killed?

WS: They asked me to come in and talk to them. I just answered their questions.

CB: What made them want to talk to you?

WS: I don't know.

CB: You didn't ask?

WS: I just answered their questions like the good citizen I am.

CB: As a good citizen, when did you first suspect that Benito Flores killed Philip Fontaine?

WS: I'm just the bartender, Kemper. It's not my job to decide who's guilty and who isn't.

CB: So you think he didn't do it?

WS: Old Will is just here to make sure everybody has a good time, not to judge people.

CB: You know that the Flores defense has accused Grant Fontaine of killing his father?

WS: Yeah, I read about that on your site.

CB: Thanks. Do you think Grant could have done it?

WS: I don't know. All I know is Grant wasn't here that night.

CB: Benito Flores says he was.

WS: I heard that.

CB: So Flores lied?

WS: You know, I think what I heard Benito said was that he saw Grant in the parking lot, not inside.

CB: So Grant could've been in the parking lot that night?

WS: I never saw him out there, but we were real busy that night.

CB: Before all this happened, you had a pretty close relationship with the Fontaine family, didn't you?

WS: I only saw them when they came in The Roadhouse, but they were good customers, good tippers.

CB: You knew them a little better than that, right?

WS: No better than any other regular. The Fontaines and I don't exactly run in the same circles, you know.

CB: So do you think Grant killed his father?

WS: I don't know who did it.

CB: Come on, Will. You know everything that goes on in this town. You've got to have some idea who killed Philip Fontaine.

WS: You know, if we keep talking, your burger's going to get cold, so I'm going to leave you to it. I need to go check on those folks at the end of the bar. Thanks for coming in, Kemper. Always great to see you.

The first week of deliberations ended without a verdict. The jury will take the weekend off and resume deliberations Monday morning.
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Oct 16, 2013

Bruno Coleman speaks out about his late rival and family

Fontaine murder trial: Jury Deliberations Day 3

Bruno Coleman
Last week, when the defense in the Benito Flores trial accused Grant Fontaine of killing his father, many Oxford citizens had a strong reaction. Some felt Grant Fontaine should have been a suspect all along, given his history of animosity with his father and his well-known drug use.

But others thought the defense was preying on a troubled young man in a cynical attempt to exonerate the man some consider unredeemable, Benito Flores.

Surprisingly, the latter group included Philip Fontaine's longtime rival Bruno Coleman. Even thought Fontaine and Coleman had been fierce competitors for decades, Coleman has weighed in on the side of the Fontaine family ever since the murder.

Shortly after Philip Fontaine was found murdered, Coleman offered a substantial reward for the arrest of the culprit.
Today, I am offering a $10,000 reward, no questions asked, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vicious burglar who murdered Philip Fontaine. Oxford is a peaceful, law-abiding community, and we can't tolerate this kind of wanton violence.
Wednesday afternoon, Crime Beat caught up with Mr. Coleman on the Square and talked to him about his support of his longtime rival's family.

Crime Beat: Mr. Coleman, you've piqued the curiosity of a lot of people in Oxford since Philip Fontaine's murder. The two of you were adversaries for as long as most people can remember, but you've been very vocal in your support for his family. I think what we all want to know is why?

Bruno Coleman: Losing a family member, even a difficult one, so suddenly and so brutally is hard for anyone. I'm fortunate to be in a position to help Grant and Ashley, and I've only done what anyone would do.

CB: Not everyone would offer a $10,000 reward to help solve the murder of someone they'd hated for years.

BC: That's not about Philip. That's about helping his family find some peace.

CB: You can understand that people are curious about why you've gone out of your way to help the family of a man you hated.

BC: Grant and Ashley had to put up with Philip for years, which is enough to get anyone's sympathy. Don't kid yourself. Philip Fontaine was a ruthless, vindictive son of a bitch. Like I said, this isn't about him. I reached out to his family to help them, not him.

CB: Last week, you were one of the first people to come to Grant's defense after Benito Flores accused him of killing his father.
What the defense is trying to do is slanderous. They should be ashamed of themselves, trying to convict an innocent young man just to get their drug-dealer client off.
How do you explain your strong reaction to the defense's allegations?

BC: For them to try to blame Grant is just unconscionable. Grant has faced a lot of challenges in his young life, and after a lot of hard work, he's finally overcome them. He's a good man, who would never kill anyone. This dirty trick that Flores' defense is trying to pull is exactly the kind of thing Philip would've done to get himself out of trouble. That right there should prove to you they're lying.

CB: It sounds like your opinion of Philip Fontaine hasn't improved any since his death.

BC: Why would it? He was a selfish bastard. Nothing about that has changed. But no matter what kind of person he was, Flores had no right to kill him.

CB: You're convinced that Benito Flores is the one who killed Philip?

BC: I am.

CB: Didn't you originally tell the police you thought the killer was a stranger? A drifter?

BC: Well, I wasn't far off, was I?

CB: But Benito Flores was known to the Fontaine family. And he lives here in town.

BC: I'm not going to comment on his character. That's been well-established in court.

CB: Has anyone claimed the reward you offered after the murder?

BC: I've been asked not to talk about that until after the trial is over, so I really can't comment.

CB: Who asked you not to talk about it?

BC: I'm afraid I have to be going now. I have a meeting.

CB: One last question before you go. The jury has been deliberating now for almost three full days. Why do you think they haven't decided on a verdict yet?

BC: I have no idea.

CB: What do you think the verdict will be when it finally comes in?

BC: It'll be guilty. Because he is guilty.

The third day of deliberations ended without a verdict. The jury will resume deliberations Thursday morning.
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Oct 14, 2013

Flores prosecutor talks evidence, witnesses and waiting for a verdict

ADA Calvin Dollarhide
Fontaine murder trial: Jury Deliberations Day 1

Late Friday afternoon, closing arguments wrapped up in the Benito Flores contentious trial, and court adjourned for the weekend.

As he left the courthouse, prosecutor Calvin Dollarhide spoke briefly to reporters.
The evidence against Mr. Flores is absolutely clear. He's guilty. And the evidence presented by his defense did not stand up to cross-examination. What we expect and what we believe is that the jury will return a guilty verdict and nothing less.
This morning, the jury received their instructions and began deliberations. While he waits for the verdict, Mr. Dollarhide talked to Crime Beat about the trial, the victim's family, the allegations Flores' defense made, and more.

Crime Beat: On Friday, you sounded very confident that the jury will find Benito Flores guilty. Still, this must be a very tense time, waiting for the verdict.

Calvin Dollarhide: There's always some tension just because of the waiting, but at this stage, it's a little more like impatience to hear the verdict. On those rare occasions where deliberations drag out for days, it can become stressful, but we're not expecting that to happen this time.

CB: You think the jury will come back quickly?

CD: I hope so. This entire process from the night Philip Fontaine was murdered all the way through to today has been very painful and upsetting for the Fontaine family, so for their sake, I hope justice is done swiftly.

CB: And of course, you're expecting a guilty verdict.

CD: I am. The evidence against Benito Flores is strong, and I think the jury will see through the defense's smoke and mirrors.

CB: You're not at all concerned that the defense may have convinced any of the jury members that Grant Fontaine killed his father?

CD: No. The defense painted a very melodramatic picture, but this isn't a soap opera. The jurors will see that tale for what it is: a desperate attempt to escape punishment by throwing blame on someone else.

CB: You mentioned the Fontaine family a moment ago. How did they respond to the defense's accusations against Grant Fontaine?

CD: I won't presume to speak for the Fontaines. My guess is what the defense did only made this situation more painful for them, but you'd have to ask them.

CB: How involved were Ashley and Grant Fontaine in your prosecution?

CD: We work closely with all victims' families, and we did the same with the Fontaines.

CB: In what ways did you work closely with the Fontaines specifically?

CD: I'm not going to get into specifics, but generally, we've kept them informed of developments in the case. They contacted us regularly for updates. They provided additional information about Philip Fontaine when we requested it. We worked together to see Mr. Fontaine's killer brought to justice.

CB: The Fontaines are a very prominent family in town. Did that influence the strategy or direction of your prosecution?

CD: Absolutely not. The social standing of a victim or a victim's family has no bearing on how a case is prosecuted.

CB: Because Mr. Flores and his attorney have argued that he is being prosecuted because he's a poor Latino and the person they claim is the real killer is a wealthy white male.

CD: Just because they said it doesn't mean it's true. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Race is not a factor. Income level is not a factor. Social standing is not a factor. We go where the evidence leads us, and in this case, the evidence led us to Mr. Flores and no one else.

CB: One significant piece of evidence was the $15,000 cash that Philip Fontaine had the day he was killed. You allege that Benito Flores stole that money, but the money itself has never been found. What do you expect the jurors to make of that?

CD: First, I would say that the money hasn't been found – yet. After Mr. Flores is convicted, he may feel motivated to tell us where he hid it.

CB: You're assuming he'll be convicted.

CD: Yes, I am.

CB: But since you didn't find the money in his possession, why should anyone believe that he ever had it at all?

CD: Because people saw him with it on the night of the murder.

CB: But Mr. Flores admitted to selling drugs, and that's a cash-only business. Why assume the cash he had that night came from Philip Fontaine rather than Flores' own criminal activity?

CD: He would have to be the most successful drug dealer that Yoknapatawpha County has ever seen to have that much cash in his pockets from one night's sales. We're talking about a street-level dealer, not some kingpin. Multiple witnesses testified that they'd never seen him with that much cash before, and these are people who saw him on a regular basis. No, he stole that money from Philip Fontaine after he killed him.

CB: You don't have even a sliver of a doubt that Benito Flores is the killer?

CD: Absolutely not. I don't prosecute people I think are innocent. Mr. Flores killed Philip Fontaine, and he is being held to account for that.

CB: You said earlier that you're hoping for a quick verdict. How soon do you expect the jury to come back?

CD: I've been doing this too long to think I can say for certain what a jury will do or how soon they'll do it.

CB: Fair enough. Then at what point will you start to worry that the jury isn't leaning your way? After two days? Three? More?

CD: That's something no one can predict. We'll just have to see what happens.

CB: If the deliberations do go on for several days or more, would you consider offering Benito Flores a plea deal?

CD: I have every confidence that the jury will find Mr. Flores guilty soon. If that doesn't happen on the timetable we're hoping for, well… we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

As of 4:30 PM CDT, the jury is still deliberating.
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Oct 10, 2013

Flores faces cross-examination after allegations

Benito Flores

Fontaine murder trial: Day 7

The case defense attorney Pam Lipscomb presented in the Benito Flores trial has been met with a mix of shock, skepticism, and credulity by Oxonians at large.

But assistant district attorney Calvin Dollarhide showed no signs Wednesday after court of being even slightly persuaded by the defense's argument.
I am not going to address the specifics of this case outside of the courtroom, but I can say the defense is built on a shaky foundation that won't hold up to scrutiny. I'm sure the jury will agree. I know they will.
Dollarhide struck back quickly, not with outrage but with low-key pressure for additional specifics during his cross-examination of Flores.

Dollarhide asked the defendant a number of detailed questions about Flores' alleged "scuffle" with the victim's son, Grant Fontaine, the night of the murder. The defense argued that this altercation explained the injuries that witness Will Sands described seeing on Flores.

Dollarhide also played up the noticeable difference in physical size between Flores and Grant Fontaine, and pressed Flores to explain how Fontaine emerged relatively unscathed while Flores himself suffered a number of injuries. Flores attributed the disparity to Fontaine's cocaine use at the time, but it was not clear to court observers whether the jury believed that explanation.

Dollarhide went on testing the credibility of Flores' story by asking him to account for the fact that none of Grant Fontaine's DNA in the form of blood, saliva or skin cells was found on Flores' clothing after the physical altercation. Lipscomb's objection that Flores is not a DNA expert was sustained, but the damage was already done.

Dollarhide continued to hammer on Flores, pushing him to justify why the jurors should believe a self-confessed criminal and to explain why Grant Fontaine never named him as a suspect if, as Flores alleged, Fontaine set him up as a patsy.

The relentless questioning eventually took its toll, and Flores' anger boiled over as he leapt to his feet and shouted at Dollarhide. Court adjourned for the day following the outburst, and it's not clear whether Flores will be asked to return to the stand on Friday morning.

Either way, closing arguments are expected to begin during Friday's session with a verdict likely sometime next week.

ADA Dollarhide has agreed to speak with Crime Beat after closing arguments, so come back for that post after the case goes to the jury.
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Oct 9, 2013

Flores defense attorney predicts trial outcome

Fontaine murder trial: Day 6

Defense attorney Pamela Lipscomb
Don't miss Part 1 of this post: Flores defense names "real killer"

After attorney Pam Lipscomb presented the defense's case arguing that Benito Flores was innocent and Grant Fontaine killed his father in a drug-fueled rage, Ms. Lipscomb spoke exclusively with Crime Beat about the evidence they uncovered and what she expects will happen now.

Crime Beat: Thanks for talking to us. The last couple of days have been very exciting, as you finally unveiled your case to the court and the public. What was your first gave you the idea that Grant Fontaine could have killed his father?

Pamela Lipscomb: In our view, Grant should have been the top suspect from the beginning. In reviewing the police interviews with him, it's clear that he was high the night his father was killed and he was still high when the detectives first talked to him. In subsequent police interviews, he was evasive and untruthful.

CB: Some people have attributed Grant's behavior in those interviews to his drug addiction, which he has struggled with for years. Do you cut him any kind of break for that?

PL: Well, he seems to be fine now, and by all accounts, he has been since his father was killed. We're not convinced that he's the poor little rich boy struggling with a crippling addiction, no matter how the Fontaine family has tried to portray him.

CB: You don't accept the explanation that his father's death caused him to hit rock bottom and inspired him to turn his life around?

PL: It's all in the spin, isn't it, Kemper? If Grant actually has conquered his drug addiction, was it because his father's untimely death made him reevaluate his life? Or was it because, while he was under the influence, he brutally murdered the man who gave him life and now he's afraid what will happen if he uses cocaine again?

CB: In your press conference last month when you announced you'd be implicating another suspect, you implied that the Yoknapatawpha Sheriff's detectives failed in their investigation.
I imagine the detectives did the best they could, but at this time, it just wasn't enough.
CB: Do you feel the YCSD was influenced by the Fontaine family and other powerful business people in Oxford? Or do you think the detectives simply weren't up to the task of solving such a high profile homicide?

PL: I believe the detectives in the Sheriff's Department do the best they can, but I think sometimes there is more to a case than they realize or than they're empowered to acknowledge.

CB: Meaning?

PL: Meaning that sometimes investigations can be steered in one direction or another from higher up the food chain.

CB: Do you have proof of that?

PL: That kind of thing is the very definition of unprovable. I can only tell you what I believe, based on my experience and instinct.

CB: Let's talk about your case. You admitted that Mr. Flores sold drugs. Isn't that a risk? Are you worried that the jury might think, "Everyone knows drug dealing and violence go hand-in-hand. If he sold drugs, he probably committed murder too."

PL: As we explained to the jury, not everyone who sells drugs is also capable of physical violence. That's a misconception perpetuated by movies and television. While economic circumstance forced Mr. Flores to sell drugs so he could put food on the table and a roof over his head, he acknowledges that he took a wrong path. But as our witnesses testified, Mr. Flores has never hurt anyone.

CB: You don't think the drugs he sold hurt anyone?

PL: Everyone has to take responsibility for their own choices.

CB: On Tuesday, Mr. Flores took the stand and gave his version of what happened the night Philip Fontaine was murdered.

PL: It wasn't "his version." It's what happened.

CB: To some court observers, his story was a little convenient, explaining his bloody fingerprint on the murder weapon by depicting him as simply a Good Samaritan.

PL: First of all, it's no simple thing to be a Good Samaritan. That kind of action requires more bravery than most people realize.

CB: According to his own testimony, Mr. Flores left an elderly man bleeding on the floor to save his own skin. He didn't call 911 or make any effort to get some help for Mr. Fontaine.

PL: As he told the jury, Mr. Flores was concerned that, as a poor minority, he would be blamed for Mr. Fontaine's death, even though he did nothing except try to help the man. As it turned out, Mr. Flores was right.

CB: So in your view, Benito Flores is on trial for killing Philip Fontaine simply because he's a lower income Latino?

PL: Sometimes justice isn't as blind as we like to pretend.

CB: Which you know as an upper middle class Caucasian woman?

PL: Which I know from more than a decade as a criminal defense attorney in Mississippi.

CB: The trial isn't over yet, but given your comments to the press, you think the jury is leaning your way?
We’re very happy with the case we presented, and we believe the jury will agree and acquit Mr. Flores.
PL: I think the prosecution is counting on the jury's sympathy for an elderly murder victim and a weak young man addled by drug addiction. But what they're not considering the the jury's empathy with a man who has to fight for every penny he makes and who never got any breaks but who still tried to do the right thing, even when it could only hurt him.

CB: But Philip Fontaine was an elderly man who was brutally murdered. And Grant Fontaine is struggling with the illness of drug addiction.

PL: The truth is, Philip Fontaine wasn't a kindly old man unfairly set upon by a swarthy menace. He was a ruthless businessman and a callous family man who evoked nothing but contempt and resentment from everyone who knew him. And Grant Fontaine is more of the same. He's just been trying – and failing – to bury it with drugs.

CB: Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about Benito Flores or the case against him?

PL: Benito Flores is not a perfect man, as he himself has admitted, but he is not guilty of killing Philip Fontaine. He should not have to take the fall simply because he is poorer and less powerful than the real killer. After Mr. Flores is acquitted, we hope the YCSD will fully investigate Grant Fontaine and bring him to account for murdering his own father.

On Wednesday, Benito Flores will return to the stand to be cross-examined by prosecuting attorney Calvin Dollarhide. Come back tomorrow for coverage Day 7 of the Flores trial.
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Flores defense names "real killer"

Fontaine murder trial: Day 6

Defendant Benito Flores, Attorney Pam Lipscomb,
Defense suspect Grant Fontaine
All eyes in Oxford have been on the Benito Flores trial that started last week.

A month ago, the Flores defense team held a press conference to announce they had identified Philip Fontaine's "real killer," but they have steadfastly refused to name that person ever since, saying the culprit would be unmasked in court.

Now, Oxonians know who the defense is implicating and how they're doing it. Monday afternoon, Ms. Lipscomb told reporters,
"Today in court, we showed the abundance of evidence implicating Grant Fontaine in the murder of his father. Tomorrow, Mr. Flores will take the stand and reveal everything he knows about what happened that night."
Earlier that day, she and her team had laid out their case implicating Grant Fontaine with a parade of witnesses testifying to the acrimonious relationship between the Fontaine father and son, Grant Fontaine's drug use, and Benito Flores' reputation as non-violent.

Yesterday, Benito Flores took the stand and gave his version of what happened the night Philip Fontaine was killed.

Flores claimed he met Grant Fontaine in the parking lot of a local restaurant that night and sold Grant some cocaine, both of which Flores had previously denied on multiple occasions.

Flores alleged that Grant was furious with his father for punching him that evening and swore he wasn't going to "let the old man get away with it this time." Flores said Grant left with the cocaine, saying he was going home to teach his father a lesson.

Flores told the court that after he reflected on the situation for several minutes, he was worried about Philip Fontaine's safety so he followed Grant to the Fontaine residence, now admitting he was at the scene which he'd also previously denied.

Flores said he found a door ajar upon arrival and entered the house, where he discovered Grant "all coked up."

Flores claimed he tried to stop Grant from escaping, at which time the two men got into a physical altercation before Grant got away, leaving Flores with what he described as "minor cuts and bruises."

Flores said he went into the Fontaine kitchen to clean up his injuries and found Philip Fontaine bleeding on the floor. Flores claimed he tried to help the elder Fontaine and acknowledged he may have touched the murder knife while doing so.

Flores concluded his story by saying he became concerned when he realized Fontaine was dead that he might be blamed and fled the scene.

After Flores completed his direct testimony, court adjourned for the day. He is expected back on the stand today for cross-examination.

Last night, Flores attorney Pamela Lipscomb spoke exclusively with the Crime Beat about yesterday's dramatic revelations.

Don't miss Part 2 of this post where Ms. Lipscomb talks about the case and her client's chances of acquittal.
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