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Santa Ynez Valley Man Sentenced to Five Years in Prison for Fatal DUI Crash

Benjamin Bettencourt also loses his license for a year and is ordered to pay restitution for the 2012 accident that led to the death of teacher Jennifer Clark

Defendant Benjamin Bettencourt, right, and attorney Darryl Genis appear in court in early April for closing arguments.
Defendant Benjamin Bettencourt, right, and attorney Darryl Genis appear in court in early April for closing arguments. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

A judge on Monday sentenced Santa Ynez Valley resident Benjamin Bettencourt to five years in state prison for driving drunk in 2012, crashing his van and critically injuring a popular teacher who died several days later.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores said he chose the midterm sentence for Bettencourt, and noted the devastating effects of the crash on the families.

A passenger in Bettencourt’s van, Jennifer Clark, 39, of Los Olivos died days after the Nov. 24, 2012, crash on Highway 246 between Solvang and Buellton.

The crash occurred due to irresponsibility regarding driving while under the influence of alcohol, the judge said.

“This is something that did not have to happen,” Flores said, noting the loss of the “bright young and energetic woman.”

Bettencourt had faced a maximum sentence of six years in prison.

A jury last month convicted Bettencourt guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher, and enhancements for causing great bodily injury.

Before handing down the sentence, Flores rejected a defense motion for a new trial.

Bettencourt is expected to serve 85 percent of the time, or slightly more than four years, under today’s sentencing laws. The judge also suspended Bettencourt’s license for one year and ordered him to pay restitution and fees exceeding $23,000.

No sentence would bring Clark back to life or give Bettencourt, a paraplegic from a 1998 accident, the chance to walk again, the judge said, adding his heart went out to both families.

"The justice system is just not designed to handle things like this. You can’t punish people back to life,” Flores said. “You can’t do that.”

The judge added he is convinced Bettencourt and Clark were friends and noted a letter from the defendant expressing “profound sorrow” about what happened.

“That doesn’t bring her back, either,” Flores said.

The victim’s sister, Erin Parsons, read victim impact letters from their parents and herself while the urn holding Clark’s ashes sat nearby.

Afterward, she said she had hoped Bettencourt would receive the maximum sentence after hearing the judge instead pick a middle prison term.

“I’m OK with that,” Parsons said. “I’m just glad that it’s all over.”

The judge also granted a request from Bettencourt’s attorney, Darryl Genis, who asked to be removed and have a court-appointed attorney take over the case to handle the appeal.

During the trial, Genis challenged the breath test and blood tests, and argued that Clark actually was driving, contending she grabbed the steering wheel.

The prosecution contended Bettencourt abandoned his role as designated driver for Clark when he got behind the wheel while intoxicated.

The trial began in early February and ended in April, longer than normal for a similar case.

“As the judge said, it was a very challenging, hard-fought battle,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Kevin Duffy said.

Duffy said he felt the midterm prison sentence was appropriate for the case.

“I’m very happy for the victim’s family in that, although it won’t bring back their loved one, they got some closure today and they got some justice,” Duffy added.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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