OCEANSIDE — “He’s just a kid!” a relative screamed outside the courtroom moments after 18-year-old Penifoti “P.J.” Taeotui was convicted Nov. 10 of the murder of Oceanside police Officer Dan Bessant nearly two years ago.
Soon after, jurors quickly filed out of the courtroom, all denying requests to speak as they made their quick exit out of the courthouse. Seconds later, the bulk of the young defendant’s family and friends, who had packed the right side of the courtroom, came streaming out of the courtroom crying, speechless and devastated. A woman who only identified herself as Taeotui’s aunt said her family was sorry for the Bessant family’s loss, but that her nephew wasn’t at the scene when the murder occurred.
Finally, the Bessant family emerged from the courtroom, and after a few minutes spoke to the gathered press.
“I saw the same evidence (the jury) did and I’m in agreement with their findings,” Steve Bessant said. The slain officer’s father attended the entire five-week trial. “I really appreciate the work of this jury.”
“I have compassion for the Taeotui family, their losing a son also… but his family can visit him, I wish I could visit Danny,” Steve Bessant said.
Bessant, 25, was gunned down on the evening of Dec. 20, 2006, during a traffic stop at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive in the “back gate” area of Oceanside. He was shot once in his left armpit just above his protective vest. In the months prior to his death, Bessant, a father and husband, had been working on a program with community activists to put an end to gang violence in the Mesa Margarita neighborhood, which the prosecution believes was the motive for the gangland slaying.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors maintained that Meki Gaono, 19, used a .22-caliber rifle with a scope to fatally shoot Bessant from more than 300 feet away, while Taeotui and another teen, Jose Compre, fired handguns — a .22-caliber revolver and a 9 mm semi-automatic, respectively — in the direction of the officers.
Taeotui’s DNA was found on beer cans at the scene, as well as the two .22-caliber firearms.
Prosecutor Tom Manning told jurors in his closing statement that the murder was part of the “warped subculture of gang mentality.”
“There isn’t a more violent, powerful action than shooting a police officer,” Manning said.
Taeotui was convicted of a single count of first-degree murder, as well as two counts of assault relating to another Oceanside police officer and a ridealong witness. In addition, jurors found true the gang and weapon enhancements attached to the charges. A sentencing date of Jan. 12 has been scheduled. Coincidentally, Gaono’s trial is set to begin that day. Gaono is charged with same counts as Taeotui.
Both teens face up to life in prison; however, because they were underage at the time of the shooting, the prosecution wasn’t able to seek the death penalty.
Compre, 17, had the murder and assault charges against him dropped in March after a judge found a lack of evidence to put the teen in front of his residence at 622 Arthur Avenue when the shooting occurred.
Defense attorney William Rumble weaved a different scenario that excluded his client from the shooting. Further, the lawyer questioned the integrity of a handful of the prosecution’s witnesses who are gang members or have some gang affiliation.
Rumble told the panel the teens, as well as a fourth heavier-set gang member, had been shooting out streetlights and drinking beer prior to the murder, but that his client had left approximately 10 to 20 minutes before the incident occurred. He cited neighborhood witnesses whose descriptions of the teens in front of Compre’s residence at the time of the shooting didn’t match Taeotui.
However, Taeotui’s peers testified the young man admitted that he and two other gang members, Gaono and Compre, fired at Bessant. Rumble cried foul saying the witnesses were coerced into telling police investigators what they wanted to hear to gain immunity from being an accessory after the fact, which can carry a sentence of life in prison.
“These people took an oath and they lied,” Rumble said.