OCEANSIDE — As a Vista courtroom filled to capacity, Meki Gaono Sr. said softly, “Be cool, relax” to his grandson’s family and friends who were preparing for the verdict in the fatal shooting of Oceanside police Officer Dan Bessant.
Across the aisle, the victim’s father, Steve Bessant, flanked by family, friends and a handful of uniformed and plain clothes Oceanside police officers, including Chief Frank McCoy, sat patiently holding his wife’s hand.
Minutes later, the jury of nine men and three women rendered their verdict.
The panel found Meki Gaono, 20, guilty of the first-degree murder of Officer Bessant on the evening of Dec. 20, 2006.
The jury also found true the special circumstance of killing a police officer in the line of duty, as well as gang and firearm allegations. Additionally, jurors found Gaono guilty of a single count of assault relating to a second police officer on the scene. However, they found him not guilty of assault on a ride-along participant who was standing beside Officer Bessant when he was killed.
Because Gaono was a juvenile at the time of the shooting, he was not eligible for the death penalty. When he is sentenced May 19, he faces up to life in prison without parole.
Outside the courtroom, Gaono’s family and friends formed a circle and began to pray. They declined to comment on the verdict.
Down the hall Officer Bessant’s family and friends gathered. For Steve Bessant, the day marked the end of what he has called a two-and-a-half year marathon.
“There’s no sense of joy,” he said. There’s no joy for anybody. It’s a good thing. It’s the right thing, but it’s nothing to be joyous about.”
Officer Bessant, 25, was gunned down during a traffic stop at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive. He was shot once in his left armpit just above his protective vest. In the months prior to his death, the officer had been working on a program with community activists to put an end to gang violence in the Mesa Margarita neighborhood. He is survived by his wife and son who was 2 months old at the time of shooting.
During the six-week trial, Deputy District Attorney Tom Manning argued Gaono had aimed at Officer Bessant’s head through the scope of the rifle as he steadied the gun on the mailbox at 622 Arthur Avenue, reputed gang member Jose Compre’s house, approximately 386 feet away. He said Compre used a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun and Penifoti “PJ” Taeotui used a .22 caliber revolver to fire in the direction of the officers.
The two .22 caliber firearms were located in Gaono’s house at 680 Arthur Avenue in the hours following the shooting, while the 9 mm handgun was located more than a year after the shooting stashed behind a shed caddy corner to Compre’s backyard, the prosecutor said.
Taeotui, then 16, was convicted of Officer Bessant’s murder and sentenced in January to life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, Compre, then 16, had the murder and assault charges against him dropped in March 2008 after a judge found a lack of evidence to put the teen in front of his house at the time of the shooting. After Gaono’s trial, Manning said the investigation in Compre’s case is ongoing.
Throughout the trial, Gaono’s attorney, William Stone, maintained that his client was not in front of 622 Arthur Avenue when the murder occurred despite Gaono’s statements to police in the early morning hours in which he signed an apology letter for shooting at Bessant.
In his closing argument, Stone questioned the detectives’ interview techniques, especially because his client was only 17 at the time. “It makes me wonder if we are interested in the truth or interested in making a case,” Stone told jurors.
Stone said Gaono hadn’t realized when he began taking the rap for shooting at the police officers that Officer Bessant had been hit or killed. He said Gaono’s statements to police were his attempt at covering for his friends and his gang.
“Because he was going to get caught with the guns, he took the blame,” Stone said. “He had no idea the officer was murdered.”