OCEANSIDE — A veteran Oceanside police officer testified Oct. 9 about an incident a few months prior to the killing of Officer Dan Bessant that showcased the volatility between police and some residents of Mesa Margarita, where the shooting occurred.
On Oct. 7, 2006, Bessant radioed for cover after pulling over a young girl around 4 p.m. on Arthur Street, just blocks from where he would be murdered two months later, Officer Matt Lyons said. When Lyons arrived, he said there was
an older Samoan woman approaching with a crowd of five to 10 people who appeared “hostile and angry” over the stop.
The officers were able to diffuse the situation without any arrests after explaining to the crowd that the young girl was being cited for not wearing a seatbelt and being unlicensed, Lyons said.
Mesa Margarita, also known as the “deep valley” or “back gate” area because of its location to the rear entrance to Camp Pendleton, is “historically an area that has issues with gang violence,” the officer said.
There are two prominent gangs in the neighborhood — the Deep Valley Crips, whose members are predominantly black and the Deep Valley Bloods, whose members are mostly Samoan. It was members from the latter gang who have been charged with the murder of Bessant at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive on Dec. 20, 2006. The 25-year-old officer was working on a project to rid the neighborhood of gang violence, according to police.
Penifoti Taeotui, 18, is charged with murder, as well as two counts of assault relating to another Oceanside police officer and a ridealong witness who were also on the scene. Another teen, Meki Gaono, is also charged in Bessant’s murder. The prosecution alleges Gaono, 19, used a .22-caliber rifle with a scope to fatally shoot Bessant from more than 300 feet away, while Taeotui fired a .22-caliber revolver in the direction of the officers.
A third defendant, Jose 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.
Taeotui’s attorney, William Rumble, doesn’t dispute that his client is a gang member; however, he contends that Taeotui was not at the scene at the time of the shooting. In addition, he said he believes some of the prosecution’s key witness statements were coerced by police investigators.
Gaono’s trial is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2009. Both he and Taeotui remain in custody on $5 million bail. If convicted of the murder charge, the prosecution won’t be able to seek the death penalty since both defendants were underage at the time of the murder.