OCEANSIDE — Moments after Officer Dan Bessant was airlifted out of the back gate area of Oceanside, two four-units of regional police officers descended down a dark and lively Arthur Avenue to secure two houses associated with gang activity, testified a deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Former Carlsbad Police Officer David Douglas testified Oct. 23 the group of eight officers moved shoulder to shoulder with guns drawn north through the street of the 600 block of Arthur Avenue around 7 p.m. Dec. 20, 2006. Armed with no suspect information, other than that Bessant may have been shot by a sniper, Douglas said the officers had to watch each other’s back because of the taunting and cursing from bystanders as they moved rapidly down the street.
“Everybody at that point was a threat to us,” the deputy said.
Douglas’ unit would eventually set up a post at 680 Arthur Avenue, co-defendant Meki Gaono’s residence. Two firearms — a .22-caliber rifle and a .22-caliber revolver, both believed to be used in the shooting — were recovered from the residence within hours of the incident.
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, 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, according to authorities.
Penifoti “P.J.” Taeotui, as well as Gaono, are charged with Bessant’s murder. In addition, both teens are also charged with two counts of assault relating to another Oceanside police officer and a ridealong witness who were also on the scene. 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 and a third teen, Jose Compre, fired handguns — a .22-caliber revolver and a 9 mm semi-automatic, respectively — in the direction of the officers. Gaono’s trial is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2009.
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.
However, Norman Pawchuk, a criminalist with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, testified recently that an expended shell casing found in Compre’s front yard was fired from a 9 mm pistol found mid-way through the preliminary hearing in March. Police recovered the gun, which was placed in a T-shirt and left outside near a shed, from a residence behind Compre’s. Further, a 9 mm shell found in a pair of shorts in Compre’s room was identified through its labeling to have been manufactured during the same eight hour shift as the expended casing.
A former member of the defendants’ gang testified that Taeotui, 18, told him that all three teens fired on Bessant.
DNA from the three teens and another gang member, who wasn’t charged in the case, was found on beer cans littered throughout the crime scene, which collaborates with witness testimony that the group had been drinking prior to the shooting.
If convicted of the murder charge, the prosecution won’t be able to seek the death penalty since Taeotui and Gaono, who remain in custody on $5 million bail, were underage at the time of the murder.