OCEANSIDE — The trial for a young man accused of firing the shot that killed Officer Dan Bessant more than three years ago in the tumultuous Oceanside neighborhood of Mesa Margarita began March 9 in a Vista courtroom.
Prosecutors laid out the motives that led then 17-year-old Meki Walker Gaono to set the sights of a .22 caliber scoped rifle on Bessant, 25, and fire the fatal shot from under the cloak of darkness 386 feet way. Bessant, a father and husband, was gunned down around 6:30 p.m. Dec. 20, 2006, at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive in the “back gate” area of Oceanside while he was assisting another officer. The bullet went into Bessant’s left armpit, just under his protective vest.
In a courtroom filled with family and friends of both Gaono and Bessant, prosecutor Tom Manning told the jury Gaono was a young gangster, or “YG,” putting in work to further his reputation in the gang. Further, he said some of the gang members believed Bessant, Mesa Margarita’s neighborhood policing officer, was targeting their family’s homes with civil abatements, which could cost them the homes. At the top of code enforcement’s list were two homes belonging to the families of gang leaders, Manning said. Coincidentally, the aforementioned gang leaders were also Gaono’s brothers-in-law.
For nearly three hours, Manning presented the jury with a road map to the evidence, which he believes will lead to the conviction of Gaono, now 20, for the first-degree murder of Bessant with the special allegation of murdering a police officer. Gang and weapon allegations are also tied to the charge. Additionally, Gaono is charged with one count each of assault and attempted assault — both carry weapon allegations — relating to the other officer at the scene and her ridealong participant, respectively.
Manning told jurors Gaono had actually aimed at 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. 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.
Compre, now 18, had the murder and assault charges against him dropped last March after a judge found a lack of evidence to put the teen in front of his house at the time of the shooting. Meanwhile, Taeotui, 18, was convicted on the aforementioned charges and allegations, and was sentenced in January to life in prison without parole. Gaono faces the same fate if convicted of the murder charge with the special circumstance.
At the heart of the evidence is Gaono’s confession, which authorities first obtained around 3:40 a.m. Dec. 21, 2006, and then again two days later.
In the hours following the shooting, Gaono as well as other citizens from the community were taken down to the police station to be interviewed about what they witnessed, Manning said. Prior to going to the police department, Gaono, his aunt and uncle had been ordered out of their house by authorities. Police had been tipped off that a male carrying what could’ve been a gun ran into the residence. Throughout the police interview, which began just after midnight, and his subsequent confession and arrest hours later, Gaono was wrapped in a blanket with only shorts on underneath. He’d exited his home without shoes or a shirt.
During that Dec. 21 interview, Manning said Gaono, who was not initially a suspect or under arrest, was free to leave at any time and was offered food and bathroom breaks throughout the ordeal. Gaono’s attorney, William Stone, disagreed that his client was free to leave the interview because Gaono was denied requests to go sit with his mother who was outside the interview room.
Stone told jurors in his opening statement he believed the prosecution’s evidence would fall short in proving that Gaono was in front of Compre’s residence, let alone that he fired the rifle. During the Dec. 21 interview, Stone said Gaono knew the two firearms he’d been given to hold had been used to shoot at the officers. He also knew he was going to be busted for having the weapons, but what he didn’t know when he started the first of several lie-filled confessions was that Bessant had died from the shooting, the lawyer said.
“Meki Gaono made the biggest mistake of his life when he lied to police,” Stone said. “Before he knew what he had done, he’d confessed to something that they took for murder.”
Gaono remains in custody on $5 million bail. The trial is expected to last six weeks.