OCEANSIDE — A police detective testified April 2 about the interviews he and another officer conducted with Meki Gaono in the hours following the murder of an Oceanside police officer more than two years ago.
During two days of testimony, Michael Brown detailed his initial contact with Gaono from around 10 p.m. Dec. 20, 2006, to the then 17-year-old’s written apology, approximately six hours later, for shooting at Officer Dan Bessant earlier that evening.
Prosecutors allege Gaono fired the fatal shot from 386 feet away with a scoped .22 caliber rifle. They believe Gaono aimed at Bessant’s head as he backed up another officer during a traffic stop at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive, while two other teenage gang members fired handguns at the officers. A father and husband, Bessant, 25, was shot just under his protective vest on his left side around 6:30 p.m.
Gaono’s co-defendant in the case, Penifoti “PJ” Taeotui, 18, was convicted of Bessant’s murder in December. He is currently serving life in prison without parole. If convicted, Gaono faces the same fate.
Gaono and several of his family members were asked to exit their residence on 680 Arthur Avenue after authorities received information that a young man carrying a long black object was seen running onto Gaono’s property in the minutes after gun shots were heard. Gaono exited his house wearing only shorts. He was later given a blanket, which he wrapped around himself during his interviews at the Oceanside police station.
Brown said during the first interview, which started just after midnight Dec. 21, Gaono said in the hours leading up to first seeing a police helicopter in his neighborhood around 6:30 p.m., he had played basketball at a nearby park and then hung out at his residence. After seeing the police helicopter, Gaono said he and his step-brother went to investigate what was going on, but the two were told to get back home by authorities.
Based on information authorities had at the time of this first interview, Brown testified he determined Gaono’s story was false.
The second interview started approximately 1.5 hours later. In between the two interviews, officers, including Brown, were briefed with new information about Bessant’s homicide, while Gaono was held in the interview room under the watch of an officer.
During the latter interview, Gaono admitted the first story was a fabrication and then proceeded to weave a new tale. He said he had gone home to retrieve the .22 caliber rifle and .22 caliber revolver after getting into a fight with some people at Melba Bishop Park. As he walked down Arthur Street with the weapons, he came across an Oceanside police officer at a traffic stop. Because he had been drinking and was carrying two weapons he had concerns about getting arrested, so he said he drew the two weapons on the officer, who he said was unknown to him, and fired them simultaneously in his direction. He than ran home.
Despite another obvious lie, Brown testified officers had obtained enough information from Gaono and the ongoing investigation to place the defendant under arrest for the murder of Bessant. The detectives then had Gaono write an apology letter to Bessant. At this time, Gaono had not been told that Bessant had been killed or even if he was injured in an effort to ensure Gaono continued to talk freely.
“I’m really sorry sir that I shot at you,” Gaono wrote in his apology letter.
Gaono’s attorney, William Stone, said Gaono confessed to the murder without even knowing it. His apology was for firing two weapons simultaneously at the officer, not for putting the sights on Bessant’s head and pulling the trigger, the lawyer said.
“He apologized without ever knowing the officer was killed,” Stone said.
Throughout the case, Stone, has maintained that while his client had been hanging out in front of 622 Arthur Avenue prior to the shooting, he left before the officer was gunned down. The lawyer said his client was doing his fellow gang members a favor by holding on to the weapons after the shooting, as well as when he inadvertently confessed to murdering Bessant.