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Former gang member takes stand against peer

OCEANSIDE — A key witness for prosecutors in the slaying of Oceanside police Officer Dan Bessant talked candidly Oct. 20 about his involvement with the gang and the murder.
The young man, whose name has been withheld at the request of the Oceanside Police Department because of the ongoing investigation into the killing, testified he aided Penifoti “P.J.” Taeotui in the days following the shooting of Bessant with money and a ride to Watts where Taeotui had relatives he’d planned to “lay low” with.
“I felt I was close to P.J. at that time and I wanted to do what I could to help him,” the witness said.
Bessant, 25, was gunned down on the evening of Dec. 20, 2006, during a traffic stop at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive in the “back gate” area of Oceanside. 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.
The witness testified Taeotui, 18, told him that he and two other gang members, Meki Gaono and Jose Compre, fired at Bessant.
He said Taeotui told him, “If one of my homies starts shooting, I’m going to shoot too.”
Taeotui and Gaono are both charged with the murder of Bessant, as well as two counts of assault relating to another Oceanside police officer and a ridealong witness who were also on the scene. Gaono’s trial is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2009.
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 Compre fired handguns — a .22-caliber revolver and a 9mm semi-automatic, respectively — in the direction of the officers.
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.
The witness, a former member of the defendants’ gang, was arrested several days after the shooting on felony possession of stolen property. It was then that the police began questioning the young man about the murder. At first, he said he lied about his knowledge of the shooting out of loyalty to his gang, but slowly, over a 10-month period, the young man came clean about his knowledge and involvement in the Bessant killing. As part of his cooperation with authorities, he had the aforementioned felony charged reduced to a misdemeanor requiring no further incarceration and he wasn’t charged with aiding Taeotui after the shooting, a felony.
“I always told myself I’d never rat on my friends … I would never tell (police) the truth,” he said.
In addition to his cooperation about the shooting, the witness also recently confessed to an unsuccessful Halloween hunt to gun down rival gang members, as well as firing on an Oceanside residence he believed to be occupied by an opposing gang.
There was no documentation by the Oceanside Police Department about the shooting; however, an investigation is ongoing, prosecutors said. Regardless, it is believed that nobody was injured.
In defense attorney William Rumble’s opening statement, he told jurors that he believes some of the prosecution’s key witness statements were coerced by police investigators. Rumble, who doesn’t dispute that his client is a gang member, told the panel that Taeotui was not at the scene at the time of the shooting.
Taeotui and Gaono 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.