OCEANSIDE — A young man convicted of killing Oceanside police Officer Dan Bessant will spend the rest of his life in prison, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled June 3 in a Vista courtroom.
Judge Runston Maino said he considered the defense’s request to sentence Meki Walker Gaono to 50 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole, which would have offered him a glimmer of hope in prison. Instead, Maino said when he considered that Meki Gaono had approximately 15 minutes to make his decision to shoot at Officer Bessant, he felt the now 20-year-old’s actions warranted life in prison without parole.
“You exercised free will to cause tremendous sadness,” Maino said.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Manning had argued for the no parole sentence saying he thought anything less would send a message to the community, including other gang members, that Meki Gaono received a break.
A jury convicted Gaono of the Dec. 20, 2006, first-degree murder of Officer Bessant. It found true the special circumstance allegation that Meki Gaono murdered a police officer in the line of duty, as well as gang and firearm allegations. Additionally, the panel found Meki Gaono guilty of a single count of assault relating to a second police officer on the scene. However, they found him not guilty of assault on a ridealong participant who was standing beside the two officers when Officer Bessant was shot.
Prosecutors allege Officer Bessant, 25, was gunned down during a traffic stop at Arthur Avenue and Gold Drive by at least three gang members who were in front of a residence on Arthur Avenue drinking alcohol and shooting out streetlights. They said Meki Gaono fired the fatal shot from a scoped .22 caliber rifle, while P.J. Taeotui and Jose Compre fired handguns at the officers and ridealong participant who were approximately 386 feet away.
Taeotui was convicted in the shooting and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The charges against Compre were dropped after Maino ruled at the trio’s preliminary hearing that there wasn’t enough evidence to put Compre at the scene, which also happens to be his family’s home.
Officer Bessant was shot once in his left armpit just above his protective vest. He is survived by his wife and son who was 2 months old at the time of shooting.
Maino said he believed Meki Gaono had a good side to him from the values his grandfather, Meki Gaono Sr., instilled in him; however, he also had a bad side when in the presence of his fellow gang members.
After the sentencing, the victim’s father, Steve Bessant, who knew Meki Gaono from his time as an assistant principal at El Camino High School, agreed with the judge’s sentiments about Meki Gaono’s character.
“He was very susceptible to the people around him who were pulling him down the hole, and he had a lot of people doing that,” Steve Bessant said. “He had the ability to turn and go the right way and just chose not to do that.”
Meki Gaono’s older sister, Karalena, said her brother is a good man whose judgment was swayed by his friends. “Everybody makes mistakes, terrible mistakes,” Karalena Gaono said. “There’s been more than one kid like him out there like this.”
“It’s terrible what has happened to the Bessant family, it’s terrible what happened to my family,” Karalena Gaono said. “But I know as long as we all stick together and my brother knows we’re going to be there for him that God is going to be on our side and the Bessant family’s side and we’re all going to be OK.”
Meki Gaono has 60 days to appeal the sentence.
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