It was December 20th, 2006. The San Diego county Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) had just finished their training and holiday potluck. PERT pairs SDPD, SDSO, and local police departments with specially trained patrol officers and mental health professionals to respond to mental health emergencies in the field. My partner could not attend the training, so I hitched a ride with the Oceanside Police PERT team; Officer Mack and clinician Linda, RN. We left to return to the station about 1810 hours. We reached the I-5 headed north ten minutes later.
The highway was a zoo; normal rush hour plus last minute holiday shoppers. I was in the backseat, in the cage. That is when we heard the call. We rode code three to OPD's command post and learned that 25 year old officer Dan Bessant had been shot and had been life-flighted to a trauma hospital. Dan had responded to a request for cover call and been hit under is arm in an area that was not protected by his vest. The suspect(s) were still at large. His partner, Karina Pina had not been injured, but she also went to the hospital.
Mack left the command post and headed to the hospital, Linda and I followed. Linda spoke to Karina; I went into Dan's emergency room, arriving just in time to hear the physician's pronouncement of death. Mack was also in the room and totally devastated. Mack had been Dan's training officer and they were close personal friends. We stayed at the hospital until Dan's parents arrived. Mack knew the parents and had to give them the tragic news. An OPD supervisor notified Dan's wife. Dan also left behind a toddler. Mack was then ordered back to the command post; he was a Hostage Negotiations officer. I thought that was a bad idea after seeing the pain and grief in his face. His loss was tremendous. Mack went anyway.
Three juvenile Samoan gang members were eventually apprehended. Their motive was to enhance their status within the gang. Penifoti Taeotui, age 16, was sentenced to life in prison in November 2008. Meki Gaono, age 17 at the time of the homicide (he was just weeks shy of his 18th birthday), was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in June 2009.
On June 13th (a Friday) 2003 PERT was called to respond to assist with a brutal in-the-line-of-duty-homicide of an Oceanside Police Department officer. I was off duty that day celebrating my son's high school graduation; there were no PERT clinicians working in North County San Diego that day. My partner, Bob, called me and provided the scenario: 30 year old male, illegal immigrant, and documented gang member under the influence of drugs had shot Tony Zeppetella, a rookie, thirteen times, pistol whipped him, and left the crime scene in the officer's patrol car with his duty weapon. The armed suspect had taken refuge at a relative's house. Officers from multiple agencies responded to the site. My task was to learn the suspect's mental health history and ascertain talking points to assist the crisis negotiator. The suspect did eventually surrender without further violence towards others; he had made a suicidal gesture. Tony left behind a wife and a two month old son. In February 2006, Adrian Camacho, the 28 year old suspect, a Mexican gang member, was found guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances and given the death penalty. Justice had taken 32 long months.
These incidents have profoundly affected me both professionally and personally. I spoke to the officers who had made the death notification to the slain officers' families. I partook in a circle prayer at the command site. I witnessed the emotions on every officer's face. No one would ever be quite the same.