Murder trial opens in death of officer — (San Diego Union-Tribune)

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San Diego Union-Tribune

By Jose Luis Jiménez, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

October 18, 2005

VISTA – Standing in the ATM line outside the Navy Federal Credit Union in Oceanside, Matthew McClure figured the loud noises from the parking lot were firecrackers or a car backfiring.

“I saw everybody scrambling, and it clued me in that I should hide because it was gunfire,” said McClure, who served in the military.

He ducked behind a Jeep that June 13, 2003, afternoon and then ran to the side of the building. The shooting ended and he heard tires squeal. He returned to the parking lot to find a police officer on the ground and his patrol car gone.

McClure was one of six witnesses who testified yesterday during the first day of the trial of Adrian Camacho, a former gang member and illegal immigrant charged with murder in the death of rookie Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella, 27, during a traffic stop in the credit union parking lot.

If the jury convicts Camacho of first-degree murder, the trial will enter a second phase, during which jurors would consider whether Camacho, 30, should be executed.

During his 40-minute opening statement, prosecutor David Rubin described Camacho as a street-level drug dealer with narcotics in his car when Zeppetella stopped him. Determined to stay out of prison, Camacho killed the officer to escape, Rubin said.

“At any cost, he was not going to be arrested by this officer,” Rubin told the jury. “(Camacho) has a special malice toward law enforcement.”

 Deputy Public Defender William Stone said there was no doubt his client killed Zeppetella, but it was not first-degree murder. Camacho had a “psychotic break” when he shot the officer, fueled by a mix of heroin, methamphetamine and the prescription drug Paxil, taken earlier that day, the defense attorney said during his 30-minute opening statement.

“This is not a whodunit,” said Stone, who is being assisted in the trial by Deputy Public Defender Kathleen Cannon. “The issue in this case is your understanding of Mr. Camacho’s mental state.”

In the parking lot, 34 shots were fired from Camacho’s stolen gun and Zeppetella’s service weapon. The officer was struck 13 times, Rubin said.

McClure and three other witnesses testified they heard three to five shots, a pause and then a barrage. During that pause, one of the witnesses testified he saw Camacho hit Zeppetella at least twice with a gun as he lay mortally wounded.

Zeppetella was able to fire 14 shots, striking Camacho in the leg, Rubin said. As Zeppetella tried to crawl away, Camacho shot the officer several times in the back, the prosecutor said.

The entire incident lasted just less than two minutes.

Camacho then drove the patrol car to his mother-in-law’s Oceanside neighborhood to hide, Rubin said.

After breaking into her home, he slit his wrists and scrawled a suicide note on the bathroom tile in his blood, said Stone, who showed the jury a picture of the writing. The words “I’m sorry,” “I (heart) my wife and kids,” and “Help me Ordas,” can be seen, with the last phrase a message to Camacho’s psychiatrist, Stone said.

About four hours later, he surrendered to a SWAT team that surrounded the home.

 After his arrest, Camacho wrote letters threatening to kill his jailers, which Rubin showed the jury.”It’s gonna be a big surprise when I send one of ’em home in a (expletive) body bag,” Camacho wrote in a letter.

Rubin said the notes show Camacho’s hatred toward law enforcement and explain his motives for the slaying.

“(Zeppetella) was shot 13 times in a cool, deliberate act of murder,” Rubin told jurors. “There were never any voices raised. It just started.”

Stone said the letters represented his client’s frustration about his treatment in jail.

“This was not premeditated,” Stone said. “This was craziness.”

The trial continues today and is scheduled to last through mid-December.

Jose Jimenez: (760) 737-7578; jose.jimenez@uniontrib.com

 

 

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Cop killer to be executed — (The San Diego Union-Tribune)

By Dana Littlefield, STAFF WRITER

February 8, 2006

Attack called ‘callous, unprovoked’; widow tells court about fateful day

VISTA – Just hours before he was murdered, Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella spent a few precious moments with his infant son, Jakob, his widow said yesterday.

LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune

Jamie Zeppetella, the widow of slain Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella, wept as she left the courtroom yesterday. She had just told a judge, during a sentencing hearing for her husband’s killer, about “the last time that our family was together.”

Jamie Zeppetella told a judge it was rare for her husband to get up to attend to the crying child before leaving for work. But on that day, he enjoyed the “alone time” with his son, Zeppetella said.

“I watched him walk to his car with Jakob on my hip,” she said. “But this time I did not say the usual, ‘Don’t forget to come home,’ like I did on most days.

“Little did we know that this would be the last time that we would see each other. That was the last time that our family was together.”

After hearing those and other statements from Zeppetella’s family, a judge sentenced Adrian Camacho, 30, to be executed for fatally shooting the officer June 13, 2003, in the parking lot of the Navy Federal Credit Union in Oceanside.

Superior Court Judge Joan P. Weber denied the defense attorneys’ request for a new trial. Weber also denied their request that she reject the jury’s recommendation of the death penalty and instead sentence Camacho to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

EDUARDO CONTRERAS / Union-Tribune

Adrian Camacho (left) listened in court yesterday alongside his attorneys, William Stone and Kathleen Cannon. Superior Court Judge Joan P. Weber denied the attorneys’ request for a new trial and sentenced Camacho to death.

“This case involves a crime that tears at the very fabric of a civilized society,” Weber said, pointing out that Camacho repeatedly shot Zeppetella and pistol-whipped him before fleeing.

“Officer Zeppetella was crawling away from the defendant and yet the defendant kept shooting and shooting and shooting,” Weber said.

She described the crime as the most “callous, unprovoked attack on a member of the law enforcement community” that she has seen in 26 years in the legal profession.

Prosecutor David Rubin argued during the trial that Camacho shot the 27-year-old Zeppetella 13 times during a traffic stop in the parking lot, including once with the officer’s gun. Investigators said 34 rounds were exchanged during the gunfight and Camacho was hit in a leg.

After fatally wounding the officer, Camacho stole his patrol car and fled to his mother-in-law’s Oceanside house, where he surrendered to a SWAT team that evening.

Camacho, whom authorities described as an illegal immigrant, a gang member and a small-time drug dealer, had drugs and a loaded gun in his car and was afraid of being arrested, prosecutors said.

Tony Zeppetella

Deputy Public Defenders Kathleen Cannon and William Stone argued during the trial that their client suffered from a mental disorder and his judgment was impaired because he was under the influence of methamphetamine, heroin and the prescription drug Paxil, an anti-depressant.

They also said that after fleeing the parking lot, Camacho tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists and writing with blood the words, “I’m sorry” on a bathroom wall at his mother-in-law’s house. Those actions, they said, showed that Camacho was remorseful.

Camacho appeared stoic during most of the hearing and didn’t make a statement to the judge. His wife, Stacey, spoke briefly in court, saying it seemed wrong for the state to kill her husband “with so much more planning” than he used in committing the crime.

The officer’s father, Tony Zeppetella Sr., said the death penalty was appropriate. He called Camacho a coward who has caused Zeppetella’s family a lifetime of pain.

“This will be much better when you have lived your last day,” Zeppetella said in court. “I only hope that I am still around to see you take your last breath.”

The officer’s widow was more forgiving but said she could never excuse Camacho’s actions.

“You murdered a wonderful and brave man,” she said in court. “You also murdered a God-fearing and compassionate man that would want me to forgive you for what you did to him and to our family.”