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Policeman's Killing Stuns Town; On the Job Just 13 Months

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June 15, 2003

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Policeman's Killing Stuns Town; On the Job Just 13 Months

Officer Down: Tony Zepetella - [Oceanside, California]

Copley News Service

The Oceanside police officer slain Friday had only been on the force for 13 months, but he had made a favorable impression.

Tony Zeppetella, 27, was shot by an assailant who then stole his patrol car, abandoned it a mile away and holed up in a house. The suspect surrendered hours later.

Although Zeppetella served a short time, other officers said he was proving to be an energetic and skilled officer.

Zeppetella was hired May 13, 2002, after graduating from the San Diego Regional Police Academy. He completed his field training two months ago and was assigned to the department's night shift.

"Officer Zeppetella had said it was his lifelong dream to become an officer," said Oceanside police Capt. David Heering, who spoke Saturday on behalf of the department. "It's unfortunate his dream was cut short and ended so tragically."

Zeppetella is survived by his wife and 6-month-old son. He also had family in Florida and other parts of California.

Jim Wood, a city councilman who retired six months ago as an Oceanside detective after serving 31 years on the force, said he went to the Police Department as soon as he could to offer support.

"This is devastating," Wood said. "As an officer, you prepare yourself for these sorts of things, but you never really are prepared."

Oceanside Mayor Terry Johnson said the city will fly its flags at half-staff. The Police Department has set up a trust fund at Washington Mutual Bank to assist Zeppetella's family. Funeral details are pending.

"Our hearts and our prayers go out to the family," Johnson said. "As a community we will embrace them with love and support."

The shooting unfolded shortly after 5 p.m. when Zeppetella, alone in his patrol car, pulled over a motorist in a routine traffic stop near the Navy Federal Credit Union on Avenida de la Plata.

When Zeppetella approached the driver's side of the car, he was fired upon, police said. Police identified the suspected gunman as Adrian Camacho, 28, a documented gang member from Oceanside.

Police said they believe Zeppetella returned fire, striking Camacho in the right leg. Camacho's hand also was cut. Heering said he did not know which hand or how he was injured.

"From our preliminary investigation, there was no struggle," Heering said.

When the gunfire erupted, credit union customers ran in panic, some diving under desks. Other witnesses ran to the fallen officer's aid.

Zeppetella managed to press an emergency button on his portable police radio.

Police said the shooter jumped into the officer's patrol car and drove away.

The man later forced his way into a house, which belongs to his ex-wife's parents, on Via Isidro about 6 p.m. The patrol car was found a short distance away at Avenida Empresa and Calle Ultimo.

Police negotiators persuaded Camacho to come out at 9:19 p.m. He was treated for minor injuries at a hospital.

Police recovered two guns from the house; one belonged to the officer.

Zeppetella was airlifted to Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, where he died. Police and city officials closely guarded his identity until Saturday evening to ensure that family had been notified.

Heering said an autopsy would be performed Monday. He refused to say how many times Zeppetella had been shot. The officer was hit in the throat and torso. The Medical Examiner's Office would not release any information Saturday.

Police sources have said the killer may have wrested away Zeppetella's gun and shot him. Thirty shell casings were recovered from the scene.

At least 50 people saw the shooting. Heering said the department wants to speak with anyone investigators may have missed. "We have a lot of witnesses and a lot of follow-up work to do."

Records show Camacho has had four criminal cases filed against him in county courts. Gail Stewart, a spokeswoman with the District Attorney's Office, said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis decided not to release details Saturday about Camacho's record, but might release the information later.

"It's a very sensitive case," Stewart said. "The man hasn't been arraigned yet."

Camacho is being held at the Vista jail on suspicion of murder. He is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday. Dumanis could choose to pursue the death penalty.

Saturday, a woman who refused to identify herself, said from behind a closed door at the house on Via Isidro that she didn't want to talk to the media.

Neighbors said the family members kept to themselves.

The last Oceanside law officer who was shot and killed was City Marshal John E. Mugan, on Sept. 24, 1916. Another city marshal, Charles C. Wilson, was shot and killed July 4, 1889.

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