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'The Gun Just Went Off'

Testifying in murder trial, Buena Park man admits anger but denies intent to kill teen who stole pumpkin display.

December 15, 2000|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Defending himself publicly for the first time against murder charges, Buena Park homeowner Peter Tavita Solomona said he was only trying to frighten a teenage prankster when his .357 magnum revolver discharged accidentally.

Solomona, gripping a balled-up handkerchief during the tense hearing, insisted he never meant to fire the shot that ended the life of 17-year-old Brandon Ketsdever, a popular high school athlete whom he suspected of stealing a $20 pumpkin display.

He admitted being angry when he confronted Ketsdever in his car outside his home, but he said the gun fired after his trigger finger bumped the car's door frame.

"I had no intention of hurting anyone. . . . The gun just went off," Solomona said, bowing his head and exhaling loudly.

"What happened next?" defense attorney Mark Werksman asked.

"I saw blood coming out of the boy's head," Solomona replied.

With Ketsdever's family members looking on from the front row--some crying, others shaking their heads--Solomona said the shooting still haunts him.

"I feel very terrible . . . sad," he said.

At one point, Ketsdever's mother became so upset during the testimony that she left the courtroom in tears.

Solomona's testimony came on the last day of a four-day trial that centered on the mental state of the 49-year-old grandfather at the moment he fired the gun.

The shooting shocked residents in the quiet residential neighborhood and fueled the ongoing gun control debate. It also raised questions about the appropriate punishment, if any, Solomona should face if convicted.

Prosecutors, who are seeking a first-degree murder conviction, contend that Solomona deliberately shot Ketsdever during a heated argument. Several witnesses testified that Solomona appeared angry when he confronted Ketsdever, and one couple said Solomona threatened, "I'll blow your . . . brains out," just before the gun went off.

If convicted, Solomona faces a 50-years-to-life sentence. If the seven-man, five-woman jury decides the shooting was accidental, he could still be convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The chain of events on Oct. 18, 1999, began when Ketsdever and two of his friends stole the plastic pumpkin from Solomona's frontyard and sped off in their car. Minutes later, the teens got into an altercation with people in another car who chased them down and blocked their path, by coincidence, in front of Solomona's house.

Solomona, who had been searching for the teenagers, then emerged from his car carrying the revolver. The gun, he said, had been in the car since earlier that day when he had planned to take it to a gun store. He wanted to sell the gun, he said, because his wife felt it was dangerous. He said he thought it was unloaded at the time.

At first, Solomona was unclear about why he took the gun with him to confront the teenagers. "I just saw the gun, and I just picked it up," he said.

But under more questioning from Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Carlisle-Raines, he conceded that he wanted to frighten them "so they would quit pulling pranks."

Solomona described himself as a hard-working man dedicated to his Mormon religion and family. A native of American Samoa, Solomona said he moved to California as a teenager, then married and raised two children in Buena Park and La Habra.

He often grew teary-eyed during the trial. When family members testified, he slumped forward in his chair and often dabbed his eyes with an ever-present handkerchief. He also appeared emotional when recalling the moment the gun fired.

In his closing argument, Werksman stressed to jurors that Solomona is a man of character who has been tormented by a tragic accident that he never intended to happen.

But Carlisle-Raines said jurors should not be swayed by Solomona's displays of emotion. "Who are those tears for? Are they for Brandon, or are they for the defendant?" she asked.

Juror deliberations are scheduled to begin next week.

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