Oceanside CA— Thirteen years ago, on June 13, 2003, Oceanside Police Officer Tony W. Zeppetella made a traffic stop on a car for a loud muffler in the parking lot of the Navy Federal Credit Union, 4180 Avenida De La Plata. The driver of the vehicle, a documented gang member with two strikes under the Three Strikes law, ambushed Officer Zeppetella fatally wounding him.
On June 13, 2016, friends, family, including Officer Zeppetella’s son, Jacob and fellow officers gathered in that same parking lot in front of the marker for the slain officer. It was the starting place for the Tony W. Zeppetella Memorial run to the Oceanside Police Department Headquarters where a brief ceremony and a moment of silence took place.
Oceanside Police Captain, Tom Aguigui, who spoke on behalf of Chief McCoy who is out of town, said “Seeing Jacob run and lead the pack on this first run, this afternoon, made me truly proud to wear this uniform.”
Captain Aguigui, who was a Sergeant at the time of the incident went into detail about what transpired that day. “Some of you weren’t here that day and don’t truly understand what happened that afternoon. I need to give you the details so you can put Tony’s actions and what other members of the department did that day into context.” continued the Captain, ” About 5:00 in the afternoon, Tony had just left a call. Now remember, Tony had only been a cop less than a year. He made a traffic stop but unbeknownst to Tony, he was pulling over a documented gang member. A felon known to many of us here. He was a two striker which means he going to jail for the rest of his life if he gets a third. Unknown to Tony, he was carrying heroin in the car. He has a wife and kids who live in San Marcos and he has a loaded hand gun in the palm of his hand. You know what is going through that suspects mind. He’s thinking; I’m not going back to jail. Tony doesn’t know this. He pulls this person over who takes him into the credit union parking lot. There were a lot of people coming and going so Tony walked up to that car like we all do. Like we still do today. With no crystal ball.”
Officers can call in a license plate and get an alert on a vehicle ” But Tony didn’t have that option. So he pulls that car over into the busy parking lot and this guy decides he’s not going back to jail. He does everything he can to lure Tony to that car window. He lures Tony to that window so he can get off his shot because he has his gun in his right hand. Tony leans into the car a little bit more because the suspect is holding the paperwork low in his lap. That’s when the suspect takes his first cowardly shot at Tony, while right in that busy parking lot.” continued the Captain, “Many of you may not know this but that first shot was a mortal wound. He didn’t pass immediately but the shot also injured Tony’s right hand, his shooting hand. So as Tony was falling back, he instinctively hit his emer button (An emergency button that lets others know an officer needs help). After that, he is able to retrieve his firearm and sends rounds into the side panel of that car.”
The suspect was getting out of the car and was struck by one of the rounds in his right thigh. “Unfortunately it didn’t stop him.” said Captain Aguigui. “For someone who had only been an officer for ten months, Tony’s actions were that of a veteran tactical officer, in my opinion. They way he responded. The way we all do about being in the fight. Not giving up. He had the will to live. The will to survive. He did not just get shot and turn away and run. He said to himself; I’m not going out without a fight and he didn’t.”
“Every time I think about that, it gives me the chills inside.” said the Captain “Tony wasn’t just fighting for himself, he was fighting for everyone in that parking lot who didn’t know what was going on. He was fighting to get home to his beautiful family and he was fighting to neutralize that threat. I know, being so close to the case, that he was doing everything possible to take that threat out. Obviously he wasn’t successful but those few seconds of honor and courage really talks about what this badge and uniform are about.”
A bad situation in that parking lot got worse. After the suspect shot Officer Zeppetella and he was down on the ground, the suspect savagely beat the officer and fired several more shots into him, intentionally seeking open spots in his vest to fire into.
After hearing the emergency alert, officers from all over the county began responding to the scene. “But there were already people there trying to save Tony’s life. If you don’t think we have community support, let me take you back. ” the Captain explained, ” After seeing people running up to try and help a fallen officer. Trying to take care of his wound. A Marine getting on Tony’s police radio, covered with blood and telling dispatchers that an officer needs help, he’s down. The Marine and another citizen were there showing us that we are together in this. We are not alone.” Doug Baxter was the first officer on the scene. “Doug has a special place in my heart. That was his finest hour. He was the first badge on scene. He did everything he could to save Tony that day.”
The situation at the credit union continued to deteriorate. The suspects car was blocked in by the patrol car so he took the officers gun and car to make his escape. “In an already confusing situation, now we are looking for a black and white.” explained Captain Aguigui, “Imagine over one-hundred police vehicles from all over merging on that small area. I imagine everyone here knows where they were when that call went out. I know where I was. I was eastbound on Mission at 76. I made a quick right hand turn on College and probably passed him [the suspect] going the other way.”
The suspect was eventually located, barricaded in a home and Captain Aguigui. knowing the suspect by name, was able to talk him out of the house. “When he finally came out of the house and he surrendered that day, the SWAT officers put him in handcuffs, I took a deep breath and said; that’s enough for today. No more bloodshed.”
The suspect was convicted on November 14, 2005 is awaiting execution on death row. “We will have our justice soon and I am anxiously waiting for that day.” said the Captain.
Officer Tony W. Zeppetella was the first Oceanside Officer to die in the line of duty in more than 70 years. Tragedy would strike the department again 2006 when Officer Dan Bessant was shot assisting another officer on a traffic stop. A memorial run is held every year in his honor on December 20.