The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld the death sentence for a North County man convicted of gunning down an Oceanside police officer during what started as a routine traffic stop in a busy parking lot nearly two decades ago.
Adrian George Camacho, 47, was convicted of first-degree murder for the June 13, 2003, slaying of Officer Tony Zeppetella, who was shot 13 times then pistol-whipped as he lay wounded on the ground.
Along with murder, the jury found two special-circumstance allegations to be true: that Camacho killed a police officer and that he did so to escape arrest.
According to trial testimony and the Monday ruling, Zeppetella pulled up behind Camacho’s car in the parking lot of a Navy Federal Credit Union at Avenida de la Plata and College Boulevard in Oceanside.
Zeppetella approached Camacho’s driver’s side window. Camacho at some point opened fire, striking Zeppetella multiple times. The officer was able to return fire and struck Camacho in the knee.
As Zeppetella was trying to crawl away, witnesses testified that Camacho pistol whipped Zeppetella in the head, took the officer’s gun and shot him several more times with his own weapon.
Camacho fled in Zeppetella’s patrol car. He was arrested hours later following a standoff at his mother-in-law’s house about a mile from the parking lot.
Zeppetella died at a hospital just over an hour after the shooting.
Prosecutors argued Camacho killed the officer because he wanted to avoid being arrested for possessing drugs and a stolen gun, in addition to driving without a license.
Camacho’s defense centered on his mental state during the shooting, which he argued was clouded by drug use. In addition to an ongoing heroin addiction, he had also been using methamphetamine and had been prescribed other drugs by a psychiatrist. The defense argued that this mix caused him to undergo “a period of delirium and psychosis” during the shooting, according to the ruling.
On appeal, Camacho’s attorneys raised several issues, including that a pair of letters he wrote in jail should have been inadmissible. In the letters, he indicated animosity toward police, which the prosecution alleged were evidence of his lack of remorse for killing Zeppetella.
Other issues raised by Camacho on appeal included the dismissal of a prospective juror who said she opposed the death penalty, the exclusion of certain defense testimony regarding Camacho’s drug use and the admissibility of the prosecution’s expert witness — a psychiatrist who testified that Camacho was not in a drug-induced delirium when he shot the officer.
Zeppetella is one of four Oceanside police officers killed in the line of duty. The most recent was Officer Daniel Bessant, who was shot during a traffic stop in 2006.
Staff writer Teri Figueroa contributed to this report.