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Families Divided by Slaying, Bonded by Pain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years have passed since her son Brandon was shot dead while pulling a Halloween prank in Buena Park, and Jessie Ketsdever still can’t bring herself to visit his grave--much less refer to it as such.

“Don’t call it a burial site,” Ketsdever said through tears recently, her voice half-pleading, half-scolding. “It’s a property site. . . . My son’s not gone yet.”

Brandon Ketsdever was 17 and a popular high school athlete when he was shot and killed by a homeowner who authorities said was enraged by the theft of a plastic pumpkin from his front lawn. The killing, which occurred on a quiet residential street in Buena Park, grabbed international headlines and played out repeatedly on television news clips.

Since her son’s death, Jessie Ketsdever and her husband, Jon, have moved from the neighborhood to Cypress. But moving on with life has proven impossible.

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For weeks last year, they sat in court--in the same room as their son’s accused killer--for the trial. They exhaled in relief when he was convicted, and cried a few weeks later when the judge overturned the verdict, saying the jury received improper instructions.

After an eight-month delay, they are back in court for the retrial of former neighbor Pete T. Solomona. Jurors are expected to begin deliberations this week.

The family said they hoped this trial would resolve many of the issues they have been dealing with since their son’s death. However, they were shocked once again last week when Solomona’s lawyer dropped a bombshell during opening arguments: His client, he said, believed Ketsdever and his two friends were trying to break into his home. Solomona admitted too that he had lied during the first trial when he described the events that led to the shooting.

Life was so different for the Ketsdevers before that October night in 1999. Jessie, 41, and Jon Ketsdever, 46, had four children. With one older and two younger sisters, Brandon was a star football and water polo player at John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma. His dream, his mother said, was to become a police officer.

At a memorial service for her son, Jessie Ketsdever wept as she recalled the time 4-year-old Brandon slipped a piece of paper into her dress pocket. It was a drawing of a heart.

The family was so shaken by the boy’s death that they moved several weeks later. “How could we live there?” Jessie Ketsdever asked. “Brandon’s fingerprints are everywhere. His things are everywhere. Signs of him are all over. The smell. The memories. You don’t want to move, but you can’t stay, either.”

The family’s lives, they say, have been consumed by their son’s death and the tortuous route of his case. When a judge announced that he was setting aside the first verdict, family members exploded, and armed bailiffs took positions to separate the Ketsdevers and Solomonas.

“I learned a lot that I didn’t want to learn during the first trial,” Jessie Ketsdever said. “I thought that my son didn’t realize he was shot. I thought it happened too fast for his brain to realize it. That’s what I hoped. What I learned is that he knew there was a gun pointed at his head. That he raised his hands to protect himself. He knew what was happening.”

An Evening of Pranks Turns Into a Nightmare

On Oct. 19, 1999, Brandon Ketsdever and two friends were out pulling pranks. One was to swipe an almost 3-foot plastic jack-o'-lantern from Solomona’s lawn on Coral Bell Way.

The boys sped off, with Ketsdever at the wheel, but wound up in front of Solomona’s house a second time moments later. It was there that Solomona confronted the boys. Solomona walked into the street, gripping a .357 magnum revolver.

In court testimony last week, a witness testified that the homeowner pointed the gun at Ketsdever’s head, cocked the hammer and threatened to “blow his brains out.”

However, Solomona insists the shooting was a terrible accident and that he never intended to harm the boy.

Solomona, who has been described as a loving grandfather and devout Mormon, told jurors last week that the shooting occurred as he was trying to get Ketsdever’s attention. He was pounding his fist, the one that held the gun, against the car door when the gun went off. He said he never cocked the revolver and was shocked that the weapon discharged.

The prosecution insists that it’s impossible for the gun to discharge so easily without the hammer being cocked or without heavy pressure applied to the trigger.

Like the Ketsdevers, the Solomonas have found their lives thrown into chaos. Out of jail on $250,000 bail, Solomona, 50, wonders--as do his relatives--if the former Pepsi plant worker is destined to spend the rest of his days in prison.

Solomona declined to comment for this story. His wife, Fui, said their family too has struggled in the aftermath of the shooting.

“It’s been very difficult. It’s been difficult emotionally and financially. The scars are there and they won’t go away,” she said.

Along Coral Bell Way, neighbors recently described Solomona as a friendly man who was much liked in the neighborhood. Most residents said they’ve long since put the incident behind them and are pulling for their neighbor.

“We’re all on his side around here,” said one teen as he polished a large black pickup several houses away from Solomona’s.

Across the street, another woman voiced her support: “It’s an awful, awful, awful thing that happened, but it would never have happened if those boys weren’t doing what they were doing.”

Several streets over, however, some neighbors were less sympathetic.

“I think they should lock him up and throw the key away. That wasn’t any accident,” said Dale Walker, 43. “I feel for the guy, but I think justice would be served if he were in jail.”


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