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Jury Deadlocks in Pumpkin Theft Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury deadlocked Friday in the murder trial of a Buena Park homeowner who shot and killed a 17-year-old neighbor who attempted to steal a plastic Halloween pumpkin from his front lawn.

After four days of sometimes tearful deliberations, frustrated jurors announced that they could not agree on a verdict in the case, which has now been tried twice without a resolution. Jurors said they split 9-3--the majority favoring a guilty verdict. Jurors said they were hopelessly deadlocked, and Judge Richard F. Toohey declared a mistrial.

“We all agreed there was a crime; nobody thought he should just walk away,” said Jury Foreman Bill Kenney, 69, of Huntington Beach. “Not everybody agreed it was second-degree murder though. For them, the idea of malice aforethought was the biggest hang-up.”

Jurors had the option of voting for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter as well as acquittal.

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Prosecutors allege that Pete T. Solomona, 50, pointed his .357 magnum revolver at teenager Brandon Ketsdever’s head at point-blank range as the popular high school athlete and two friends sat in their car outside Solomona’s home. At trial, Solomona insisted the gun went off accidentally after he banged his arm against the door of Ketsdever’s car.

Solomona was convicted of murder at a trial last year, but a judge threw that decision out, citing errors in jury instructions.

Kenney said many on the panel left court Friday in great frustration. Some had broken down in tears during the final hours of deliberations, he said.

“The tears were for the fact that we had failed. Everyone was disappointed that we couldn’t reach a verdict,” he said. “It was emotionally draining. We hadn’t slept for three or four days. People weren’t sleeping because of this.”

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The mistrial also brought anguish to the Solomona and Ketsdever families, who have kept a vigil in court throughout both trials.

Brandon Ketsdever’s mother, Jessie, broke down in tears as Toohey declared a mistrial.

“It doesn’t matter if it takes us two times or a hundred times, we’ll keep coming back until justice is served,” said his father, Jon Ketsdever.

Jan Halcomb, a family friend who attended much of the trial, echoed that sentiment. “Basically, he should be in prison,” Halcomb said of Solomona. “He’s walking away with murder.”

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Members of the Solomona family left the courthouse in somber procession. Solomona remains free on $250,000 bail.

“They’re very disappointed that it’s not over. This is a very hard case,” said Marie Alex, defense co-counsel. “Everybody’s disappointed that a verdict hasn’t been reached.”

A spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney’s office said staff would determine next week whether to retry the case, which has attracted international attention.

“We have 12 people who thought that he was guilty of some sort of shooting, and that’s encouraging to our office,” said spokeswoman Tori Richards.

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Solomona’s second trial was most remarkable for the fact that he admitted to jurors that he had lied while on the stand in his first trial.

Defense lawyer Milton Grimes, who was newly hired for the second trial, said Solomona initially concealed the fact that he armed himself early in the evening after he heard noises at his front door. Grimes said his client believed somebody was attempting to break in.

Solomona withheld that fact during the first trial for fear he would look to jurors like a vigilante, Grimes said. The shooting, Grimes said, was an accident, and no crime had been committed.

Some jurors were suspicious about the change in story, Kenney said. “It seemed like a lot of people in the trial had left something out of the story,” he said.

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The shooting occurred Oct. 19, 1999, as 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, revolver in hand.

A witness testified at trial that the barrel-chested defendant pointed the gun at Ketsdever’s head, cocked the hammer and threatened to “blow his brains out.”

Solomona, however, insisted the shooting was a terrible accident. He said he was trying to get the boy’s attention by banging his fist against the car door and that the weapon went off. He said he never cocked the revolver and was shocked the weapon discharged.

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At the time of his death, Brandon Ketsdever was a star football and water polo player at John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma. Solomona, who has been described as a devoted family man, worked at a Pepsi plant.

The trial lasted roughly a week, and jurors returned regularly to the question of what sort of response was a reasonable one, Kenney said.

Jurors found it increasingly difficult to agree on that issue as deliberations wore on.

“Another big sticking point was what would a reasonable person do,” he said. “But by this afternoon, nobody was reasonable.”

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