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Dispatch: 'It's hard because it left everyone clueless'

October 14, 2009 |  7:07 pm

Puncho Eteuati, 34 More than six weeks after Puncho Eteuati, 34, was gunned down in the front yard of his sister-in-law's Wilmington home, authorities said they have made little progress in finding his killer.

The August weekend Eteuati was killed began like any other. The youth pastor for the First Samoan Full Gospel in Compton drove from his home in Hawthorne to Wilmington to pick up his young niece Chanell.

Each Friday, he made the same trip so Chanell could spend the weekend with him and his wife.

On Saturday, he took more than 50 children from his church, including Chanell and her older brother, Blue, to Wild Rivers Waterpark in Irvine.

Family members said the couple — who had no children of their own — had a special bond with Chanell and Blue, forged when they cared for the children for four years when their mother was unable to do so. Family members said Chanell is about five-years old and Blue about seven.

On Sunday, Aug. 30, Eteuati and his wife, Chanell, brought Chanell back to her mother's home. About 10:30 p.m., Eteuati stood outside his sister-in-law’s home in the 1300 block of Ronan Avenue. He and his wife were talking to her sister about attending church with them.

As they spoke, a shooter walked up and opened fire, according to Bruce Eteuati, who said when his brother saw the gunman he yelled for his wife and her sister to take cover.

Eteuati was shot several times, according to the coroner’s office. He was taken to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center where he died of his wounds, said Detective Sid Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division.

“He was a leader in his family,”  Rodriguez said. “It seemed like he was doing everything right. That’s what’s so hard to figure out here.”

Police have no suspects and no motive. It is unclear whether Eteuati’s murder was a gang-related.

“He has no ties,” to gangs  Rodriguez said. The case is especially unusual because no one within gangs is talking about the killing, according to Rodriguez.

Three gangs are very active in the area: The Westside Wilmas, Eastsiders and Waterfront Piru, none of which have an active Samoan base. To the north though, both Compton and Carson have a sizeable Samoan Crips population, according to Det. Rodriguez.

Police are considering mistaken identity as a possible motive.

“It looks like they targeted someone,” Rodriguez said.

Eteuati was the tenth child of 12 children. He was the youngest boy among his four brothers and seven sisters. Born in Samoa, he immigrated with his family to California in the 1981, when he was 6 years old.

The family lived in Compton, and most have stayed in the area, near where their parents still live. Eteuati’s father is a retired pastor and the family is very involved in their faith.

Eteuati was known among family members as saying “What’s up, sole?” greeting people as “brother” in Samoan, a language often spoken in their homes.

After his death, family members made T-shirts with a picture of Eteuati donning a yellow baseball cap, and the words “sleep tight, sole” on the bottom in bright yellow. He was remembered by family members as someone who would always lend a hand.

When Eteuati and his wife were awarded custody of Blue and Chanell during a difficult time in their mother’s life, the couple decided to leave Compton. He left his hometown for larger accommodations in Hawthorne, according to his sister Lina Ofisa, 41.

After four years of Eteuati’s care, custody was recently reinstated to the children’s mother, but the bond between Eteuati and his niece and nephew remained. They would spend the weekend together and attend Sunday services at First Samoan.

The church was central to Eteuati’s life, his siblings said. Two years ago, when he suffered a serious back injury as a truck driver, Eteuati decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He began studying at the California Bible University in Norwalk with the goal of eventually becoming a pastor, Ofisa said.

“He wanted to learn about the word of God, to do something with his life,” Ofisa said.

Family members are puzzled as to why someone would kill Puncho.

“It’s hard because it left everyone clueless,” Bruce Eteuati said. “He was a strong man of God.”

-- Lauren Williams

Follow The Homicide Report on Twitter @latimeshomicide.

Photo: Puncho Eteuati, 32, of Hawthorne was shot about 10:30 p.m. Sunday as he stood on the sidewalk in the 1300 block of Ronan Avenue. Credit: Eteuati family