UPDATE: Three arrested in weapons incident in Merced

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comOctober 15, 2013 

— Three suspected Merced gang members were arrested Tuesday after police said they brandished a stolen assault rifle at a man after an argument over a gang tattoo at a cellphone store.

No shots were fired and no one was injured, Merced police Lt. Matt Williams said.

Officers received numerous conflicting accounts from witnesses and initially believed the suspects had brandished an assault rifle, but later determined they used a handgun during the confrontation. During the subsequent police investigation, officers did recover a stolen assault rifle, but said they do not believe it was involved in the incident at the cellphone store.

“It all started because one group had a beef with another customer about his tattoo,” Williams said. “It could’ve really turned really nasty.”

Police arrested Mark Whitaker, 21; George Eddings, 23; and a 16-year-old male on suspicion of brandishing a firearm, with enhancements for criminal street gang participation. Merced police described all three as “known gang members.”

The victim was later identified by police as a 21-year-old Merced man.

Tony Moreno, owner of Tony’s Cellular in the first block of Main Street, said he was happy no one was hurt, but described a tense situation inside his store after the argument started.

“Me personally, I never saw any (guns), but my customers did and everyone came running inside the store and were lying down on the floor – it was pretty crazy,” Moreno said.

Moreno said he kicked several people out of his store about 10:15 a.m. when they started arguing. Several other people arrived at the store in vehicles with weapons, authorities said. Moreno said no guns were brandished inside his store.

“Then this guy comes running inside my store, opening doors saying to help him, and he’s trying to hide under my desk,” Moreno said.

Moreno punched the store’s panic button to call for help.

Police responded at 10:18 a.m., but the people in the vehicle had left. Officers searched the area for a burgundy-colored Cadillac and found one in an alley several blocks away in the area of 18th Street, Williams said.

Investigators searched the car and an undisclosed nearby residence where they located a stolen assault rifle, as well as unspecified narcotics, police reported.

All three suspects were taken into custody and additional charges may be added as the investigation progresses, police said.

Moreno said the incident typifies the problem of street-gang culture colliding with the lives of regular citizens.

“This gang stuff has got to stop, it’s just got to stop,” he said. “I just don’t see any point to the gang stuff.”

Anyone with information regarding the incident is asked to contact the Merced Police Department at (209) 385-4702 or the tip line at (209) 385-4725. People can text tips to the department at TIP411 (847411) and use “comvip” as the first word in the text message.

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2482.

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