Off-duty Merced police officer shot at; two teens in custody

06/20/2009 1:02 AM

06/20/2009 2:53 AM

Two suspected gang members have been charged with attempted murder in connection with a Friday morning shooting involving an off-duty Merced police officer.

The officer, Vance Walker, wasn't injured, though his car was struck by at least three bullets at about 4:30 a.m. while he was driving southbound on Park Avenue in North Merced, authorities said.

It's unclear whether the suspects knew Walker was a police officer at the time of the shooting, said Cmdr. Floyd Higdon, a department spokesman.

Though authorities continued to investigate throughout the day Friday, Higdon said Walker gave the following account of what happened.

He was driving to workout at In-Shape City's G Street location when he slowed his car for a man crossing Park Avenue. Walker, who was out of uniform and driving his own car, then noticed another man standing nearby on the sidewalk.

The man on the sidewalk called out to Walker asking if he had a cigarette. Walker noticed the two men looking back and forth at each other.

"He just got that feeling that something wasn't right," Higdon said. "The hairs on the back of his neck stood up."

Fearing the pair might be planning to rob or assault him, Walker began to drive on. As he did, the person on the sidewalk pulled a gun and fired several shots at him.

Walker didn't return fire. He watched the assailants run into an apartment complex on Park Avenue. Walker then called 911.

The sheriff's department dispatched a helicopter to fly over the area to search for the suspects. Officers also searched on foot. About a half-hour later police arrested two people who matched descriptions given by Walker.

Walker later positively identified them in person.

Authorities wouldn't release the name of the suspected shooter because he is only 17 years old. They identified the other suspect as 19-year-old Daniel Uriostegui, of Merced.

Uriostegui is a parolee and the suspected shooter is a convicted felon, police said.

Higdon said both are thought to be Norteno gang members. "There's a documented history by our department of their involvement with gangs," he said.

Police said it's still unclear whether the suspects might have been planning to rob Walker or if they targeted him specifically because he is a police officer.

A police department statement said neither suspect would submit to interviews with investigators Friday.

Last month, local law enforcement officials announced a major gang crackdown and said they had uncovered evidence that a local gang was planning an organized hit targeting a Merced police officer.

Authorities have declined to name the officer thought to be the subject of the hit, but said Friday that it wasn't Walker.

Even so, Higdon said, authorities aren't ruling out the possibility that the shooting was a deliberate effort to kill a police officer.

"Either way, the case is being forwarded to the Merced County District Attorney's Office as an attempt to murder our officer," the police department statement said.

The department's SWAT team searched unit No. 22 in the Barcelona Apartments complex near the scene of the shooting late Friday morning. Higdon said authorities believe the suspects were attending a party there around the time of the shooting. Officers recovered a revolver at the apartment that they believe to be the gun involved.

Sherrel Fernandes, who manages the Barcelona Apartments, said she had been in the process of evicting the people who lived in unit 22 before Friday's shooting.

"We've had complaints from neighbors about the noise and maybe some gang activity there," Fernandes said.

She said police called her at home around 6:30 Friday morning and asked her to help them evacuate three apartments close to the one that was searched as a safety precaution.

"I'm pretty blown away," Fernandes said. "This isn't the kind of thing that happens here."

Walker, who has been with the Merced police department since 1998, works day patrols, often on bicycle. He also trains new officers.

Uriostegui has been booked into Merced County Jail. The suspected shooter has been taken to county juvenile hall. Both have been charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit a criminal act and participation in a criminal street gang.

Anyone with information on the shooting should call Detective C.R. Russell at (209) 385-4707, or the Merced Police Department's tip line at (209) 385-4725.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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