Merced County sheriff’s detectives are ruling the death of a man whose body was found Wednesday in an orchard near South Highway 59 and Dickenson Ferry Road a homicide, according to spokesman Deputy Tom MacKenzie.
An autopsy completed on Saturday determined gunshot wounds to be the preliminary cause of death in the male victim. Detectives are working under the assumption that the victim might be 21-year-old Bryan Sanchez, a missing person from Atwater.
MacKenzie said positive identification will not be made until DNA samples are matched with family.
The motive for the killing is still under investigation, he added.
Authorities are withholding further details, including the condition of the body, type and caliber of weapon used, citing the integrity of the case.
A property manager found the body around 6 p.m. Wednesday while he was doing a routine check of the orchard and called the Sheriff’s department.
Detectives were at the scene over night Wednesday and through Thanksgiving Day, and continued following several leads over the weekend.
This is the 17th homicide in Merced County this year.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Merced County Sheriff's Department at (209) 385-7472.
-- Ramona Giwargis