The death of a 33-year-old Merced man who was found Sunday night in a West 12th Street alleyway marks the first homicide of 2016 in the city.
Luis Gonzalez suffered “some type of blunt force trauma,” according to lead investigator Detective Joe Deliman, but the cause of his death was undetermined pending an autopsy.
His identity was confirmed Monday morning by the Merced County Coroner’s Office.
Relatives of Gonzalez did not offer comment to the Sun-Star prior to publication deadline.
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Lt. Jay Struble said authorities were called at 7:54 p.m. Sunday with a report of a man down the alley in the 1200 block of West 12th Street, behind a fast-food restaurant near R Street in Merced.
“He was suffering from obvious trauma and was taken to a Mercy hospital, where he was pronounced dead,” Struble told the Sun-Star.
No arrests had been made as of Monday afternoon and no descriptions of any suspects had been released.
“We have not ruled out anything at this time,” Deliman said, responding to a question about any possible motive. “We’re still right at the beginning of this investigation.”
Deliman said detectives are piecing together evidence collected at the scene and reviewing all surveillance video footage collected from stores in the area.
Homicides stats down in Merced
The death marks the first homicide of the year in the city of Merced, which reported 11 homicides in 2015.
Police Chief Norman Andrade said the notable drop in violent deaths likely was the result of a combination of factors. He also noted that the homicide tally could climb quickly again at any time.
“One of the factors that we believe has had a huge impact this year is the work of our (Gang Violence Suppression Unit)” Andrade said. “They’ve taken well over 100 guns off the streets this year alone and made a number of arrests of high-profile gang members.”
Andrade also pointed to the countywide task force on gang violence, which comprises officers and deputies from multiple agencies, including Merced. He also said new “predictive policing” technology helps deploy officers to areas where they’re most needed, which, the chief said, likely deters crimes in key hot spots.
“The work of our gang unit, the county task force, new technology, getting help from the citizens calling when they see something and the really excellent work of our patrol officers; all that adds up to a combination that we believe has contributed to the downturn,” Andrade said. “It’s a trend that I hope continues.”
Sunday’s death marks the eighth homicide of the year countywide. At this time last year, law enforcement already had seen at least 26 homicides countywide.
Violent deaths also down countywide
The Merced County Sheriff’s Office has investigated four homicides this year, compared with 13 total last year. Sheriff Vern Warnke agreed with the Merced police chief, saying the positive trend likely was the result of a combination of factors.
“I’d love to be able to point to something and just say ‘keep doing that,’ but it’s impossible to know everything that’s contributing to that,” Warnke said Monday.
The sheriff said his office has stepped up patrols in “problem areas,” improved communication between the various divisions within the office, worked more closely with the Merced County Probation Department and utilized its air unit.
Warnke also pointed to a large-scale wiretap case that resulted in more than 70 arrests of “midlevel” gang members and drug dealers in May 2015 that was dubbed “Operation Red Right Hand.”
“I’d say that was probably the beginning of this (success) but all those things probably have contributed to our success,” Warnke said. “And obviously Merced police are doing a great job in their city because their numbers are also down significantly.”
The downward trend of slayings is a welcome change for law enforcement coming off the bloodiest period in the county’s history, with 30 or more homicides reported each year for three years in a row countywide.
According to statistics from the California Department of Justice, should Merced County end the year with fewer than 10 homicides, it would be the first time violent deaths have fallen to less than the double-digit mark countywide since 2001.
Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to contact Detective Joe Deliman at 209-385-6992, or the Merced Police Department Tipster Line at 209-385-4725. The public can send information via anonymous text message to police at “TIP411” (847411); include the word “ComVIP” as the keyword. Tips are confidential and callers can remain anonymous.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482