Protesters demand answers from Merced police in death of 21-year-old man

Was there a gun? Was it pointed at police officers? And did the officers announce themselves before discharging about half a dozen rounds into a crowd of people, killing one and wounding two others?

An official statement from the Merced Police Department said yes.

Eyewitnesses disagreed.

Tuesday afternoon in front of Merced police headquarters, about 100 people, including friends and family of Vang Thao, 21, held signs all bearing the same message:

"We Want Answers." They chanted the same thing.

Some drivers honked in support. A candlelight vigil was held Tuesday evening at the location where Thao was killed.

Thao, a Merced College student, was shot and killed at a Buckingham Court residence on Saturday. His friends and family members say officers shot Thao without any provocation. Police maintain another man, a gang member named Kong Xiong, was pointing a weapon at the responding officers — and Thao was caught in the officers' line of fire.

Thao was struck by one bullet and pronounced dead at the scene.

Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade extended his sympathies to Thao's family and friends Tuesday in a statement. "He was a young man who had just gone out Saturday night to a party," Andrade said.

Andrade also placed the blame solely on Xiong, the gunman in the case. "Kong Xiong is responsible for the death of Mr. Thao," Andrade said in the statement. "If Xiong had not pointed a weapon at our officers, they would not have opened fire and Mr. Thao would not be dead. Tragically, Mr. Thao was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Andrade said the department's investigation is going slowly, due to the sheer number of witnesses. Police have interviewed about 20 people, and there were between 30 to 40 people at the Buckingham Court residence, where a party was happening. He added that police are keeping some information in the case under wraps, because it "could inadvertently influence the statements made by other witnesses."

According to the department's official statement, police dispatchers received a call of a man brandishing a gun at a party Saturday night in the 1500 block of Buckingham Court in North Merced. Responding to the call, officers on the scene "heard the sound of a weapon being prepared to fire." Officers then saw a man, later identified as Xiong, 18, holding a gun. "Officers pointed their weapons at the man and told him to put the gun down. Instead of putting the gun down the man turned towards officers and pointed his gun at the officers. The two officers fired their weapons."

Tuesday, eyewitnesses said Xiong didn't have a gun and police officers didn't announce themselves before shooting through a fence into a private residence where five or six people were drinking beer and socializing.

Fred Camacho, 21, lives at the house where the incident took place. He said he was less than 10 feet from Xiong when bullets ripped through the fence behind which he, Xiong and other friends were standing. "We didn't hear no cops say nothing about getting down, drop a gun, nothing like that," he said. “All we heard was gunshots fired. And after that, everybody just started running in the house because we didn’t know what was going on. The guy that died, his cousin she was telling everybody, 'call 911.'"

Both Camacho and his sister Nancy, who was also present during the incident, said they had no idea the police were the ones shooting. They also both said Xiong didn't have a gun. "First I hear that they said they got called out here because someone brandishing a gun or something, which wasn't true," she said. "I know no one was going to have a gun here. Everyone knows that there's kids here in the house. There was no gun and they didn’t find a gun as far as I know. If there really was a gun, where is it?"

Next-door neighbor Jacob Khaoone, 18, said he was cleaning up his kitchen when the shots were fired. He said he didn't hear the police officers announce themselves. But after the shots were fired, he said he heard one of the officers say, "I can't believe I just shot someone right now."

"There wasn't no arguing or nothing," Khaoone said. "The cops, they're lying about the argument. They didn't even say Merced PD or nothing. My window right here it was open. If they would have said 'Merced PD,' everyone there, they would have just stopped what they were doing. But the cops didn’t do that. And plus they didn’t have their spotlight on."

Thao's sister, Mai Thao, drove to Merced from Fremont for the protest and said the family was upset that they learned from news reports about her brother’s death. They want to know why police hadn't contacted them. "That's devastating, considering that we’ve been looking for him, calling hospitals, calling the jailhouse, calling anywhere he might be. So right now our question is, what happened? We don’t know."

The alleged gunman, Kong Xiong, 18, was shot in the leg. He was taken to a hospital in Modesto and is being held by law enforcement. An unidentified 17-year-old was also struck in the leg. He was taken to Mercy Medical Center Merced.

Xiong was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, participation in a criminal street gang, felon in possession of a firearm and possession of ammunition by a person prohibited from possessing a firearm.

Police said they have the gun Xiong was holding. Lt. Bimley West said the matter is being looked at by Internal Affairs. He said the department doesn’t notify the families in case of a death, which is up to the coroner or the sheriffs department.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.