Homicides climbed significantly in Merced County in 2017. Here’s a look at each case.

Deadly violence rose in 2017 in Merced County with 20 reported homicides countywide, more than double the number of slayings reported in 2016, but still significantly lower than the three years prior to 2016 in which 30 or more homicides were reported each year.

Total homicides countywide more than doubled in 2017 over the previous year. The nine total homicides in 2016 was the lowest mark in Merced County in about 20 years and marked the first time since 2001 that homicides failed to reach double digits.

Law enforcement officials described 2016’s homicide total as significant progress after homicides countywide reach 30 or more each year for three straight years before 2016, the deadliest period record for violent death’s in Merced County’s history.

But while homicides climbed again in 2017, just four of those slayings had a confirmed gang-related motive. A fifth case — the slaying of Ricky Young Jr. in Los Banos in February — may have possible gang ties, but police say they haven’t firmly established any motive in that unsolved case.

Nearly half (9) of the slayings reported in 2017 involved what authorities described as domestic disputes; husbands killing wives, estranged lovers, arguments with roommates — people who were killed by family or friends.

Two of the homicides came during officer-involved shootings and both appear to have stemmed from domestic-related issues.

Domestic-violence homicides are among the most difficult to prevent, area officials said.

“They happen in the heat of passion, behind closed doors and usually involve family members, so you just don’t know when they’re going to happen until it’s too late,” Sheriff Vern Warnke said.

Warnke said the numbers reflect a countywide effort among all law enforcement agencies to cut down on gang violence. Warnke credited the VIPER program with helping local police and deputies combat gang violence. About $4.5 million in funding for the Violence Interruptions/Prevention Emergency Response funding came from the state budget in 2016 with the help of Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres.

Here is a list of each Merced County’s victims of homicide in 2017.

Omar J. Villafana

A 22-year-old Dos Palos man was shot in the chest Jan. 20 during an argument with a roommate. Omar J. Villafana pleaded no contest in June to voluntary manslaughter in connection with the slaying of Humberto Cisneros and was sentenced to six years in prison, according to Merced County Superior Court records.

Lijun Wang

The body of a 30-year-old Chinese immigrant was found dumped in a trash bin Feb. 6 in an unlit alleyway behind a strip mall on G Street in Merced. Police had few leads and struggled even identifying the victim. But, just three months later, detectives captured a 50-year-old San Mateo man they said had been romantically involved with Lijun Wang. Police also said the suspect, William Li, had ties to a sex-trafficking organization that helped bring Wang to the United States a year earlier. Li has pleaded not guilty to murder and is due back in court later this year.

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Ricky Floyd Young Jr.

The same night Wang was found dead, Los Banos police found the body of Ricky Floyd Young Jr. shot to death in a parked car on Sunburst Street in Los Banos late in the evening of Feb. 6. No arrests have been made and Los Banos police have asked for the public’s help identifying the shooter.

Rocio Fierro

On Feb. 20, Juan Carlos Lopez-Esparza, a recently married 26-year-old Winton man stabbed his wife to death during an argument at their home on California Street in Winton. Rocio Fierro, 30, was stabbed to death in front of her 5-year-old son, Merced County Sheriff’s detectives said. A warrant has been issued for Lopez-Esparza’s arrest, but he remains at large and is believed to have fled the country, authorities said.

Tiarra Gallashaw

Police said a months-long feud between two women ended violently the night of March 19 when Tiarra Gallashaw was struck by a car and killed in the area of 19th and I streets in Merced, allegedly by Ashley Sanders, a 24-year-old Firebaugh woman. Sanders has pleaded not guilty. She told police she was trying to get away after she was attacked when Gallashaw was struck by the car.

Jose Mireles

Jose Mireles, a 34-year-old Merced man, was gunned down April 28 on the outdoor stairway of his apartment on San Mateo Court with his three young children just a few feet away inside their home, police said. The children were not injured. A 16-year-old man was arrested in August in connection with Mireles’ death.

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Jose Tarin

A 25-year-old Merced man was found shot to death June 21 in a rural area of Gurr Road on the outskirts of Atwater. Little information has been released in connection with the slaying of Jose Tarin, but investigators have said the vehicle in which Tarin was last seen alive was found shortly before he was killed. The car had been torched, according to deputies. No charges have been filed in the case, which deputies have said was “gang and drug” related.

Aaron Bonilla

Aaron Bonilla, a 31-year-old Los Banos man, died June 26, about two weeks after he was beaten in a Merced County Jail cell, allegedly by two fellow gang members Reyes Carrillo and Steven Rincon.

Maximiano Mendoza Valencia

Maximiano Mendoza Valencia was shot and killed July 1 on Beachwood Drive, an unincorporated neighborhood on the western outskirts of Merced. Little information has been released in the case, which remains unsolved. A motive for the slaying remains unknown.

Andrew Guzman

A Planada teenager was shot and killed in a gun battle between rival street gangs on July 4 on Carson Street in Planada. Andrew Guzman was found wounded inside a car that crashed into a house near the scene of the shooting. Deputies said Guzman was inside a car that shots were fired from and he was struck and killed by return fire during the shootout. No charges have been filed in the case.

Lo Saephan

Lo Saephan, a 34-year-old Merced man with suspected gang ties, died July 20 shortly after he was shot outside a home on Lucas Court in South Merced. A second man also was shot in the suspected gang attack, but he survived, police said. Investigators said two shooters ambushed the victims outside the home and fled on foot. No arrests have been made.

Norberto Nieblas Reyes

The 12th homicide of 2017 in Merced County came during a violent shootout in Los Banos when, according to authorities, 39-year-old Norberto Nieblas Reyes struggled with two Los Banos police officers and managed to get a hold of one of the officer’s guns, shooting both officers before he was shot and killed. Officers Kristifer Hew was shot three times during the fight, including once in the head, above the eye. Aaron Pinon was shot once in the upper body. Both men survived but remain out on paid administrative leave.

The incident remains under investigation by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.

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Joel Fuentes Torres

Joel Fuentes Torres was shot to death Aug. 13 and died inside a car parked along Oliver Street in Dos Palos. Early the next morning, Dos Palos police arrested Jose Maria Rivera, a 38-year-old Dos Palos and a friend of Torres. Police said they recovered the murder weapon. While they did not comment on a motive for the slaying, they did say the violence was not gang-related.

Maria Magdalena Garcia-Vargas

A 34-year-old Le Grand woman was found stabbed to death Sept. 1. Farmworkers came upon the body of Maria Magdalena Garcia-Vargas in a canal near Arboleda Drive and Mariposa Way just outside Le Grand. Bernabe Gonzalez, 31, of Merced, was arrested in connection with the slaying. Investigators said the two were in a dating relationship and got into an argument. Gonzalez has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court Thursday.

Delbert Scoggins

Delbert Scoggins, a 21-year-old of Los Banos, was stabbed more than two dozens times Sept. 13 in the backyard of a home in the 600 block of Eighth Street in Los Banos. Two days later, Los Banos police tracked a suspect, Michael Manuel Mirabal, to a home on Gilbert Gonzalez Drive. Police said the 30-year-old Mirabal tried to jump out of a second-story window to escape, but officers got to him before he could jump. Mirabal has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court Jan. 8.

Lydia Bal

Melissa Anne Bal, a 37-year-old woman who’d recently moved to Dos Palos, was arrested Oct. 11 after she stabbed her mother nearly two dozen times with a kitchen knife in what she claimed was a “satanic” sacrifice, according to the Merced County Sheriff’s Office. Lydia Bal was found dead in the kitchen of her own home on Highway 33. Melissa Bal has been charged with murder, but attorneys in the case are seeking psychiatric evaluations to determine whether she’s fit to stand trial.

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Ezekiel Juan Duran

The second deadly officer-involved shooting in Merced County in 2017 came in October in Atwater at an apartment complex across the street from Atwater High School. Atwater police said Ezekiel Juan Duran, an 18-year-old Atwater man, was armed with a .44-caliber handgun and refused to drop the weapon during a confrontation with police outside a home at the Winton Garden apartments. Sgt. William Novetzke and Officer David Walker opened fire on Duran, striking the teenager at least twice. He died a short time later at a Modesto hospital.

The officer-involved shooting remains under investigation by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.

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Woodrow Herrera

Woodrow Herrera, a 52-year-old Merced man, was found shot to death Dec. 1 inside a hotel room on V Street in South Merced. Few details have been released in the case. No arrests have been made. Police have said the case is not gang-related.

Linda Vue and Joseph J. Valasco

Tom Vue, a 47-year-old estranged husband, gunned down his ex-wife, Linda Vue, 41, and her new boyfriend, 44-year-old- Joseph John Valasco, inside a bedroom of a home on Daybreak Drive, according to Merced police. Investigators said Vue tried to stage the murder scene. Vue, a short time after the grisly double slayings, took his own life inside a car that he’d parked in South Merced. Police said the Vues separated in September and a Merced court judge had issued a restraining order against Tom Vue that police said he’d violated multiple times before the killings.