Asian Boyz member killed

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Asian Boyz member killed

Post  Ty on Thu Mar 06, 2008 5:39 pm

Slain witness visited area despite relocation
Under assistance program's rules, Santa Rosa man killed near Jenner was to have stayed away

By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A Santa Rosa man believed to have been killed to prevent his testimony in a criminal trial had frequently visited local friends on weekends, violating the standard terms of the witness relocation program he entered last fall, authorities said.



Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Rob Giordano would not say whether Vutha Au, 24, was followed, ambushed or just how he encountered the men accused of killing him.

Giordano said it was "a reasonable assumption that they knew he was around because of friendships and associates."

He said the defendants, all reputed members of the Asian Boyz gang, ultimately met up with him, surprised him and forced him into their car. They drove him to a turnout above Blind Beach south of Jenner, where he was shot nine times in a "preplanned event," Giordano said.

Four men were arrested a short time later after a state park ranger who saw a car speeding from the area found Au's body and relayed a description of the car to the Sheriff's Department.

After a firearm found Monday proved to be unrelated to the case, authorities on Wednesday continued searching for the murder weapon along Highway 116 between Highway 1 and Duncans Mills, where the suspects were stopped and arrested early Sunday, Giordano said.

"We have a very large area to look for it," he said. "We've got metal detectors. We've got dogs. We've got Caltrans cutting down bushes."

The suspects are Quentin Glenn Russell, 24; David Prak, 19; Sarith Prak, 21; and Preston Phongsuvane Khaoone, 22, all of Santa Rosa.

Although only one is believed to have shot Au, "all four of them knew exactly what they were doing and had the same goal and the same intent," Giordano said.

They were charged Tuesday with murder and special circumstances -- killing a witness to prevent his testimony and murder to advance a criminal street gang.

If convicted, they could face life in prison without parole or the death penalty, although prosecutors have not said whether they'll pursue capital punishment.

Au was set to testify against two of Khaoone's brothers in their upcoming trial for the alleged kidnapping and torture of his younger brother, Terry Au, 22.

Terry Au testified in a preliminary hearing last fall that he had sold drugs for a fourth Khaoone brother and was dealing for Perry Khaoone, a defendant in the kidnapping, until he decided he no longer wanted to.

He said he was assaulted Oct. 1 in his home, then kidnapped and tortured by Perry Khaoone, Pongsony Khaoone and two other men, one of whom threatened to chop off his fingers in an extortion attempt.

Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said Wednesday that the trial would proceed without Vutha Au's testimony.

Au is the fourth person to be killed while participating in the state's 10-year-old Witness Relocation and Assistance Program, said Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for the state Justice Department.

They include San Franciscans killed May 4, 2006, and last Jan. 7, both after returning to the city after having moved to homes outside the area, according to Lacy and news accounts of the killings.

The other, a San Bernardino County man, was killed last April after testifying against fellow gang members in a murder case. Although he had qualified for witness relocation, he had not moved from his home, Lacy said.

Although witness protection suggests the kind of new identity and life often featured on TV crime shows and movies, the state's program, administered through county district attorneys, is a pared-down version that primarily helps witnesses and their families leave what officials call "the threat area" during the time they're considered witnesses.

About 500 witnesses move in and out of the program during the course of a year, Lacy said. More than three-quarters of the new cases last year were associated with gang-related crime, according to the program's annual report.

During the 2006-07 fiscal year, the state reimbursed counties $2.9 million for relocation assistance, which also covered hundreds of family members.

District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said Tuesday that his office had safely relocated 75 witnesses and family members since the state program began in 1998.

Although the program is voluntary, participants sign an agreement pledging, among other things, to testify truthfully, obey all laws, refrain from returning to the "threat area" and "take all steps necessary to avoid detection by others during the period of protection," according to a standard form provided by the Justice Department.

Authorities haven't said when precisely Vutha Au joined the relocation program and moved outside what Giordano called "the immediate area."

Giordano said Au had "frequented Santa Rosa, primarily on weekends," sometimes staying over. He said detectives had identified the friend whom Au was visiting last weekend and found Au's car, a silver Honda Accord, parked in the vicinity of Range and Russell avenues in northwest Santa Rosa.

During a preliminary hearing last November, Terry Au said authorities were housing his family outside the area and paying them a $400 monthly food allowance in exchange for his testimony.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

Ty
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