Key witness murdered in Santa Rosa

March 5, 2008 3:13:20 PM PST
A 24-year-old Santa Rosa man who was fatally shot at Blind Beach on the Sonoma Coast was in wintness protection. Murder victim Vutha Au was willing to testify at the May trial of brothers Perry and Pongsony Khaoone and Boonlak Phanchanh who are charged with kidnapping Au's brother Terry Au, 22, for $5,000 ransom, with extortion and other felony charges, Passalacqua said. Terry Au testified under the witness protection program at the Khaoones' and Phanchanch's preliminary hearing in November. The Khaoones' brother Preston Khaoone, 22, David Prak, 19, and his brother Sarith Prak, 21, and Quentin Russell, 24, have been charged with Vutha's murder. They are scheduled to enter pleas next week. Passalacqua said the murder defendants face the death penalty or life in prison without parole for killing a witness to prevent his testimony and committing the murder while being active participants of a gang and in furtherance of the gang. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department said Vutha's murder and the kidnapping for ransom and extortion involving Terry Au are linked. The sheriff's department said Vutha Au apparently elected to stay in the Santa Rosa area even though he was in the witness protection and relocation program. Passalacqua said Tuesday that in gang cases involving intimidation or threats, "We take necessary precautions to use all the local and state resources available to assure witnesses' safety." He said the program has safely relocated 75 witnesses and family members since 1998. He said the program is voluntary but it does require participants follow all guidelines including staying away from areas where they will be in danger. Sheriff's Lt. Robert Giordano said the murder suspects forcibly removed Au from his Honda and drove him to the beach south of Jenner. Au's Honda Accord was found Monday night in northwest Santa Rosa. Au was shot nine times in the head, neck and torso. His body was discovered in a beach parking lot by a state parks ranger who saw a vehicle speeding away from the scene, the sheriff's department said. Khaoone, the Praks and Russell were detained by a sheriff's deputy early Sunday morning in Monte Rio and later were arrested for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Giordano said a gun found in brush off state Highway 116 Monday is not believed to be the murder weapon.

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