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Hostages Recall Terror of Siege in Sacramento : Tragedy: Gang flipped coins deciding whom to shoot inside store. Some criticize handling of negotiations.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Four members of an Asian-American gang, seeking notoriety by holding 40 people hostage in an electronics store, flipped coins to decide which of their victims to kill moments before Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies rushed in, authorities said Friday.

The rescue attempt by the sheriff’s SWAT team faltered when a sniper missed one of the gunmen, prompting the gang members to begin shooting hostages at random during the Thursday night siege.

By the time deputies charged from the back of the building and gunned down the gang members, three hostages were dead and 11 were wounded. Another hostage who was two months pregnant suffered a miscarriage during the ordeal. Three of the four unidentified gunmen--believed to be in their late teens--died in the hail of bullets.

Several wounded hostages Friday criticized the Sheriff’s Department’s negotiators for antagonizing the gunmen during the eight hours leading up to the shoot-out.

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Some law enforcement officials outside the department privately questioned the SWAT team’s tactics and delay in shooting the gunmen after the sniper missed his target.

Sacramento County Sheriff Glen Craig defended his department, saying that the gang members had come to the Good Guys store prepared to die and were on the verge of killing their hostages when the first deputy opened fire.

Already, he said, the gunmen had shot two hostages in the leg, including a diabetic man who had collapsed because of his illness.

“I don’t know what we could have done differently,” Craig told a packed press conference. “We are satisfied they would have begun shooting people within seconds of the time we took the action to move in and save the hostages.”

Providing the first detailed account of the incident, Craig said the four gang members did not enter the store to commit a robbery but were seeking to bring attention to themselves and their gang, “Oriental Boys.”

During the siege, the four Vietnamese-Chinese gunmen kept changing their demands, at one point asking sheriff’s deputies to fetch 1,000-year-old ginger roots and make them tea. At other times, they demanded $4 million in cash, a helicopter that could hold 40 people, a .45-caliber pistol and transportation to Thailand so they could fight the “Viet Cong.” They also wanted a document signed by President Bush and Gov. Pete Wilson granting them amnesty.

Their most frequent demand was for bulletproof vests, which sheriff’s negotiators attempted to use to win release of some hostages. Early on, the gunmen released a woman and her two children in exchange for one vest.

The only gang member to survive the fusillade of bullets was wearing that vest. The gunman, believed to be about 21 and the leader of the group, was in critical condition and had not regained consciousness, the sheriff said.

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Craig said little was known about the gang members and it was difficult to understand their motives, in part because of the cultural differences.

“We look at them as people who went there with the idea of taking hostages, who wanted recognition,” the sheriff said. “In fact, at one point in the negotiations, when the television cameras started covering them, they said: ‘Oh, we are going to be movie stars. Look at us on television.’ It was dissatisfaction with the life that they had here in this country, a frustration. . . . They were very, very unhappy people.”

Two hostages who were wounded by the gunmen said sheriff’s negotiators could have done more to satisfy the gang members and prevent the shooting of store employees and customers.

Alan Story, 37, of Vacaville had stopped in the store to make a quick purchase when the four armed men entered and began shooting as they rounded up hostages.

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“They were pretty reasonable and pretty fair for quite a while but the negotiator for the police seemed not to take them seriously,” Story said at UC Davis Medical Center, where he was being treated for a gunshot wound in the chest. “They warned the police that if they tried to storm it they would go ahead and shoot everybody first and then themselves.”

The gunmen told the hostages that two of them were brothers and that their father had been killed by the Viet Cong, Story said. “They just wanted to go back there because they weren’t satisfied with the way things were going in America,” he said.

Store employee David Siegler, 27, of Carmichael, who was shot in the left hip, said police should have given the hostages more of what they wanted.

“If I ever had to go through it again I would be a lot more frightened, knowing how it was handled,” he said. “If anything, what they (sheriff’s negotiators) did on the other side of the phone, the negotiations, seemed to make things more tense.”

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In the end, two employees, Kris Sohne, 27, of Sacramento, and John Lee Fritz, 37, of Auburn, were killed by the gunmen. Fernando Gutierrez, 28, of Sacramento, a customer who had come looking for sale merchandise, also died in the gunfire.

Josephine Lopez, Gutierrez’s sister, said deputies should have entered the building more quickly when the shooting began. “If they had rushed,” she said, “my brother wouldn’t be dead now.”

During the long siege, the gang members released nine hostages, including store employee Sean McIntyre, whom they first shot in the thigh as a warning to police.

David Risse, another store employee who was held hostage, said the gunmen calmly struck a deal with McIntyre to shoot him and let him go if he would deliver their demands.

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“They asked Sean if it would be a fair deal if they could shoot him in the leg and then let him go, as long as he promised to deliver his message to the press and appear on the news,” Risse said. “He swallowed hard and said, ‘Sure.’ ”

Much of the hostage drama was televised live throughout the state and the gunmen watched the action on some of the many televisions in the store. Within minutes, they saw the wounded McIntyre appear and relay their demands.

Soon afterward, they shot their second victim, the diabetic who had fallen to the floor. Craig recounted: “The comment that was made was, ‘Well, it looks like he has just decided who is going to be our next person to be shot.’ ”

Earlier in the day, negotiations reportedly deteriorated when the gang members fought among themselves and then rejected an offer of a year in jail if they would surrender. The gang members tied up their hostages and placed them toward the front of the store as a human barrier.

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The gunmen were armed with two 9 millimeter pistols and a shotgun that they purchased last week after complying with the state’s required 15-day waiting period, Craig said.

Toward the end, the gang members began flipping coins to decide whom they would kill first.

“The hostages have informed us that they had actually already flipped coins and divided the room in half,” Craig said, “and then began to flip coins deciding which persons were going to be shot first, and were in the process of holding guns to people’s heads at the time we took our action.”

They told the hostages they were going to shoot them in the leg, then in the chest and then in the head, Craig said.

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For more than two hours, a team of seven deputies hid in a back storage room of the huge store, waiting for the chance to attack from the rear. They had entered the building by climbing through the ceiling from a fabric store next door. Deputies had also installed a camera in the wall that gave them a limited view of movements.

During negotiations, the police agreed to provide the gunmen with a second bulletproof vest and placed it outside the front door. When one hostage was sent outside on a long tether to get it, one of the snipers outside opened fire.

At that instant, Craig said, the door slammed shut, and the bullet was deflected by the glass. The gunman who was the intended target then began shooting the hostages.

“We thought it was a good idea at the time,” Craig said. “You can second-guess any decision we made. If the door had not slammed shut we would have had him out of the way and he would not have had an opportunity to shoot the victims.”

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For what seemed an agonizingly long moment to some hostages, the gunman fired over and over before the deputies rushing from the back room shot him down.

Craig said snipers did not fire because of the fear of hitting hostages. Nor did they storm the building from the front--a shorter distance--for fear of the deputies being shot.

“Obviously, if you have some people coming from the back who are shooting towards the front, you don’t send people through the front door,” Craig said.

The sheriff said he was “reasonably certain” that the hostages were killed by the gunmen, not deputies.

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After the shooting stopped, Risse said he broke free and untied three of his fellow employees who had been bound together and shot. One of them was dead.

Hospital officials said one of the hostages, 72-year-old Quinlan Schluter, was in critical condition Friday. The other hostages were listed in good or fair condition, and several were treated and released.

One law enforcement official, after viewing television footage of the incident, said the Sacramento sheriff’s SWAT team had bungled the operation. For one, deputies should have cut the lights in the building before the attack, said the former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and federal agent. In addition, he said, they should have risked their lives, if necessary, and mounted a more rapid assault to save the hostages.

“When you go in, you go in right now, immediately,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. “You don’t hesitate because that’s what gets people killed.”

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Craig turned aside criticism of the operation, saying it was easy to find fault in hindsight. “I think my people performed very well,” he said.

BACKGROUND

Law enforcement officials said they were “satisfied” that the four gunmen who held 40 people hostage in an appliance store were members of the “Oriental Boys” gang in Sacramento. But Sheriff Glen Craig said their actions were not “sanctioned or orchestrated by the gang in total.” He said the perpetrators appeared to be a “splinter” group, whose loosely knit and highly mobile membership is believed to change radically. Authorities including Kristine Yoshida, an intelligence analyst who specializes in Southeast Asian gang crimes for the state Department of Justice, said the Good Guys incident appeared to be the first of its type in which a non-Asian business was the target and that money did not appear to be the motive. “This is totally out of the normal for the things we are used to seeing them do,” Yoshida said. Sgt. Ralph Coyle, a Sacramento police expert on Asian gangs, said Asian gangsters prey almost exclusively on Asian immigrants. Experts say their extortion, intimidation, robbery and other crimes often go unreported because the immigrants fear police and also fear retaliation for contacting authorities.

Times staff writers Mark Gladstone, Jerry Gillam and Carl Ingram contributed to this story.

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(Southland Edition) CHRONOLOGY OF THE TRAGEDY

1:30 p.m. Employees at the Good Guys electronics store south of downtown Sacramento place a 911 emergency telephone call, alerting authorities that four gunmen are holding about 40 customers and employees at gunpoint. Officers, their guns drawn, surround the store while a special weapons team patrols the roof. Authorities seal off the area and crowds gather.

2:50 p.m. A sheriff’s sergeant strips to his underwear and carries a bulletproof vest to the store’s front door, where it is retrieved by a woman hostage and taken inside.

2:55 p.m. The woman who retrieved the vest leaves the store, carrying one child with another at her side.

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5:35 p.m. A second woman leaves the store with three children.

7:25 p.m. The gunmen force their hostages to lie down on the store’s floor.

7:40 p.m. The hands of hostages are bound with pieces of electrical cord.

8:23 p.m. A male hostage is released, leaving the store with his hands raised.

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8:55 p.m. Hostage Sean McIntyre, seen standing inside the door, crumples to the floor, shot in the thigh by a gunman. He is permitted to hobble to safety and goes on television to present the attackers’ demands.

9:54 p.m. A woman, tethered to her captors, is pushed out the front door where another bulletproof vest has been delivered. She is prevented from retrieving it after a gunman gestures that one vest is not enough.

9:55 p.m. A sheriff’s SWAT team blows out the plate-glass windows at the storefront, the first shot in a flurry of gunfire. Seven deputies who had been hiding in a locked room for two hours open fire from the rear of the store while others storm through the front. A gunman walks along the front of the store shooting hostages. After about 30 seconds of gunfire, the standoff ends.

THE SCENE OF THE TRAGEDY

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About 1:30 p.m., employees at Good Guys electronics store south of downtown Sacramento call 911, alerting authorities that four gunmen are holding about 40 customers and employees. Officers, with guns drawn, surround store while special weapons team patrols roof.

Hostage drama continues more than 8 hours. Two bulletproof vests are delivered. Some hostages are released. Others are bound and tied near front of store.

At 9:55 p.m., sheriff’s SWAT team blows out plate-glass front door. Seven deputies, who had hidden in locked room for two hours, open fire from rear of store while others storm front. A gunman shoots several hostages. After 30 seconds of gunfire, standoff ends.


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