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In the Wrong Place--Twice : Violence: UC Irvine student is fatally shot while following a vehicle he believed was involved in a recent vandalism incident.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police said Thursday that they were searching for two men in connection with the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old UC Irvine engineering student who was slain while trying to jot down the license plate number of a van he thought was linked to a recent vandalism incident.

Garden Grove police said that Robert Sapinoso, who lived in Westminster, suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his upper torso after he stopped his car near the van at the intersection of Newland Street and Trask Avenue about 6:50 p.m. Wednesday.

Sapinoso’s passenger, who was not identified, wrestled the shooting victim from the driver’s seat of the car and drove his friend to a nearby hospital that, it turned out, is one of the few in Orange County that does not have an emergency room.

Sapinoso was pronounced dead by paramedics summoned by hospital personnel to Vencor Hospital-Orange County, which has been without an emergency room for the last two years.

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Police Lt. John Woods said that because of the severity of Sapinoso’s wounds, he may not have survived even if he had been treated sooner, either by paramedics at the scene of the shooting or at a hospital with a fully staffed emergency room.

“We don’t know if it would have made any difference and would have saved him,” Woods said. Police said the assailants were described as two men between 17 and 21 years old.

Sapinoso and his friend were outside Sapinoso’s car not far from the intersection of Trask and Newland when they saw the van drive past and thought they recognized it as a vehicle involved in a recent car vandalism incident, Woods said. Woods said he did not know whose car had been vandalized.

“They decided to follow it and get the license number,” Woods said.

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As the pair stopped at the intersection, the occupants of the van apparently realized they were being followed and decided to strike, Woods said. “The passenger got out of the van . . . and was able to walk right up” and fire four or five shots with a handgun through the windshield, he said.

Woods said the only suspected motive for the slaying was that the men in the van apparently knew they were being followed.

The killers fled in the van, which Westminster police said fit the description of a vehicle used in at least two recent burglaries.

Witnesses said Sapinoso’s passenger, who was uninjured in the attack, struggled to move his friend out of the driver’s seat and then drove off.

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“The windshield was blown out, and it was like he was having a hard time getting the car started, and then he drove away real fast. It scared . . . me,” said Karen Straly, who lives near the intersection and called 911 after hearing gunshots.

The hospital administrator at Vencor, called Humana Hospital-Westminster before it changed hands two years ago, said a sign in front warns that the facility has no emergency room. The hospital now specializes in respiratory diseases and is not licensed for emergency care.

When the two drove up, a nurse tried to provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation and staffers called paramedics, said administrator Richard McCarthy.

“We provided a level of care we were capable of doing. We did not refuse treatment. We did not turn him away,” McCarthy said.

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Woods said Sapinoso managed to get a partial license plate number for the van.

Sapinoso’s father said his son was an A and B student at UC Irvine, where he was enrolled in summer school.

But Dan Sapinoso said he knew little about the incident that took his son’s life.

“I am still in a state of shock. I can’t believe it,” he said.

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Colleagues at the computer firm where Robert Sapinoso worked as a part-time office assistant for the past two years described him as an easygoing, polite young man who typed so fast they nicknamed him “Zap.”

“I had a lot of respect for him,” said Duane Nielson, director of medical imaging at MicroWest Industries Inc. in Irvine. “We all gathered together this morning for a company photograph, and he just never showed up.”

Chronology Events surrounding the death of Robert Sapinoso on Wednesday. UC Irvine engineering student Robert Sapinoso 19, and a friend, who are outside Sapinoso’s car in Garden Grove shortly before 6:50 p.m., notice a van they believe was involved in a recent car vandalism incident.

The pair follow the van in their car in an attempt to write down the van’s license plate number.

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At Newland Street and Trask Avenue, a passenger in the van, apparently aware that the vehicle is being followed, emerges and fires four or five shots through the windshield of Sapinoso’s car. Sapinoso is hit several times in the torso.

Sapinoso’s friend wrestles him out of the driver’s seat and drives to nearby Vencor Hospital-Orange County, a respiratory care facility in Westminster that has no emergency room. The gunmen flee in the van.

A nurse at the hospital provides CPR while other staff members call paramedics.

Sapinoso dies at 7:16 p.m. waiting for emergency personnel to arrive.

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