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Key Defendant, 17, Acquitted in Shooting at Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County judge Wednesday acquitted the main defendant in the shooting of two Westlake High School football players, dealing prosecutors a major setback in a high-profile case of gang violence.

Concluding a four-day trial, Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath found Oubonsack (Andy) Sonethanouphet not guilty of two counts of assault with a firearm, charges stemming from a Feb. 3 melee at a park near the high school campus.

McGrath said he believes the 17-year-old Orange County youth fired a gun, but that the evidence did not prove that his shots struck football players David Behling and Scott Smith.

“The evidence is not satisfactory to convince me beyond a reasonable doubt that (Sonethanouphet’s gunfire) hit these two boys,” the judge declared.

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The decision came after three current and former Westlake students testified that someone much taller than the 5-foot-4 defendant shot their classmates.

The ruling drew an unusually strong courtroom reaction from the prosecutor, who challenged the judge to explain his ruling.

“I can’t understand how you can acquit him of using the firearm,” Deputy Dist. Atty. John Vanarelli told McGrath.

When the judge left the bench, Vanarelli turned and apologized to mothers of two boys injured in the melee.

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“Sorry,” the prosecutor said to Kathy Behling and Cindy Simmons, whose son testified to being beaten with a 2-by-4 and a baseball bat during the brawl.

Outside court, the women were visibly shaken. “I’m shocked,” Behling said. Simmons said she worried for her family’s safety. Sonethanouphet is a Rowland Heights gang member, according to testimony.

“I’m a little bit fearful,” she said.

On the other side, the verdict brought smiles to the normally stoic Sonethanouphet, who grinned and shook hands with his attorney. “He was prepared for the worse,” Deputy Public Defender Zane Smith said.

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The defendant’s mother cried. She said she was overjoyed to be taking her son home Wednesday night. The youth had been in custody for all but about two months since the incident last winter.

“The judge is very fair about who did it and who did not do it,” Phensy Sonethanouphet, a Taiwanese, said through a court interpreter.

Sonethanouphet is one of four Asian youths charged in the attack. Two other 17-year-olds face trial in adult court. The fourth juvenile, James Lee, 17, is a fugitive and thought to have fled to Taiwan.

The brawl started when Lee, then a Westlake student, and football player Curtis Simmons agreed to a fistfight at North Ranch Park after a short day of school Feb. 3, according to testimony. Instead, Lee and about 20 supporters, including Sonethanouphet, attacked Simmons and some of his teammates with weapons, witnesses testified.

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Wednesday’s verdict marked the second time in four months that McGrath has ruled in Sonethanouphet’s favor. In September, the judge dropped adult charges against the defendant, ruling that police had illegally obtained a confession. Prosecutors refiled charges under the belief that they could get a conviction without the confession.

Several of Sonethanouphet’s own friends testified for the prosecution, saying he took a Derringer handgun to the park.

After Simmons was attacked, Behling and Smith were shot--and later hospitalized--while trying to come to his aid, according to testimony.

Behling’s injury was more serious. The bullet that struck him “would have been lethal” had it been a couple inches higher, testified Dr. Frank Gillingham.

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Several of Sonethanouphet’s friends testified that the defendant apparently fired the shots. They saw him aim and apparently pull the trigger right before the shooting victims fell to the ground, they said.

But then the Westlake students, including two who were friends of the victims, were put on the stand by the defense.

The students told the judge that the gunman appeared to be 6 feet tall or more, at least eight inches taller than Sonethanouphet. One defense witness, Westlake senior Jordan Smith, also testified that the gunman sported a Mohawk-style haircut, a hairdo that Sonethanouphet did not have, his lawyer said.

In his final argument, prosecutor Vanarelli contended that the defense witnesses were not close enough to see the gunman’s face. He also suggested that the Anglo students may have had problems with cross-racial identification.

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