A Hmong refugee with a violent criminal history pleaded not guilty Thursday to the attempted murder of two Fresno County Jail officers who were shot in the crowded lobby of the downtown Fresno jail this month.
After entering his plea, Thong Vang, 37, of Fresno, waived his right to a speedy trial in Superior Court, prompting Judge Brian Alvarez to schedule a status hearing on Oct. 19.
The hearing was brief, but important enough for Sheriff Margaret Mims to attend. She wanted to get a close look at the man accused of shooting Officer Juanita Davila in the jaw and Officer Toamalama Scanlan in the head.
After the hearing Mims said the shooting was an attack on the Sheriff’s Office and the entire community because innocent civilians could have been shot.
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The sheriff said Scanlan remains in “very critical” condition in the intensive care unit at Community Regional Medical Center. Davila, who was once in critical condition, is getting better and might leave the hospital in a couple of days, the sheriff said.
Antonio Alvarez, a former prosecutor with a good track record as a defense attorney, will defend Thong Vang.
Vang, wearing shackles and a bright yellow jail jumpsuit, stood next to his lawyer, Antonio Alvarez, at his arraignment (the attorney is not related to the judge). Vang initially was represented by Roberto Dulce of the Public Defender’s Office. But Dulce had to declare a conflict because a few witnesses to the shooting were once represented by the Public Defender’s Office.
Alvarez, a former prosecutor with a good track record as a defense attorney, said Thursday he had no conflict in defending Vang. District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp has assigned William Lacy, one of her top homicide prosecutors.
Alvarez met Vang for the first time at Thursday’s hearing. In court, Alvarez asked the judge to bar television cameras from the courtroom, saying media coverage could taint the jury pool once Vang stands trial. But the judge denied the request.
Davila and Scanlan were unarmed and working in the lobby of the downtown Fresno jail when they were shot as they tried to escort Vang out of the lobby. Fellow law enforcement officers rescued the wounded officers and forced Vang to drop his gun and surrender.
Since then, Vang has been held without bail in Fresno County Jail. He also is on an immigration hold.
In addition to two counts of attempted murder, Vang also is charged with being a felon in possession of a gun. If convicted, he faces 110 years to life in prison.
People often ask me, ‘Why not just shoot him?’
Sheriff Margaret Mims
Court records say Vang was once a leader in the Mongolian Boys Society, a Fresno street gang that engaged in a sex-slave ring at a local Motel 6 in the 1990s.
Mims has said Vang was released from prison in 2014 after serving 16 years for raping three children ages 12 to 14. After his release, Vang, a refugee from Laos who came to the United States when he was 1 year old, was held in custody for three months while U.S. immigration officials tried to deport him. Laotian authorities, however, never sought Vang’s return, so by law he was freed in December 2014, Mims said.
Since then, Vang’s only run-in with law enforcement, according to court records, was a ticket he received in July 2015 for exceeding the limit in catching striped bass. He was ordered to pay a $100 fine. Before the shooting, Vang was a model parolee who regularly checked in with his parole officer and had a job, Mims has said.
After Thursday’s hearing, Mims told reporters she was proud of her deputies and correctional officers who rescued Davila and Scanlan. She also credited the Fresno Police Department for its role in the rescue effort.
“When seconds really counted, they were right behind us,” Mims said. “That is why I believe Davila and Scanlan are doing well right now.”
The sheriff said she was proud that her staff showed great restraint in not shooting Vang.
“People often ask me, ‘Why not just shoot him?’ ” Mims said. “I tell them he gave up and dropped his weapon.”
Mims also gave special praise to the Community Regional Medical Center staff, saying the wounded officers are getting care “second to none.” In addition, Mims gave special thanks to the community for donating food and money to the families of Davila and Scanlan. A gofundme.com account has raised more than $26,000.
“When it counts, we pull together,” the sheriff said.