Suspect killed, Merced deputy wounded in gunfight

Merced deputy shot in Delhi, suspect killed

A Merced County Sheriff's deputy was shot Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. The suspect was killed by a second deputy.
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A Merced County Sheriff's deputy was shot Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. The suspect was killed by a second deputy.

The names of the two deputies involved in Thursday night’s gunfight have been released.

Deputy Alejandro “Alex” Barba, a 17-year veteran of the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, suffered two gunshot wounds; one to his lower abdomen and one to his thigh. He is expected to make a full recovery, Sheriff Vern Warnke said.

The deputy who shot and killed the suspect was Deputy Adam Leuchner, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for eight years, the sheriff said.

The suspect who allegedly shot the deputy was identified as 38-year-old Jose Torres of Delhi. Torres was shot and killed just before 6 p.m. outside a home in the 16200 block of Harmony Ranch Drive, Warnke said.

The deputies had been called to the area to investigate a domestic disturbance report. Torres came out of the home on Harmony Ranch Drive with “an assault-like rifle,” and opened fire, striking the deputy at least once.

“He opened fire, the deputies returned fire and killed him,” Warnke said.

The sheriff on Friday praised both deputies.

“They responded professionally and according to their training,” Warnke said. “I have no doubt that action taken by Deputy Leuchner saved the life of Deputy Barba.”

The sheriff said he was relieved by news of his deputy’s condition.

A Merced County Sheriff's Department deputy who was shot in Delhi, Calif., arrives at Modesto's Doctors Medical Center on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. ( Erin Tracy/ etracy@modbee.com)

Warnke confirmed Leuchner who fired his weapon would be placed on paid administrative leave pending a use-of-force review. Warnke confirmed both the review and the administrative leave were standard practices in all deputy-involved shootings.

Leuchner was one of two deputies who shot and killed double-homicide suspect Brian Hiatt on May 30, 2014, outside a Turlock motel. Hiatt was the prime suspect in the deaths hours earlier of his estranged wife, Rhonda Hiatt and her sister, Lisa Robbins at a home on South Lander Avenue. Sheriff’s detectives had tracked Hiatt to a motel on Walnut Road.

Investigators said Hiatt pointed gun at deputies and was shot and killed. The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office determined the deputies were justified when they shot and killed Hiatt, authorities said.

Christi Jantz, 49, has lived in the Delhi area since she was 9 years old and said the neighborhood has deteriorated over the years with gang violence and shootings.

“It’s gotten scary,” she said. “It’s a lot different than it was back then. There have been a lot of shootings out here.”

Edgar Nieto lives in the area where the shooting occurred.

“I saw (the deputy) waving at someone when he was on the gurney. There were other officers, multiple officers around him and he (the injured deputy) was waving at someone,” Nieto said.

The 22-year-old Delhi man said he did not see or hear any shots fired, but heard numerous sirens from emergency vehicles. He said the shooting appeared to have happened near the intersection of Harmony Ranch Drive and Countryside Avenue.

Donald Canhoto, 17, was walking in the area and said he heard the gunfire. He estimated about two to three shots went off in the area.

“I figured it was getting out of hand,” Canhoto said. “I was walking down the street and then a bunch of cop cars passed me.”

Jantz said she wished law enforcement had a stronger presence in Delhi. The sheriff’s office in 2014 reopened a substation in Delhi after it was shuttered four years earlier, but Jantz said it’s not always clear whether deputies are patrolling in town.

In April, Warnke and Merced District Attorney Larry Morse II blasted the county’s Board of Supervisors during a joint presentation on local law enforcement funding. Warnke and Morse said the supervisors needed to invest more money into law enforcement to help hire and retain patrol deputies and prosecutors, calling the current state of law enforcement in Merced County a “public safety crisis.”

Warnke said while additional deputies would not have prevented Thursday’s violence, they would help in with “the aftermath of this situation.”

“I’m now down two more guys who are off the street for who knows how long,” Warnke said. “And we’re still down about 10 patrol positions and I have four more thinking to leave for UC Merced because of this (salary) situation.”

Warnke said the help of neighboring agencies was critical Thursday night. He said help was sent from the California Highway Patrol, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office, Turlock, Livingston, and Atwater police departments.

“I can’t thank them all enough because we are just out of bodies tonight,” Warnke said a telephone interview.

Thursday’s incident is the first officer-involved shooting reported in Merced County since December, when sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a 50-year-old woman in Santa Nella.

The last time a law enforcement officer in Merced County suffered a gunshot wound came in March 2015 when a Merced police officer was shot during a traffic stop on H Street in Merced. The officer survived his injuries.

The violence comes less than a week after a man shot two employees of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Thong Vang, 37, has been charged with the attempted murder of two Fresno County correctional officers, according to the Fresno Bee.

Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482