A Fresno man with a violent past was sentenced on Friday to 112 years to life in prison for the attempted murder of two unarmed correctional officers inside the the lobby of the main Fresno County Jail in September 2016.
Before announcing the punishment, Superior Court Judge Timothy Kams called Thong Vang “a dangerous individual” who should never be free in society again and family of officer Toamalama Scanlan, who is still recovering from the shooting, shared their emotions.
A Fresno Superior Court jury in late March found Vang guilty of shooting officers Juanita Davila and Scanlan and seriously wounding them. In addition to attempted murder, the jury found Vang guilty of two counts of assault with a semi-automatic handgun and of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Vang, 38, has prior rape convictions in a notorious sex-slave ring case in the 1990s.
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Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims attended Friday’s sentencing in support of Davila and Scanlan who worked for her office. More than a dozen correctional officers in black T shirts also sat in the courtroom in solidarity with the victims.
Six armed bailiffs were in the courtroom, including three who stood near Vang, who wore a yellow jail jumpsuit reserved for high-risk inmates. Vang sat silently throughout the proceedings, except when he told the judge that he understood his appellate rights.
In his trial, Vang testified he was justified in shooting the officers. He testified he was high on methamphetamine, paranoid and looking for help when he went into the jail lobby Sept. 3, 2016. He told the jury he had broken up with his girlfriend earlier that day and that he feared she was sending someone after him to assault or kill him.
His intention, he said, was to get arrested so he could be safe inside a jail cell.
In his testimony, he insisted Lt. Michael Porter started the confrontation by shooting at him in a lobby filled with people waiting to visit inmates. Vang testified that he feared for his life when he shot Davila and Scanlan, saying he believed the two officers were going to hold him so Porter could shoot him.
But prosecutor William Lacy said Vang intentionally shot Davila in the jaw and then Scanlan in the arm and head as he came to rescue Davila. Lacy said Vang fired his weapon before Porter fired at Vang. The prosecutor also said Vang was angry and never asked any correctional officers for help before he opened fire in the lobby.
In closing arguments of the trial, Lacy hinted at Vang’s motive, saying the defendant might have been angry at his girlfriend for breaking up with him, or perhaps he had gone to the jail to commit suicide or “suicide by cop” (when someone carrying a gun confronts law enforcement in hopes of being killed), but then lost his nerve.
After the shooting, Vang never told detectives that he saw an officer point a gun at him before he opened fire. But he told detectives that he smoked methamphetamine hours before the shooting and said he “wasn’t that high” when he shot the two officers, Lacy said in closing arguments.
In defending Vang, Fresno attorney Richard Esquivel called Dr. Alex Yufik, a forensic psychologist, who testified about how smoking methamphetamine leads to paranoia and psychosis. But Lacy told the jury that even Vang didn’t believe his own defense and told Yufik: “It’s (expletive), but, hey, if it helps the case.”
Son shares emotional statement
Davila didn’t attend Friday’s hearing; she sent a letter to the judge. Scanlan’s son, Robert Scanlan, appeared for his family, asking Kams to give Vang the maximum sentenced.
“The day Thong Vang shot my father, it changed the world for my family,” said Robert Scanlan, who described his father as “my best friend,” a man who went beyond the call of duty to help others.
“He was Superman,” Robert Scanlan said. But since his shooting, his father, who can’t walk, talk or feed himself, has been to several hospitals in California and Texas, his son said. Scanlan recently underwent two surgeries in a hospital in Southern California, his son said.
Lacy had harsh words for the defendant, saying the former “shot caller” for the Mongolian Boys Society street gang in Fresno has shown no remorse for his actions.
Lacy called Vang a “habitual criminal” who has been behind bars most of his life, starting as a juvenile. Instead of becoming a productive citizen after being released from prison, Vang “channeled back to old ways,” abusing methamphetamine and illegally obtaining a gun from the streets, Lacy said.
The judge agreed, saying, “The facts of this case are horrific, and the defendant’s criminal history is equally horrific.”
Court records say Vang, as a leader in the Mongolian Boys Society, engaged in a sex-slave ring at a local Motel 6 in the 1990s. He was sentenced to prison for raping three children, ages 12 to 14, but was released in 2014 after serving 16 years.
After his release from prison, Vang, a refugee from Laos who came to the U.S. when he was 1 year old, was held in custody for three months by immigration officials who tried to deport him, according to Mims. Laotian authorities, however, never sought Vang’s return, so by law he was freed in December 2014, the sheriff said.
Less than two years later, he was arrested in connection with the jail lobby shooting.
Kams praised Davila and Scanlan for their heroism in the face of danger. Kams said the victims have the support of their families, friends, the Sheriff’s Office and the community, and because of that he had no doubt that Davila and Scanlan will one day recover from this tragic event.
The trial shed light on the fact that Fresno County correctional officers are not allowed to carry firearms, making them nearly defenseless against an armed intruder.