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Vutha Au, the 24-year-old Santa Rosa man shot dead in a beach parking lot near Jenner, was in the state's witness protection program and was killed to keep him from testifying, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Four reputed gang members could face the death penalty if they are convicted of killing Au, whose younger brother is the victim in a kidnapping case headed to trial in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Preston Khaoone, 22, and brothers David Prak, 19, and Sarith Prak, 21, all appeared Tuesday in Sonoma County court with their wrists shackled to their waists. The fourth suspect, Quentin Russell, 24, was arraigned later in the jail in a hearing closed to the public.

Authorities said the four men surprised Au late Saturday or early Sunday, forced him into their car and drove him to Blind Beach's parking lot, where he was taken from the car and shot nine times.

"He was forcibly kidnapped in Santa Rosa and taken out there and killed," Sheriff's Lt. Rob Giordano said.

District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua confirmed that Au was receiving witness protection and said he shouldn't have been in Santa Rosa.

"He was in the California Witness Relocation and Assistance program and agreed to remain out of the area," Passalacqua said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Terry Au, the victim in the kidnap case, had testified in court last fall that he and unspecified family members were relocated by authorities for their safety. Au also acknowledged he had sold drugs on behalf of Khaoone's brothers, two of whom are defendants in the kidnap case.

Authorities previously had declined to say whether Vutha Au was one of the family members receiving protection.

Gun not linked to case

In other developments, Giordano said Au's car had been located and a gun found Monday along Highway 116 wasn't used in the killing.

Deputies resumed searching for a handgun they believe the suspects threw from their car.

"We're out looking for the gun," Giordano said.

Authorities had been seeking Au's car since Sunday. The silver Honda Accord was found Monday night in northwest Santa Rosa at a location Giordano wouldn't disclose.

He said that appears to be the place where Au was kidnapped.

A criminal complaint charges each of the four suspects with identical offenses: First-degree murder and participation in a gang. In addition, several special allegations were filed that could trigger sentences of life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

In court Tuesday, the four suspects all delayed entering pleas until a hearing March 14. Lawyers were appointed for all four at public expense.

All four are Santa Rosa residents and are believed to be members of the Asian Boyz gang. Au knew his killers but isn't believed to be a member of their gang, investigators said.

Au was shot nine times in the head, neck and torso, from different angles, apparently because the gunman moved after each shot. Investigators believe only one gun was used and only one of the four suspects fired.

Giordano didn't identify who is believed to be the shooter, nor was that person singled out in the complaint.

"It all happened relatively quickly," Giordano said.

Au was scheduled to be a witness in a trial this spring against other members of the Asian Boyz.

"There ultimately does appear to be a link from that case and this event," Giordano said.

Brother testified in fall

Au's brother, Terry, testified at a preliminary hearing in October that he had sold drugs for Peter Khaoone, 24, who is now in prison on unrelated drug charges. Au identified Perry Khaoone, 23, and Pongsony Khaoone, 20, as among four men who kidnapped him, burned him with cigarettes and threatened to cut of his fingers unless he paid them $5,000.

At the time, Au testified he was given immunity and he and his family were being protected by Sonoma County law enforcement in exchange for his testimony. He said his family was relocated for their safety and was being housed by the county, which also was paying the family a $400 monthly food allowance.

Giordano said he didn't have information about the family and a protection program but said, "As far as we're aware (Vutha Au) was in Santa Rosa voluntarily doing his own thing."

75 relocated since 1988

Passalacqua's statement said his office has "safely relocated 75 witnesses and family members" since 1988 through the relocation program.

"This program is voluntary, but it does require that individuals participating in the program follow all the guidelines, which includes remaining away from the area where they will be in danger," he said.

Vutha Au was found dead by a park ranger in the Blind Beach parking lot off Highway 1 south of Jenner at about 1 a.m. Sunday.

The ranger had seen a car speeding from the area and radioed a description to deputies. Minutes later a similar car was stopped on Highway 116 between Duncans Mills and Monte Rio.

A handgun was found Monday in the grass about 15 feet off the highway. But detectives have determined it was not the weapon used in the slaying, Giordano said.

Perry and Pongsony Khaoone -- two of the kidnapping defendants -- are being held in the Sonoma County Jail on multi-million-dollar bail. Preston Khaoone and the other defendants in Au's killing are being held without bail.

It wasn't explained in open court why Russell didn't appear in the public setting with the other defendants. His attorney, Barry Collins, said he was barred from commenting because of a gag order issued by Judge Ken Gnoss during the private arraignment.

According to court minutes of the jailhouse arraignment, Russell was ordered back to court Thursday for results of a mental health exam.

Preston Khaoone was ordered back to court Monday to meet with his attorney, who wasn't in court Tuesday.

Gnoss declined to allow a news camera in the courtroom but didn't give a reason.

You can reach Staff Writers Randi Rossmann at 521-5412

or randi.rossmann@

pressdemocrat.com and

Lori A. Carter at 568-5312 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.