In the criminal case that has been the talk of the town, Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama said police knew a suspect holed up inside a northeast grocery store was there the entire time.
“There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on with people who really have no clue what the store’s layout is and the number of cubby holes and the fact that you can’t search that ceiling without causing some severe damage.” — Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama
“I really believe that he was still in there. And the reason I believe that is because we had a very tight perimeter on that building,” Balderrama said. “The plan was to back off, make it look like we had given up, and have a contingency plan for the apprehension. And it worked.”
Pheng Vang, 28, was arrested Saturday afternoon after crashing through a ceiling at Save Mart. Vang was believed to be hiding since eluding law enforcement Thursday night. Fresno police pulled back by Friday afternoon, but not completely.
The store re-opened Friday night. Balderrama said the public was never in danger.
“This individual doesn’t have a history of violence. Not only that, nobody had seen a gun, although his history does show that he’s carried one in the past. Throughout the incident on Thursday and on Friday, nobody believed that he was armed. What we do believe is that he didn’t want to get caught,” Balderrama said.
Starts with a Thursday Stop
The incident started Thursday evening a the Macy’s in the River Park shopping center, when an off-duty sheriff’s detective spotted a car wanted in a Caruthers burglary. Vang got away and drove to the nearby Save Mart at First Street and Nees Avenue.
As he was escaping, Vang allegedly rammed into several vehicles, possibly endangering pedestrians. A sheriff’s deputy fired at Vang’s vehicle. That officer-involved shooting is being investigated.
Police thoroughly searched the Save Mart. Balderrama knew they would have a hard time finding him if he was in the ceiling. He decided the best course of action was to wait him out.
Balderrama also weighed the number of resources spent on finding a burglar, and the costs of keeping the store closed in deciding to pull back at 3:30 p.m. on Friday.
“We continued to keep a marked unit inside the parking lot just in case. At some point, once the suspect saw that we had retreated, we were hoping it would motivate him to go ahead and emerge and try to make it get away. And we would be close by to capture him,” Balderrama said.
Undercover units were also on scene until Saturday morning. Patrol and gang units were kept close by. Eyewitness accounts said Vang crashed through the roof around 2 p.m. Saturday and walked out of the store. Police arrested him moments later at a nearby apartment complex.
Trouble with the Ceiling
Balderrama said searching the ceiling was easier said than done.
“The only way to really search the ceiling in its entirety is to destroy the ceiling by bringing it down and being able to check every single inch. .. We weren’t going to cause that type of damage to a store, especially for an individual who was simply wanted for burglary,” Balderrama said.
Security cameras helped, but some views were obstructed. Police dogs did search the warehouse portion of the store with no success. Balderrama said sending a dog in the ceiling was not practical — the ceiling would not be able to support a canine’s weight.
After the initial search failed to locate Vang, Balderrama released his SWAT team even though the unit’s members wanted to continue.
“There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on with people who really have no clue what the store’s layout is and the number of cubby holes and the fact that you can’t search that ceiling without causing some severe damage,” Balderrama said.
Vang in Jail
Vang remains in county jail, facing four counts — stolen property, evading a peace officer, vandalism, and hit and run. He is on a parole hold.
The sheriff’s department says Vang and two others were suspected of burglarizing a Caruthers home, where firearms were stolen. Some items from the burglary were found in Vang’s car, but not the firearms.
Two others were detained at the Macy’s. Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said no evidence linking the two to the burglary was found and they were released.
A Common Twitter Mistake
After the initial post, the police department made a mistake common to anyone who has used Twitter — a spelling error. The police followed up with a tongue-in-cheek post about asking billionaire Elon Musk for an edit button.
“Levity on occasion is appropriate, but it’s certainly something that we try to be very careful with,” Balderrama said.
Edit: Guess who *fell through the Savemart ceiling?
Hey @elonmusk, can we get an edit button?
— Fresno Police (@FresnoPolice) May 21, 2022
Guess who feel through the Savemart ceiling today? While we may have pulled back our visible SWAT operation, we left undercover detectives in place. When suspect Pheng Vang began to run, our MAGEC detectives and Northeast patrol officers were quick to apprehend him. pic.twitter.com/yodRDX4EBG
— Fresno Police (@FresnoPolice) May 21, 2022