Detectives are spending this Christmas Eve trying to track down a killer in Merced County. They say a man was gunned down in a dirt alley Monday night.
A small piece of yellow crime tape is the only remaining sign of the murder scene that filled an alley in Winton Monday night.
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said, "There was a series of shots that rang out in the area of Myrtle Avenue and California Street."
Several neighbors told us they heard at least a dozen rapid fire rounds, and some even hid their children in the hallways to keep them away from any windows. But everyone said they were too afraid to speak on camera because of gang activity in the area.
Sheriff Pazin said, "Was this person a validated gang member? Yes, he was."
Sheriff Mark Pazin says the victim is Francisco Pena, a 33 year old who's had several run-ins with law enforcement in the past. He says it appears Pena may have died in a firefight with an unknown number of shooters.
"Born in 1980, a whole life to live and you end up in an alley dead," said Sheriff Pazin.
This is the fifth homicide in unincorporated areas of Merced County in just the last five weeks. It brings the total for the year to 19. That's more than twice as many as last year.
"I guess the immediate question is why?" said Sheriff Pazin. "Wish I knew."
Sheriff Pazin says it's difficult to pinpoint a cause for the spike in violence. But now as he prepares to leave his post for a new position in Sacramento at the end of this month, he's making one last plea for residents to provide anonymous tips.
"All someone has to do is pick up a phone and lead law enforcement to suspects," explained Sheriff Pazin.