Sonoma County, CA

The Police Murder of Kuanchung Kao

Revolutionary Worker #925, September 28, 1997

At 2 a.m., in the early hours of April 29, 1997, 33-year-old Kuanchung Kao was shot to death in his driveway by Rohnert Park police officer Jack Shields. The killing was the eighth death at the hands of police in suburban Sonoma County since April 1995.

The official investigation of the killing of Kuanchung Kao was a cover-up. As Kuanchung lay dying in his driveway, police were obtaining search warrants to ransack his house and terrorize his wife and young children. Rohnert Park police issued a press release stating that the cop felt threatened by a "martial arts" pose. And the Sonoma County District Attorney rushed to clear the cop who shot and killed Kuanchung.

What really happened that night has come to light because of persistent and courageous investigation and ongoing protest by activists. The Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco was able to obtain 600 pages of documents from the Rohnert Park police and Sonoma County sheriffs. These documents show that the police "investigation" was a whitewash of a murder, starting the instant the shooting took place. Much of the information that follows is taken from this report.

On the evening of April 28, Kuanchung Kao went to the Cotati Yacht Club, a bar near his home in the SF Bay area town of Rohnert Park. Kuanchung was a quality control engineer at a large Silicon Valley computer company. But he had been planning to start up his own business, and this evening he was meeting with an associate to discuss their plans. Kuanchung was a regular at the bar, and known and liked by the bartender and management. A bartender said Kao came to the club about twice a week and never got drunk.

When a group of white men began to taunt Kuanchung with anti-Asian slurs, Kuanchung challenged them. The bartender at the club said that he told them, "I'm sick and tired of being put down because I'm Chinese. If you want to challenge me, now's the time to do it." At least one scuffle broke out, and at one point Kuanchung was stabbed above the eye with a dart. After this, he called the police and asked them to arrest his assailants. The police refused to arrest the men who had attacked him, and instead a cab was called for Kuanchung.

When he got home at about 2 a.m., Kuanchung was extremely upset. Standing in front of his house, he began yelling "Neighbors, please help me." He took off his shirt and assumed a praying position in the middle of the street, clawing at the ground and crying for help. His wife, Ayling Wu, came out of the house and tried to calm him. The Kao residence in Rohnert Park is in a brand new suburban housing development. Flags from realty companies and contractors fly above homes that have just been sold. Some neighbors of the Kao family work in high-tech Silicon Valley jobs, commuting a couple hours from their homes 60 miles north of San Francisco. Some others are cops. Several neighbors called 911 and reported that a man was screaming in the street. Five minutes later, Kuanchung Kao was fatally shot by the police.

In response to the 911 calls from neighbors, two Rohnert Park police cars, a cop in each, rushed to the house. According to their own statements in police documents, the police turned off the overhead lights and sirens as they approached the house. They shined a flashlight directly into Kuanchung's face to try to disorient and distract him. One of the cops, Mike Lynch, decided to try to scare Kuanchung into dropping the 1" diameter stick he was holding by acting as if he was going to run him over with his squad car. As the cop screeched to a stop right in front of him, Kuanchung stuck the stick out in front of him to try to protect himself. Angry and scared, Kuanchung struck at the squad car with his stick.

As Officer Lynch called for backup, a second patrol car pulled up and screeched to a stop even closer to Kuanchung. During this time, Ayling Wu, Kuanchung's wife, approached him and tried to get him to give her the stick. But the cops told her to "back off."

Within seconds of arriving at the Kao residence, Officer Jack Shields got out of his car, drew his weapon, and shot Kuanchung Kao once in his chest.

Ayling Wu is a registered nurse. As soon as her husband was shot she rushed to try to save his life. She has told friends that she saw her husband breathing and wanted to administer first aid, but police threatened her with arrest. As Kuanchung lay dying, police physically prevented her from trying to save her dying husband. Instead the police handcuffed Kuanchung and left him face down, unattended for 8 to 9 minutes before any attempt was made to administer medical treatment. When the paramedics arrived a minute later, they were too late.

While Kuanchung lay dying in his driveway, police rushed to obtain a search warrant for his house under the pretext that they were investigating an assault on an officer. Within hours they were ransacking the Kao home, terrorizing his wife, his six-year-old son, and his two one-and-a-half year-old twins.


The official police report on the killing of Kuanchung Kao found the murder completely justified. There was no attempt to even investigate the possibility that the cops committed a crime. Evidence that pointed the finger at the police was suppressed or dismissed. The investigation by the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco revealed:

  • Independent witnesses (some of whom are cops) failed to corroborate Officer Shields' version of the shooting.
  • At no point did Shields or Lynch identify themselves as police officers. They turned off their siren as they approached the house, and shined a high-powered spotlight in Kao's face most of the time before they shot him.
  • The DA's office failed to consider the fact that it was the police who were the aggressors in this whole situation. They never investigated this as a murder case. As the aggressor, Officer Shields, should not be legally entitled to claim that he killed Kuanchung Kao in "self-defense."
  • The Sonoma County Sheriff's department, which investigated the killing, is itself the law enforcement agency with one of the highest rates of payments to settle police brutality lawsuits.
  • The Rohnert Park police have the highest number of citizen complaints of any department in Sonoma County.
  • Of the eight killings by police in Sonoma County in the last two years, every single one has been ruled justifiable by the Sonoma County District Attorney.
  • Rohnert Park "Public Safety" Director Pat Rooney asserted that "witnesses report Mr. Kao had the wooden rod raised over his (Kao's) head--ready to strike the head or upper torso area of Officer Shields." Yet, in going through all the statements collected by police, the Asian Law Caucus report concluded that "no witness corroborates Shields' claim that Kao...had the stick over his head...No witnesses say Mr. Kao ran at Officer Shields."

    While the police claim Kao was three feet from the cop when he was shot, most witnesses say the distance was 7 to 12 feet. Ay Ling Wu said the police were 10-12 feet away when they shot her husband. An off-duty CHP cop who lives across the street said Kao was "quite a distance" from the cop who shot him, and another off-duty CHP cop said the distance was five to ten feet. These statements that contradict the official story include testimony by two off-duty cops, after they had already been informally interviewed by police off the record.

    The Asian Law Caucus points out that at no time did the police investigation take into account that it was the police who were the aggressors during the entire incident. The report says, "It is absolutely incredible and unforgivable that District Attorney Mike Mullins, Rohnert Public Safety Director Pat Rooney, and Rohnert Park Mayor Linda Spiro all failed to include this critical fact in their statements to the press regarding this incident. This key omission, if nothing else, demonstrates the willingness of each public official to distort and omit the truth in an effort to protect the officers and the city from civil liability."

    The cops admit they screeched to a halt, a few feet in front of Kao, with sirens off and a bright light in Kao's face. One neighbor told police investigators, "I thought he (one of the cops) was going to hit him because he stopped directly in front of him." The actions Kao took in this situation were clearly in self defense. The Asian Law Caucus points out that the police created the whole escalating situation leading up to the shooting and takes on the cop's justification that he had to make a split-second decision to shoot Kuanchung Kao. The Asian Law Caucus report states, "Officer Shields' claim that he was forced into a split-second decision fails to address the issue of his fault in placing himself into a situation where a split-second decision was necessary."

    From the moment Kuanchung Kao was killed, the whole law enforcement bureaucracy and machinery was mobilized to put the blame on the victim. All incident reports from the police listed Kuanchung as the "suspect" and the police who killed him--who were never scratched or seriously threatened--as the "victims."

    There was no investigation of the almost completely contradictory and contradicted version of the cops' story. For example, Shields' claim that he first pulled out his baton to hold off Kao and then shot is contradicted by witnesses who say he held his gun in two hands as he shot. This is not noted or investigated in any of the police reports on the incident.

    Before police investigators collected any witness statements, the area was flooded by more than 15 Rohnert Park police--more than a fourth of the entire force. Rohnert Park Detective Wulf Reinhold spoke to at least eight witnesses--including the five who saw the shooting--but didn't tape their statements. These witnesses were later interviewed on record. But the Asian Law Caucus notes, "We will never know to what degree these witnesses (many of whom are in law enforcement) were coached or leaked information by Rohnert Park police."

    Police investigators didn't examine the bullet wound to determine the distance or angle of the shooting. The forensics expert who analyzed the bullet was asked not to disclose any results of the investigation. There was no attempt to examine gunpowder residue or bullet burn marks on Kao's body that might indicate the distance from which he was shot. While there was no investigation of the police, a search warrant was prepared and approved to ransack the Kao residence the next morning.

    The Asian Law Caucus reports that police investigated the Kao's financial records, their immigration status, their college coursework and police records. Ayling Wu was interrogated by police, who told her that her attorney could "not participate or interfere in the interview." During this interrogation, Ayling Wu was questioned about what year her family moved to Rohnert Park, her previous address, what cars they had previously owned, their relationship with their neighbors and the state of her marital relationship.

    The day after the Kao murder, Detective Roy Gourley issued a statement that completely cleared the police. In it, he concluded that, "Officer Shields came under attack by an obviously out of control Asian possession of a long wooden rod that he was twirling in what eye witness's (sic) described as in a `Marshall Arts' (sic) fashion."


    The racist murder of Kuanchung Kao has awakened the Bay Area's large Asian community and galvanized the movement against police brutality in Sonoma County. The coming together of these forces has opened many people's eyes to the extent of police brutality and murder and the common condition of oppressed peoples in America.

    Many of the forces that have been shaken into action by the murder of Kuanchung Kao have not, until now, confronted the issue of police brutality. The Coalition for Justice for the Kao Family includes dozens of Chinese, Korean, and other Asian and Asian-Pacific organizations. Victor Huang, a staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus and the person who is the principal author of their report on the murder of Kuanchung Kao was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner saying "A lot of Asians are in denial about race. But Mr. Kao could have been anyone. He represented the Asian American success story. People like to believe you come to America, you work hard, you succeed. Race isn't a factor. But there is strong recognition now that race was a factor in this killing."

    Victor explained to the RW that the killing, along with other anti-Asian attacks, has shocked and outraged many middle-class Asian Americans. He said that the people who have stepped forward to support the Kao family include "middle class engineers in Silicon Valley" and others who, up to now, have not identified themselves as targets of police brutality.

    A Rally for Justice in Santa Rosa on June 21 brought together forces involved in protesting police brutality in Sonoma County. Native American activists, Mexican Americans, supporters of battered women, a representative of the United Farm Workers and others shared bitter experiences with friends of Kuanchung. Speakers included the mother of Kevin Saunders, a white man murdered by the Santa Rosa police, supporters of the Kao family, representatives of the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. San Francisco Supervisor Leland Yee also spoke and said, "The police department in this county absolutely has no respect for people's civil rights whatsoever."

    Photos of Kuanchung Kao were displayed along with a banner demanding an independent investigation into his killing. Van Jones from Bay Area PoliceWatch told the people "You are not alone--across the country we have a situation where there are no rules for the cops and no rights for the people."

    On August 7, 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in San Francisco Chinatown to mark the 100th day since Kuanchung Kao's death. Another rally for justice for Kuanchung was held on August 16 in San Francisco's Union Square. John Crew from the American Civil Liberties Union said, "What was remarkable was the level of concern and outrage and emotion four months after the incident and roughly 60 miles away."

    Many of the forces within the Coalition for Justice for the Kao Family have joined with Black, Latino, Native American and white victims of police brutality in other protests. And many have joined the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Activists in the battle for justice for the Kao family spoke at the press conference for October 22nd in San Francisco and have participated in meetings and other activities of the October 22nd Coalition. And the press conference to announce October 22nd was covered extensively in both daily Chinese-language newspapers in San Francisco.

    Kuanchung Kao was a human being, with friends, family, hopes and dreams. His murder leaves a huge hole for his friends, his widow and their three young children.

    A friend, speaking at the Rally for Justice in Santa Rosa, said, "He was a really warm, outspoken person with a lot of sense of humor. We're gonna miss him in this community."

    Ayling Wu is stunned by what happened to her husband. But Victor Huang told the RW that she is touched and moved by all the expressions of support she has gotten.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
    Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
    Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
    (The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)