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District attorney refocuses investigation into student stabbing

A Butte College student who was arrested in connection with the stabbing of Chico State senior Joseph Igbineweka was released from the Butte County Jail last week, as police worked to redirect their investigation and solve the high-profile crime.

Chico resident Barry Sayavong, 19, was freed April 22 after officials concluded they lacked evidence to support charges against him. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Sayavong was no longer a suspect in the stabbing that hospitalized the Associated Students president, but he stopped short of bidding him a final goodbye. Ramsey described Sayavong as a “person of interest.”

Police are looking for two men who may have talked with Sayavong early April 18 and shortly after the attack on Igbineweka.

Sayavong’s attorney, Tracy Tully-Davis, said the ongoing interest in Sayavong is due to an unwillingness to admit that police arrested the wrong person, and an effort to “intimidate him into assisting them.”

“I believe it’s been established that he was not involved in the assault,” Tully-Davis said of her client. “I don’t believe he was present during the attack or that he witnessed the attack,” she added. “The only information he has is third-hand, hearsay from the streets, and the police have that information.”

Sayavong was named as the suspect in a press release issued early April 18 that said he was under investigation for attempted murder and a hate crime. In the statement, Chico police said Igbineweka had been attacked near West Sacramento Avenue after one or more men shouted racial slurs. Igbineweka is a native of Nigeria.

The 23-year-old victim left a party early that morning, walked someone home, and then began the walk alone to his west Chico apartment. Igbineweka said he heard a person or people behind him shouting racist insults and was then confronted by two men. One pulled a knife.

Ramsey said police had grounds—“probable cause”—for the arrest of Sayavong. He said there were five people in a car that stopped and watched the attack transpire and two men run away. Another pair of witnesses came upon the victim shortly after the stabbing.

Police who were patrolling the neighborhood responded swiftly and were given a general description of the attacker, Ramsey said. Some thought he was Hispanic, and some guessed that he was about 5 feet 8 inches tall and roughly 200 pounds. About five minutes later, police attempted to detain a group of four men who were two blocks east of the crime scene.

Two of the men ran away, escaping police. The remaining two, one of whom was Sayavong, were taken into custody. Several witnesses were brought over; one identified Sayavong as the attacker. A second witness thought he was probably the attacker, and a third said he didn’t know.

In the following days, photo line-ups were shown to the other four witnesses and to the victim. Ramsey said that none of them picked out Sayavong as the assailant.

Ramsey said police began to have “reasonable doubt” after examinations of Sayavong’s clothing failed to turn up traces of the victim’s blood. The wound on Igbineweka’s forearm is so long and deep, Ramsey said, that detectives believe it’s likely that his blood splattered his attacker.

Ramsey said investigators are “working some names that have come forward” and are interested in talking more with Sayavong. They also are awaiting tests on a bloody knife found near the crime scene.

Tully-Davis said Sayavong has met with law enforcement since his release to give a statement on his whereabouts earlier that evening. She said Sayavong’s parents are from Laos and Sayavong was hanging out with other Asians that morning as he walked home from a party. “I think Mr. Sayavong was detained because of the color of his skin,” she said.

Regardless, Tully-Davis said the case shows how well the American legal system can work. “They realized they had substandard evidence and released him,” she said. “We’re grateful we’re in the United States and it didn’t take six months or a year to get to this point.”

Tully-Davis said she hopes the district attorney’s office and the police department will support her effort to have her client’s record expunged. Sayavong had never before been jailed, she added.