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‘I had to change my ways': Man convicted in teen’s high-profile killing granted parole

SHARE ‘I had to change my ways': Man convicted in teen’s high-profile killing granted parole

UTAH STATE PRISON — A once-hardened gang member who shot and killed a 16-year-old girl in a case of mistaken identity nearly 20 years ago has been granted parole.

In November of 1998, 16-year-old Bethany Hyde was in a car riding home from a party with her sister and some friends. Their vehicle was stopped at a traffic light at 2700 West and 3500 South when a car with four gang members pulled up.

Vun Keomanivong, then 18, also known as Steven Vun Keomanivong, opened fire on the vehicle believing rival gang members were inside. A bullet pierced Bethany's heart, killing her.

Bethany Hyde

Bethany Hyde

West Valley City Police Department

The high-profile killing resulted in a manhunt for the gunman. The search ended three months later in Oregon when Keomanivong was arrested. He eventually was convicted of amended charges of manslaughter and attempted homicide, both second-degree felonies.

Keomanivong was sentenced to consecutive sentences of one to 15 years at the Utah State Prison for each charge, plus an enhancement of up to five additional years for using a gun.

But since then, Keomanivong, now 38, says he has turned his life around.

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, noting that Keomanivong has made excellent progress while in prison, granted him a parole date of May 14, 2019.

In a recording of his parole hearing on Sept. 11 conducted by board chairwoman Chyleen Arbon — Keomanivong's first parole hearing — Arbon commented that he has done well while incarcerated.

Keomanivong said when he was young, he started hanging out with the "wrong crowd." And despite being discouraged by his brother, Keomanivong followed in the footsteps of his older brother who was a gang member.

Phokham Keomanivong, 25, was accused of shooting and killing 17-year-old Nicholas Dirkson outside the KFC restaurant where Dirkson worked on Nov. 18, 1995. That killing, also a high-profile slaying, prompted a manhunt for Keomanivong and was even featured on “America's Most Wanted” several times.

In 2004, the manhunt ended when Keomanivong was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside a stolen car 22 miles south of West Wendover, Nevada, on U.S. 93.

At his recent parole hearing, Vun Keomanivong, expressed remorse for taking the path he did. He recalled how his parents moved their family to America to seek a better life. They were poor and Keomanivong didn't speak English until elementary school. But while three of his siblings chose good life paths, Keomanivong and his brother did not.

"My parents brought us over here for a better life and we just throw it away," he said emotionally.

When asked to recount the shooting, Keomanivong said he and his acquaintances were driving around that night looking for rival gang members, when he spotted the car Bethany was in.

"We turned around and I thought it was them, and I just started shooting," he said. "I was just aiming at the door, window."

Keomanivong contends he was just trying to scare whoever was in the car. When asked why he shot at that particular vehicle, Keomanivong didn't have an answer or even knew why he was feuding with another gang.

"It was just gang stuff," he said, adding it was "stupid."

During the trial, prosecutor Vincent Meister said the information in the case represented "some of the most chilling testimony I've ever heard." Keomanivong and his group admitted they hated the rival gang for no apparent reason and coldly "hunted" them, he said.

"We just didn't get along … I don't even know why. We just didn't get along … didn't like each other," he said during his parole hearing. "I was young, just trying to build up a reputation."

When he later saw on the news that he had killed an innocent person, "It broke me down, because that wasn't the intended person," he said.

When he was eventually arrested, convicted and sent to prison, Keomanivong said he had to make a choice.

"Should I go all out" and become full-time gang member while in prison, he questioned? Or go the other way.

"I knew it was on me that I had to change my ways," he said.

Keomanivong chose to "step down" and completely disassociate himself from gangs, a choice that was re-inforced a couple of years later by his brother's suicide.

"I just looked at my life," he said of his decision to go straight. "So I just kinda changed my ways."

None of Bethany Hyde's family attended Keomanivong's parole hearing, Arbon noted that they had expressed in the past that Keomanivong should serve his entire sentence, which will expire in 2029, and preferably then some.

Keomanivong, sounding remorseful, said he understood.

"I would feel the same way if someone took my family's life. I'm just willing to accept the consequences," he said.

When asked what he would say if Bethany's family had attended the hearing, Keomanivong offered an apology, but also noted it didn't make up for what he did.

"I know that I just can't say sorry for taking someone's life because you can never say sorry for that. Just know that I'm trying to better myself," he said.

"I'm just willing to accept any consequences that you guys make. Because I know that I can't just take someone's life and expect you guys to pat me on my back and say 'OK, there you go.' I'm just willing accept anything," he said.

Keomanivong had a large number of relatives at the hearing in support. When he gets out, he said he would like to help juveniles and young adults not make the same mistakes he did.