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Experts: Stray bullet that injured bystander could have traveled miles

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/07/19/12/WeFWo.Em.138.jpeg|474
    - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHENDA YAM WILSON
    Brandon Yam was partially paralyzed when he was struck with a stray bullet Friday. He is seen here with his son, Randy Yam.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/07/19/12/189AMD.Em.138.jpeg|210
    - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHENDA YAM WILSON
    Brandon Yam was partially paralyzed when he was struck with a stray bullet Friday. Seen in this photo are Kelli Yam and Christian Yam, front, and Sopheap Kim, Brandon Yam and Randy Yam, back.

Ballistics experts said Monday that it may be difficult to determine who fired the errant shot that paralyzed a father of four on the Fourth of July in Charlotte because some bullets can travel up to several miles.

“I cannot imagine being able to solve that case,” said Gregory D. Lee, a criminal justice consultant and expert witness from California. “Who knows where that bullet came from?”

Brandon Yam, 47, was selling food and drinks with his wife and two of his children at a festival celebrating the opening of the Cambodian Buddhist Temple, at 219 Owen Blvd. in Charlotte.

About 9 p.m., as people at the temple started shooting off fireworks, Yam started to pack up his supplies to go home, his family said.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police reports indicate that around 9:25 p.m., Yam was struck “in the top of the head by a stray bullet.”

“At this time it appears that it was not an intentional shooting but that someone had fired a celebration shot into the air,” spokeswoman Jessica Wallin said in a statement.

Police said Monday that the case remains under investigation, but no one has been charged.

Louise DuChene, who used to work at an Idaho-based ammunition company before joining The Range at Lake Norman, said several factors decide how far a bullet travels. Warmer air is thinner, allowing bullets to travel farther. And the bullet’s shape and size as well as its wind resistance also play a role.

He estimated that bullets fired from a handgun could travel up to a mile and a half if shot at a 45-degree angle. A rifle could send a bullet as far as 6 miles, he said.

Recovering the bullet would tell whether a rifle or a handgun was used, which “would give you a clue at how far the bullet could have traveled,” Lee said.

Police could then look for reports of shots fired at that time and locations.

The bullet remains lodged in Yam’s head as doctors wait for swelling to go down, Yam’s sister Chenda Yam Wilson said.

As of last year, about 190 handgun permit holders lived within a mile of the shooting, according to an Observer analysis of county data. That does not include concealed carry permit holders, rifle owners or people who own guns illegally.

In an academic study from the University of California-Davis, researchers discovered that July is the deadliest stray bullet month, followed by June. Such incidents were most frequent during the summer.

On July 4 last year, CMPD responded to a woman who was shot as she stood outside Bar Charlotte at 300 N. College St. in uptown. Her injuries were not life-threatening.

A police watch commander at the time said the woman was struck by what was believed to be a “stray bullet” at about 11 p.m.

And in a well-known case from June 1987, a stray gunshot killed a 16-year-old girl floating on a raft in the crowded Ocean Island wave pool at Carowinds. Another shot wounded a 6-year-old girl playing 60 feet away in shallow water. It was later discovered that a Mecklenburg County man had been target practicing in a nearby clearing at the time of the shootings.

According to city ordinance, discharging a firearm within city limits is a misdemeanor. Kenny Smith, a city councilman on the public safety committee, said he expects council members to review the ordinance.

“We tend to look at policies whenever tragic events like this occur to make sure we have the right policy in place,” he said.

Yam’s sister Chenda Yam Wilson said Monday that her brother’s condition had worsened and he remained in the intensive care unit.

“He has a headache. Memories are down, movement is down. They really don’t know what’s going on,” Wilson said. “He’s in stable condition but instead of going forward, he’s kind of taking a step back.”

Wilson said the family is still working on a setting up a fund to help Yam with his medical expenses. Yam lost his job a couple of months ago and is on Medicaid.

Arriero: 704-358-5945; Twitter: @earriero
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