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Originally published July 19, 2010 at 12:19 PM | Page modified July 20, 2010 at 10:35 AM

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Mourning families: What went so wrong at Lake Sammamish State Park?

Two men slain during Saturday's gunbattle at Lake Sammamish State Park were remembered Monday as loyal friends and loving brothers whose deaths have left their families stunned and searching for answers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The deaths of two men slain during Saturday's gunbattle at Lake Sammamish State Park have left their families stunned and searching for answers. Both are remembered as being true friends to those who knew them and loving family members.

Justin Cunningham, 30, of South Seattle, is believed to have fatally shot Yang Keovongphet, 33, after a fistfight broke out between two groups picnicking at the park around 9 p.m., according to a source close to the investigation. Someone from Keovongphet's group returned fire, killing Cunningham, authorities said.

Four other people were wounded by gunfire.

Nobody had been arrested in connection with the shootings as of Monday as King County sheriff's investigators continued to sift through evidence gathered from the popular park. Authorities hope ballistics tests will lead detectives to those responsible, another source said.

Investigators have recovered four guns and 20 bullet casings.

The Sheriff's Office said members of both groups have gang affiliations, and investigators are trying to determine whether that played a role in the shootings.

However, relatives of the slain men said Monday that neither was a gang member.

Keovongphet's stepsister, Sakorn Keopanya, said she was frustrated that people were saying her stepbrother was in a gang. She said he was killed because he was trying to break up a fight that erupted between the two groups.

"That is all being spun up so that it will be a bigger story," Keopanya said. "What people need to remember is that he was a person and now he is gone."

According to court documents, Keovongphet was sentenced to four years in prison after he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault with a handgun in 1994. Cunningham had no felony convictions.

Cunningham's sister, Heidi, said she didn't know who her brother was with at the park and insisted he was not in a gang.

"He was just a good kid. He was caught up at the wrong place at the wrong time," said Cunningham's brother-in-law, Marcus. Cunningham's sister and brother-in-law asked that their last name not be published out of fear for their family's safety.

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The King County Medical Examiner's Office said both Cunningham and Keovongphet died of multiple gunshot wounds. Both deaths were ruled homicides.

Cunningham's sister and brother-in-law choked back tears as they remembered the slain man as a comedian, a doting uncle, an expert at cooking chicken wings and the champion at their family croquet tournaments. The youngest of three children, Cunningham grew up in Boulevard Park and graduated from Evergreen High School, Heidi said.

He was a heavy-equipment mechanic who talked to Heidi weekly and had several groups of friends, his brother-in-law said.

Marcus said Cunningham "was just a fun-loving guy who looked out for people." He said his brother-in-law went by the nickname "Juice" and was someone who "had a strong distaste for bullies" and "bully types."

But, Marcus added, Cunningham was "a nonconfrontational, diplomatic guy who often sought to resolve disagreements through words."

"He liked to party, but he's entitled to. He liked his friends, he supported them and was someone they could rely on," Marcus said. "He was just a good kid. He was caught up at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Keopanya remembered Keovongphet as "a father of four and a great person." Keopanya told KOMO-TV that her stepbrother was at the park with friends.

Cunningham and Keovongphet were with groups that had staked out areas near one another at Lake Sammamish State Park on Saturday. Someone from one of their groups walked over and taunted members of the second group, King County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said. The reason for the taunting is unclear.

A fistfight erupted around 9 p.m., and someone from one group apparently fired a gun into the air as a warning, Urquhart said. Members of both groups — described by Urquhart as heavily armed — then exchanged gunfire.

Investigators recovered a gun next to Cunningham's body, the law-enforcement source said. An unidentified member of Keovongphet's group is believed to have shot and killed Cunningham, the source said.

Urquhart said the groups were made up of people of mainly Asian descent. Keovongphet was of Laotian descent, his stepsister, Keopanya, said. Cunningham was white.

The park, which was closed Sunday during the investigation, reopened Monday.

Sandy Mealing, spokeswoman with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said Monday that the agency is waiting to review the Sheriff's Office investigation into the shootings to determine if park policies need to be changed.

Visitors can bring handguns into state parks if they have a concealed-weapons permit, Mealing said. The Sheriff's Office has not said whether the two men killed or the others who were armed had legal permits.

Alcohol is permitted in most state parks, but only in campsites and picnic areas. The two groups were in such an area, Mealing said. Authorities said the groups had alcohol with them.

Seattle Times staff reporters Christine Clarridge, Jill Kimball and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

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