Vega had been a contestant in the internationally popular Hands on a Hardbody contest at Patterson Nissan in Longview when he killed himself Thursday morning after leaving the contest on its third day. The 24-year-old left the contest just before 6 a.m. Thursday when he politely excused himself and walked away just before a 15-minute break, a witness said. He went directly to a Kmart across the street, threw a trash can through a window and rushed into the store. "I saw the big trash can go in. He chunked it through the glass and he went right after it," said Dru Laborde, a program director for KYKX radio and a media participant in the contest. "It was the most surreal thing I've ever seen in my life. In my wildest dreams, I wouldn't have guessed something like this would have ever happened." Police were called at 5:59 a.m. When they arrived, they saw Vega walking toward the front of the store. He grabbed the weapon from the store's gun case and broke into a box of ammunition, too. Lying beside his body were two of the bullets and the third one he dropped as he was heading toward the front doors. He said he wasn't sure what had been said and that Sgt. Bill Howell and officer Tommy Tatum arrived at the scene at 6 p.m. and witnessed Vega kill himself. Tom Crawley, public information officer for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Dallas, said retailers are required to secure guns, but federal law doesn't instruct stores of how guns should be stored. It was not known Thursday how Kmart secures its guns. Patterson Nissan issued a statement: "This has been a tragic event for Ricky Vega and his family, along with the other contestants and everyone at Patterson Nissan. Mr. Vega's family is in our thoughts and prayers," it said. "The future of the Hands on a Hardbody contest has not been determined at this time." The written statement also said it would not have been appropriate to continue the contest and it was canceled out of respect for the family. For the first time last year, the 12-year-old endurance competition was broadcast in Tokyo. Dai Kato, a Japanese TV celebrity and Takashi "Ralph" Suzuki, a Newscaster, were media contestants allowed to participate in the contest for publicity but not for prizes. The BBC, an internationally known media outlet based in the United Kingdom, was filming the contest and had interviewed Vega. Mary Flores, a cousin of Vega's wife, said Vega "had no reason to do this at all." "Everything in his life was going good. Everything," said Flores, who was gathered with other family members outside the Kmart in central Longview. Vega had said he wanted to win the truck for his wife, Chalala. The couple had two children, Riche, 5, and Mariha, 7, who is Vega's stepdaughter. "I won't let you down. I'm going to win this for you," Flores said Vega told his wife he would win the grand prize Nissan truck for her. "He was motivated and feeling good about everything," she said. "Everything was going good for him and her." Vega served time in jail in 2003 after pleading guilty to assault/family violence. He lived in Tyler and worked for FedEx and Ranger Metal. Officials at both companies declined to comment. Laborde said he had arrived at the contest at 5:30 a.m. Thursday and spoke with Vega. "He was fine," Laborde said, adding that Vega had said he was in the contest for the long haul. "'I'm here until Monday. Everything is fine. No problems'" he told Laborde said. Laborde said he had bonded with Vega, who loved country music and had a large tattoo on his arm of praying hands. The tattoo was a tribute to his father, who committed suicide by hanging himself some years ago, family members said. "I never saw any indication that something like this would happen," Laborde said. He and others there saw Vega walk away, but it didn't seem usual, Laborde said, because people walk away all the time. "This is a good contest. Nobody would ever have seen this coming." Vega was standing at the tail end of the Nissan truck on the driver's side and Laborde was standing behind him with his hand on the camper. Laborde saw Vega walk pass him and he said "excuse me" to another contestant as he walked by him and kept walking in the direction of Kmart-Mart. Laborde said Vega was "incredibly" nice to him. He worked two jobs and was described by family as a good provider and hardworking. He's had some problems, but he was a "good kid," they said. Vega had dropped out of the contest last year because of a family emergency. Just before he walked away from the truck this year, he had been in the contest a right at 48 hours. Contest officials declined to comment immediately, but said the contest would be discontinued out of respect for the family. All signs of the contest, including a large tent, and a contestant tally board, were quickly removed from the dealership's lot and remaining contestants were asked not to talk to reporters. This was the contest's 13th year. It drew international fame after a filmmaker from East Texas documented the 1995 version in a film released in 1997. Since then, the contest has been copied and modified around the world. The contest requires competitors to keep at least one hand on a pickup truck as long as possible with few breaks. It generally has lasted several days. The last person standing wins the truck and other prizes. Regina Clifton of Gulf States Toyota's regional office in Houston said the Hands on a Hardbody tragedy likely will be considered when the car dealer determines the future of its Tacoma-Thon. Patterson Nissan and Jan Maynard helped North Texas Toyota Dealers develop Tacoma-Thon, their own version of the local endurance competition. The Toyota event, which featured a Toyota Tacoma truck as the top prize, was held in April at the Dallas Auto Show. "We've started reviewing the success of the program, but we won't have a decision until the fourth quarter of the year," she said. Clifton said she did not hear about the tragedy until Thursday afternoon. The Longview incident probably will be discussed during the Tacoma-Thon review process, but she couldn't predict how it would affect the decision. Tacoma-Thon rules were a little different. Competition started Wednesday and ended at 8 p.m. Sunday, whether there's only one contestant left or not. If there was more than one contestant still standing at the end of the competition, each one would draw from a container. The one whose key started the truck got to drive it home. Close reaction Mike Maris, a Hands on a Hard Body judge, said Vega seemed "very normal" and that he was suspected that he would be in the top five or the top two or three. "He handled himself very well. He was very calm," he said. "The calmer ones ... are not distressed mentally or physically. They are the ones who go the farthest." Maris said after long hours in the contest, "it starts playing on your mind after days of it. After 50 hours, it really becomes a mind game." He's seen people become confused and not realize where they are. Contestants have told him they start hallucinating, he said. On a few occasions, he's seen contestants become angry, but that's very rare, said Maris, a Channel 7 advertising representative. He's even seen contestants taunt one another. But he's "never seen anyone get violent," he said. Ginger Nimmons, also a judge, was scheduled to start her shift at 8 p.m. Friday. Judges watch to make sure contestants are keeping their hands on the truck "Typically ... you don't normally start getting the serious hallucinations until a little bit later, especially somebody so young and in good shape," Nimmons said. One woman whispered that Hard Body officials must have suspected that after Vega crash the store's window, he could possibly be a danger to himself or others. "I saw him go in the store and it wasn't long after that they told everyone ot come inside," Laborde said. Buddy Kennedy, a Hard Body crew person, said he went to the bathroom and when he came out, Hard Body officials were telling contestants to come inside the dealership for safety. "They were telling everybody to come back in for safety reasons," he said. "It's sad, sad. Something like this puts a black eye on it," Kennedy said. Maynard said "within minutes" of when Vega walked off, officials had everyone gather inside the dealership. He eyes swelled with tears and she wiped her face as she struggled to respond.

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