Gun allegedly used in S.F. shooting was reported stolen from ranger's car

Gun allegedly used in San Francisco shooting was reported stolen from Bureau of Land Management vehicle

The gun that law enforcement sources here have said was used in a fatal shooting of a 32-year-old woman on the city’s Embarcadero had been reported stolen from the vehicle of a federal law enforcement officer four days before the July 1 killing, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The BLM ranger was “on travel when his vehicle was broken into” June 27 and the gun issued to him was stolen, spokeswoman Dana Wilson said.


San Francisco shooting: In the July 8 California section, an article about the slaying of a San Francisco woman quoted a man at the courthouse for the suspect's arraignment who claimed to be victim Kathryn Steinle's uncle. Police say he is not related to the family.

She referred other questions to the San Francisco Police Department. A spokesman there said the theft “was reported and investigated,” but once a case is handed over to the district attorney, “we are not able to discuss” it.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 52, who had been deported to his native Mexico five times for illegally entering the United States and has a lengthy criminal record, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to one count of murder with firearms enhancements. His attorneys contend the shooting was accidental.

In an interview with KGO-TV over the weekend, Lopez-Sanchez said he had found the weapon wrapped in a T-shirt on the ground near a bench and that it accidentally fired when he touched it.

Kathryn Steinle was struck in the back and died at a hospital shortly thereafter.

The Times obtained records Wednesday indicating that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s Central Warrant Bureau had sought a hold on Lopez-Sanchez on March 23 after being contacted by phone by the federal prison in Victorville at 10:51 that morning and told that he had an outstanding bench warrant here.

The $5,000 bench warrant was issued in 1995 when he failed to appear in court on two felony counts of marijuana for sales.  

Lopez-Sanchez had been serving a lengthy federal sentence for re-entering the country after being deported for the fifth time and was nearing release when the Sheriff’s Department arranged for his transport north. They booked him in jail here on March 26.  

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had also placed a hold on Lopez-Sanchez while he was in Victorville, but a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman there said that "while federal detainers take priority over non-federal detainers in general, that is not the case for ICE deportation matters.”  

San Francisco prosecutors later declined to pursue the matter -- which involved $20 worth of marijuana that had long since been destroyed -- and Lopez-Sanchez was released in April.

After Lopez-Sanchez was transported to San Francisco, U.S. Immigration and Customs officials again lodged a “detainer,” asking the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to hold him for pickup or notify them of his release “as early as possible.”

However, San Francisco -- like nearly every county in the state and many across the country -- no longer honors ICE detainers. The city's policy is to honor only judicial warrants or court orders -- where probable cause for the subject’s detention has been established, legal counsel Freya Horne said.

A March 13 memo called for “limited contact and communication with ICE representatives absent a court-issued warrant, a signed court order, or other legal requirement authorizing ICE access.”

Under a 2013 city ordinance, Lopez-Sanchez could not be held here for immigration officials because his past crimes were not violent felonies and he faced no current charges. Under the California Trust Act, which went into effect in 2014, holding him for immigration officials would have been allowed due to his past felonies. But local jurisdictions have the final say.  

Since the Trust Act went into effect, the detainers have been deemed unconstitutional in several courts, most local California jurisdictions have stopped holding inmates for immigration officials beyond their release date, and ICE has begun shifting to a different approach.  

Under the new “Priority Enforcement Program” immigration officials will in many cases seek voluntary notification of a subject’s release without the need for holds beyond that release date, the program’s website says.

Los Angeles County is already employing that approach for certain individuals who meet Trust Act criteria, although ICE officials confirm that the program has not been fully rolled out yet and new forms are not yet in place.  

Horne, counsel for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, said Wednesday, “Once we get information about it, it’s something we will review. I think it’s a policy decision not only on the department level but on the ordinance level. Certainly a tragedy of this nature would cause people to look at it and determine whether any legislative changes are warranted.”

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has been critical of ICE, saying Homeland Security officials at the highest levels have long known that his department does not honor detainers. He has also questioned why Lopez-Sanchez would be sent here on an old marijuana warrant that would never be prosecuted.

The records show, however, that his department sought Lopez-Sanchez after receiving a phone call from the Victorville prison about the bench warrant.

Horne said that all felony warrants remain in San Francisco’s system permanently, though misdemeanors are purged after five years. If the warrant had been issued by law enforcement officials, her department would have contacted them to see whether they wished to proceed, she said.

But since it was a bench warrant issued by a judge for Lopez-Sanchez’s failure to appear in court, “the procedure is that we would honor the bench warrant.”

The records show that the San Francisco Central Warrant Bureau had not been contacted about that particular warrant since it was issued in 1995, through the Bureau of Prisons had Lopez-Sanchez in their custody numerous other times.

His case has triggered a political firestorm over gaps in the nation’s immigration system and scrutiny of local jurisdictions that no longer honor ICE detainers.

Twitter: @leeromney

Twitter: @joelrubin

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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