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Santa Maria slaying suspect was in U.S. illegally, had numerous brushes with the law

A man who was in the U.S. illegally and charged with raping, torturing and killing a Santa Barbara County woman last month had been arrested repeatedly in recent years — and was released from jail just days before the fatal attack, authorities said.

Police say Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez, 29, and another man broke into the home of 64-year-old Marilyn Pharis in Santa Maria on July 24 and attacked her with a hammer and sexually assaulted her. Pharis, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base, died Aug. 1 from her wounds.

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Ramirez, who also goes by the name Victor Martinez, was booked into Santa Barbara County Jail on drug and weapons charges July 17, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office. He was ordered released July 20 after pleading no contest to the weapons charge.

Pharis' death came weeks after the arrest of a Mexican immigrant in connection with the fatal shooting of a 32-year-old woman at San Francisco's Embarcadero. The man charged in that homicide, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is a seven-time felon who was in the country illegally and had been deported five times.

In the Ramirez case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked Santa Barbara custody officials to put a detention hold on him last year after he was charged with felony assault with intent to commit sexual assault. The detainer was meant to ensure Ramirez would be transferred into federal custody before his release.

But his case was downgraded to a misdemeanor. Santa Barbara custody officials concluded that keeping Ramirez would violate the state's Trust Act, which allows local law enforcement to hold inmates for immigration authorities only if they have been charged with a serious crime.

The county, like hundreds of other jurisdictions across the country, had also determined that it could no longer honor immigration agency requests to hold inmates beyond their jail terms without a federal warrant or court order because of a court ruling in a 2014 Oregon case.

The effect of both the ruling and state law has created a "significant legal and moral conflict" for sheriffs who are responsible for custody decisions, Santa Barbara sheriff's officials said in a statement. "It is imperative that the federal government work to remedy this conflict and provide clear guidance to California sheriffs."

On Sunday, federal officials said they declined to issue an immigration detainer on Ramirez last month because his case history failed to turn up any deportations or felony criminal convictions. They also asserted that the immigration agency does not need to produce a warrant to be notified of a pending release.

Immigration agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice said her agency has lodged a formal request with local law enforcement seeking notification before Ramirez's release or transfer from local custody. "Given the seriousness of the allegations associated with this individual's arrest, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is monitoring the case closely," she said in a statement.

On Friday, Santa Maria police Chief Ralph Martin denounced state and federal detention policies for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, saying at a news conference that "there's a blood trail leading to the bedroom of Marilyn Pharis" from Sacramento and Washington.

"You know what we had to do? We had to cite [Ramirez] out," said the chief, according to a report from Santa Barbara's KEYT-TV Channel 3. "That's the problem with this system. This is not just in Santa Maria. This is all over the state of California and all over the United States."

Ramirez and a second man, 20-year-old Jose Fernando Villagomez, face a number of charges in the Santa Maria case, including first-degree murder and carrying out "rape by instrument." Villagomez is a U.S. citizen.

According to the sheriff's timeline, Ramirez, who was identified as a transient, was first apprehended in 2009 on suspicion of driving without a valid license. He was booked into the Santa Barbara jail system and released a few weeks later.

Authorities were unable to say Sunday whether he had been convicted of that violation. At the time, custody officials did not receive any detention requests from federal immigration officials, sheriff's officials said.

In May 2014, Ramirez was the subject of more serious charges: felony assault with the intent to commit sexual assault, and felony possession of a controlled substance. In that instance, immigration officials filed a detainer asking the sheriff to provide notice before Ramirez's release so that he could be taken into U.S. custody, federal officials said.

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Days later, Ramirez's felony assault charge was replaced by a misdemeanor count of battery. Soon after, sheriff's officials concluded they could not hold Ramirez without a federal warrant or court order from immigration authorities, a decision based on the Oregon ruling.

In the Oregon case, a federal court concluded that law enforcement officials in Clackamas County had violated a woman's 4th Amendment rights by holding her for immigration authorities beyond her release date.

A sheriff's spokeswoman said she could not confirm whether Ramirez had been convicted on the 2014 battery charge.

On July 17, Ramirez was booked on two more charges: a felony count of possessing a concealed dagger or similar weapon and a misdemeanor charge of possessing drug paraphernalia. But the drug charge was dismissed days later, and the felony charge was downgraded to a misdemeanor, according to the sheriff's office.

Ramirez pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor weapons charge and was sentenced to 30 days in jail — but not until the end of October. He was ordered released July 20.

Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Joyce Dudley said she too is frustrated with state and federal policies on suspects who are in the country illegally. She called the case heartbreaking and said "more clarity" is needed between state and federal laws.

"I personally attended the autopsy," she said. "The victim served our country for nearly 40 years. She bravely fought back."

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.

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