Federal authorities give his real name as Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate. But the Mexican national has also traced a path through the U.S. immigration system and criminal courts for nearly a quarter of a century as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez and Juan Jose Dominguez de la Parra.
He has worked as an itinerant laborer in four states. Five times, he was deported. Each time he returned.
Among his criminal convictions — the most recent in 1997 — are at least four felonies for possessing heroin and manufacturing narcotics and a misdemeanor conviction for inhaling toxic vapors, federal records show. He has also been charged numerous times with felonies for illegally entering the U.S. after being removed.
And in recent days, the man known to San Francisco law enforcement as simply Francisco Sanchez has been thrust into a national debate on immigration policy.
Police say that Sanchez shot and killed Kathryn Steinle, 32, who had recently moved to San Francisco from the suburb of Pleasanton, while she strolled on the tourist-friendly Embarcadero with her father Wednesday.
Sanchez admitted in an interview with KGO-TV to accidentally firing a gun he said he found wrapped in a T-shirt near a bench. But in halting and often contradictory explanations Sanchez said he had taken such strong sleeping pills before the incident that his memory is murky. He was charged Monday with Steinle’s killing and is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.
At the root of the tragedy is the uneasy relationship between immigration authorities and local law enforcement in many parts of the country — but most notably in California and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Bay Area.
Eager to encourage immigrants who are in the country illegally to trust the criminal justice system and report crimes without fear that police will hand them off for deportation, San Francisco honors federal requests that immigrants be held for pickup only if their current crime and earlier conviction meet thresholds spelled out in a 2013 city ordinance.
Sanchez didn’t meet those. His past crimes were too old, and the case he was booked on had evaporated.
Handed over to the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department in March on a bench warrant for a 20-year-old marijuana sales case, he was cut loose when prosecutors declined to charge him.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had lodged an “immigration detainer” with the Sheriff’s Department asking to be “notified prior to his release,” but “the detainer was not honored,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a statement.
California’s Trust Act, which went into effect in January 2014, bars local law enforcement from detaining defendants with most minor convictions past their release dates in order to hand them over to ICE, but it allows jurisdictions to turn over people such as Sanchez with past felony convictions.
San Francisco, however, is among a number of local governments — including Santa Clara and Alameda counties — with policies that are more protective of potentially deportable immigrants than the Trust Act.
Although the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department follows the Trust Act, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department has not honored an ICE request since mid-2014 “unless there is a warrant or other legal requirement to do so,” LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said Monday.
The issue was complicated further when a federal court in Oregon ruled in April 2014 that Clackamas County had violated a plaintiff’s 4th Amendment rights by holding her for immigration authorities beyond her release date. A slew of jurisdictions that had been complying with the detainer requests soon stopped doing so.
Sanchez’s case is among more than 10,000 in California and 17,000 nationwide since January 2014 in which an ICE request that an immigrant in the country illegally be detained for pickup was declined or ignored, ICE officials said.
In a statement, Kice said the suspect, “with a lengthy criminal history,” was released rather than being turned over for deportation. ICE issues detainers “to ensure dangerous criminals are not released ... into our communities,” she added.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi stood by his agency’s decision to follow the city ordinance, and said his department would honor any warrant or court order obtained by ICE that requests a defendant be held. The case should prompt reflection not about San Francisco’s policies, he said, but about the failure of ICE to catch up to changes in the law.
“If this guy is so bad, if he had been deported and illegally reentered multiple times, then you didn’t need to bring him to San Francisco — you should have satisfied the threshold and obtained a court warrant,” Mirkarimi said.
Much remains unclear about Sanchez. He gave his age as 56, but San Francisco police say he is 39 and U.S. Bureau of Prisons records show him as 34.
He arrived in the U.S. before 1991, records show, when he was convicted in Arizona on his first drug charge. In Washington state, he was convicted three times in 1993 — for felony heroin possession and manufacturing narcotics. After he served some jail time, a misdemeanor drug conviction followed in Oregon before he was first arrested by immigration officials.
He was deported in June 1994, but two years later, he was back in Washington, convicted again of heroin possession. He was deported in 1997 after another jail stint but quickly returned to Arizona and was deported yet again Feb 2, 1998. Six days later he was rearrested by the U.S. Border Patrol at a crossing. This time, he was charged with felony reentry after a deportation, convicted in U.S. District Court and sentenced to 63 months in prison.
The Bureau of Prisons handed him over to immigration officials upon his release in 2003 and he was returned to Mexico. He came back to the U.S. through a Texas crossing and got an even longer federal sentence for criminal reentry. Once again, the Bureau of Prisons turned him back over to immigration officials after he served his time. He was deported in June 2009.
Less than three months later he was caught attempting to cross at Eagle Pass, Texas.
He pleaded guilty to felony criminal reentry, and a 2011 judgment shows that the court recommended he be sent to “a federal medical facility as soon as possible.”
Edmund Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said Sanchez has served time in five facilities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida and Arizona, and on Oct. 8, 2013, was transferred to a facility in Victorville.
Immigration officials lodged a detainer request with the Bureau of Prisons. But ICE officials said Monday that bureau officials discovered the 1995 bench warrant for Sanchez out of San Francisco and he was delivered here.
Sanchez had failed to show up at a 1995 arraignment on two felony charges of marijuana sales, records show.
Ross declined to comment on what the policy is when an inmate facing release is subject to both a warrant from a local agency and a federal immigration detainer, saying, “We’re trying to work that out now.”
But the 20-year-old case was too old to pursue. Charges were dropped, and the Sheriff’s Department released Sanchez.
A “sanctuary city” since 1989, San Francisco has long been at odds with immigration officials.
But tensions flared nationwide with the federal implementation in 2008 of Secure Communities. Under that program, immigration officials began to access the fingerprints of all arrestees and ask police and sheriff’s departments to hold suspects for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release so they could be transferred to federal custody.
Controversy plagued the program early on when data revealed that many minor offenders or those arrested for crimes but never convicted were being swept up.
In November, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the end to Secure Communities and unveiled guidelines for the new Priority Enforcement Program, which aims to more narrowly focus on serious offenders and ensure there is probable cause to deport them before picking them up.
Sanchez’s felonies make him a Priority 1 target under the new program, which is now being implemented.
In May, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to end the county’s role in Secure Communities and expressed support for its replacement, and ICE’s role inside Los Angeles County jails has already been scaled back, said Sheriff’s Chief Eric Parra. Sheriff’s officials have been meeting with community groups to decide which cases will qualify for referral to ICE under the new system, he added.
In Kern County, Sheriff Donny Youngblood is known for his strong stance against illegal immigration.
He said he is following the Trust Act and would hand over inmates to ICE who meet that law’s criteria.
The real problem, he said, is that Sanchez has been able to repeatedly reenter the country illegally.
“If he hadn’t killed someone, there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have been back in short order, which leads back to the main problem of securing our borders,” Youngblood said.
Romney reported from San Francisco, Chang and Rubin from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.