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In California’s red counties, sheriffs decry sanctuary laws after crime spree, cop killing

In California’s red counties, sheriffs decry sanctuary laws after crime spree, cop killing
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson stands next to Reggie Singh, right, the brother of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh, who was killed during a traffic stop. (Doug Duran / Bay Area News Group)

Before releasing the name of the suspect in the death of Newman Police Officer Ronil Singh, authorities released his legal status.

Standing before a battery of reporters and television cameras, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson declared: “Unlike Ron, who immigrated to this country lawfully and legally to pursue his lifelong career of public safety, public service and being a police officer, this suspect is in our country illegally. He doesn’t belong here. He’s a criminal.”

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The suspect in Singh’s death, eventually identified as Gustavo Arriaga, had known gang ties and two prior arrests on suspicion of driving under the influence — and had been living in the country illegally for years.

It was the second time in a month that a sheriff in the rural, conservative Central Valley had angrily criticized California’s so-called sanctuary law after an immigrant in the country illegally was accused of killing someone. But the sheriffs of Stanislaus and Tulare counties, communities with large immigrant populations, struck different tones in the wake of the kind of crimes that the Trump administration often uses as ammunition against illegal immigration.

Booking photo of Gustavo Arriaga.
Booking photo of Gustavo Arriaga. (Stanislaus County Sheriff's Dept.)

After a deadly rampage in mid-December, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux voiced frustration over the sanctuary law. But he also expressed broader support for the county's large immigrant population and acknowledged that crimes by immigrants are relatively low.

“We have a large agricultural community, we have a large population of undocumented persons that every day don’t violate the law,” Boudreaux said. “That’s not my opposition. My opposition is that person who is a known criminal element.”

After Singh’s death on Dec. 26, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement expressing concern “that California’s sanctuary laws continue to undermine public safety and cause preventable crimes by restricting law enforcement cooperation and allowing public safety threats back into the community to reoffend.”

ICE had had no prior encounters with Arriaga.

In the last few weeks, Christianson and Boudreaux have criticized Senate Bill 54, which provides expanded protection for immigrants who have entered the country illegally. The law, which took effect in January 2018, prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying federal officials in many cases when immigrants potentially subject to deportation are about to be released from custody.

The law was drastically scaled back in the final days of the negotiations because of opposition from sheriff’s groups.

Last week, the president tweeted about the Stanislaus County case: “Time to get tough on Border Security. Build the Wall!”

“I’m not here to talk about the president about the United States, but I will repeat what I said before,” Christianson said. “Border security goes hand in hand with national security, goes hand in hand with public safety, goes hand in hand with the safety of our community.”

Last month, ICE lodged an immigration detainer on 36-year-old Gustavo Garcia, after he was arrested on a misdemeanor for being under the influence of a controlled substance, the agency said in a statement. Garcia had twice been deported.

Because of S B54, Boudreaux said, authorities would have needed a federal arrest warrant to hold Garcia for immigration officials. As a result, Garcia was released from custody.

A couple of days later, on Dec. 16, authorities allege, Garcia shot a farmworker as he picked fruit in Exeter. The victim survived. Three minutes later, Garcia, authorities say, robbed a minimart at gunpoint. Following the robbery, police believe, he may have been involved in a fatal shooting in Lindsay. That night, he tried to shoot and kill a woman at a Motel 6 in Tulare, authorities said.

Other allegations against Garcia crimes include an assault with a deadly weapon, a fatal shooting at a gas station and firing into homes. His apparent rampage ended only after he was killed after he drove the wrong way down a highway and was thrown from his vehicle.

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“Our county was shot up by a violent criminal that could have easily been prevented had we had the opportunity to reach out to our fellow counterparts,” Boudreaux said.

But Boudreaux added that he believes in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected nearly 800,000 young immigrants in the country illegally after they were brought to the U.S. when they were children. He said he employs two deputy sheriffs who are so-called Dreamers.

“I’m not against any of our documented or undocumented community, or those who are wanting to make a better life … that’s not the point here,” Boudreaux said. “I hope the narrative is clear that the state law is missing a component and that component is us working together with … Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

A little over a week later, and less than 200 miles away in Stanislaus County, Singh was tipped off about an intoxicated man in a silver pickup, authorities said. The officer radioed that he was pulling over a vehicle at an intersection.

Singh probably didn’t know that the driver, Arriaga, had two warrants out for his arrest. Minutes after the traffic stop, the officer called out “shots fired” over his radio, authorities said.

The officers who responded found Singh, 33, had been shot and the motorist he stopped had fled. Singh was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Days later, Arriaga was arrested as he tried to flee to his native Mexico, authorities said.

Arriaga, who is from the Mexican state of Colima, was arrested by the California Highway Patrol in 2011 on suspicion of a felony DUI, after apparently causing bodily injury to someone other than himself. He was arrested again in June 2014 on charges of exhibition of speed, DUI over .08 and driving unlicensed, Chowchilla Police Chief Dave Riviere said.

In both cases, he failed to appear in court.

Arraiga, who is known to ICE as Pablo Virgen Mendoza, has not had prior encounters with the agency, according to officials. It is unclear when he entered the country.

“He might have got a DUI arrest and we might not have been notified because he could have just been cited and released,” an ICE official said.

In emotional news conferences after Arriaga’s arrest, Christianson touted Singh as someone who had legally immigrated to the U.S. and devoted his life to public service.

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“The last thing in the world I want to do is politicize the death of Officer Singh,” Christianson said. “But we need to have a conversation about restrictive legislation that puts our communities at risk.”

The suspect’s 25-year-old brother, Adrian Virgen Mendoza, and a co-worker, 27-year-old Erik Razo Quiroz, both of whom are also in the country illegally, were arrested on felony charges that they interfered with the investigation, authorities said.

Adrian Virgen Mendoza has a prior misdemeanor conviction and no known immigration encounters, according to ICE. Razo Quiroz has a prior felony conviction and two prior returns to Mexico, the most recent removal in March 2012.

Police also arrested Arriaga’s girlfriend, Ana Leyde Cervantes, and another brother, Conrado Virgen Mendoza, who are in the country illegally, on suspicion of aiding Arriaga in evading authorities. Three Bakersfield residents were arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting, authorities said.

ICE has lodged detainers on at least seven people arrested in connection with Singh’s death.

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