Prosecutors said this week they will seek a murder charge against a suspected drunken driver accused of plowing into a pedestrian in June and then driving for a mile with his body wedged in her car.
The new charge was hailed by more than a dozen anti-illegal immigration activists who attended a hearing Thursday for 29-year-old Esteysi "Stacy" Sanchez, who authorities have indicated may be in the country illegally.
Sanchez already had been charged with felony DUI, gross vehicular manslaughter and driving without a license, and has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutor Bob Bruce declined to say Thursday why he added the murder charge.
Police say Sanchez was driving east on Mission Avenue in Oceanside around 6:20 a.m. on June 27 when her car jumped the sidewalk and struck a homeless man, 69-year-old Jack Ray Tenhulzen.
The impact sent the victim through the car's front windshield and into the passenger seat. Authorities say the female driver kept going for nearly a mile before ditching the vehicle. Witnesses said they watched as she got out of the car and stumbled down the street.
Sanchez was arrested a short time later after her boyfriend called police to report the incident. At her arraignment in June, prosecutors said that two hours after the crash, Sanchez's blood alcohol level was about 0.18, or more than twice the legal limit.
The gruesome nature of the case made headlines, but interest in it increased after it was revealed that Sanchez was driving without a license and is suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.
Over the past year, illegal immigration has landed at the center of a national conversation, fueled in part by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's vow to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
After Thursday's hearing, protesters headed outside the Vista courthouse with hand-held signs decrying illegal immigration and banners depicting photos of people they said were killed by undocumented immigrants. Most of the protesters wore T-shirts with the same photos.
"This was something we had to stand up about," said Jeff Schwilk, who organized the gathering.
Schwilk, long-known for his leadership in the regional Minuteman movement, formed a group called San Diegans for Secure Borders in 2013.
Also joining Thursday's protest was Oceanside resident Brenda Sparks, whose son was fatally injured in a 2011 collision in Yucaipa when an undocumented immigrant crashed into his motorcycle.
Sparks — a member of the Remembrance Project, which advocates for families of people killed by an unauthorized immigrants — shared the stage with Trump in April at a rally in Orange County. She and other families had met with him in July 2015 to talk about illegal immigration.
"I ask people to stand with the American people against illegals," Sparks said outside the courthouse Thursday. She later said Sanchez "needs to go back to where she comes from — and out of my country."
Fatal drunken-driving cases usually are charged as manslaughter, and when murder charges are added, it's often because the defendant has a prior drunken-driving conviction — but that's not the case with Sanchez.
To prove second-degree murder, prosecutors must show that the defendant had a conscious disregard for life.
More details in the case should be revealed during Sanchez's preliminary hearing, set for Oct. 26. She remains jailed in lieu of $1.5-million bail and faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison if convicted.
Anti-illegal immigration activists often argue that jails are crowded with undocumented immigrants, but it's difficult to track how many people arrested each year in San Diego County may be here illegally. Since late 2014, federal authorities no longer put an automatic "immigration hold" on such arrestees, but instead ask jails to notify them only when a suspected undocumented immigrant is convicted of specific crimes.
According to the county Sheriff's Department, which manages the region's jails, at any given time, roughly 3% to 4% of the jail population is under such a notification request from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This week, that number hovered around 214 people.
Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.