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Gun used in San Francisco pier slaying belonged to federal agent

Francisco Sanchez, right, is lead into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor, center, for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, July 7, 2015  in San Francisco. Prosecutors have charged the Mexican immigrant with murder in the waterfront shooting death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

Francisco Sanchez, right, is lead into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor, center, for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 in San Francisco. Prosecutors have charged the Mexican immigrant with murder in the waterfront shooting death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

A law enforcement official says the weapon used in the shooting death of a woman on a San Francisco pier belonged to a federal agent — the latest twist in a case that has become a flashpoint in the country's debate over immigration.

The official, who had been briefed on the matter, said Tuesday that a check of the gun's serial number shows it belonged to a federal agent.

The official — who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity — declined to elaborate.

The San Francisco Police Department, which is investigating the case, refused to comment on the disclosure.

The suspected gunman, Juan Francisco López Sánchez, has been deported to his native Mexico five times and is suspected of living in the United States illegally when Kathryn Steinle, 32, was gunned down last week while on an evening stroll with her father along San Francisco's popular waterfront area.

Federal officials transferred Sánchez to San Francisco's jail in March to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge after Sánchez completed his latest prison term for illegally entering the country.

The San Francisco sheriff, citing the city's "sanctuary city" policy, released Sánchez in April after prosecutors dropped the drug charge, despite an Immigration and Customs Enforcement request to hold him for federal authorities so deportation proceedings could begin.

This move has drawn criticism from a number of presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.

In an interview with CNN, Clinton said the sheriff ignored "strong evidence" that Sanchez should have been turned over to immigration officials and deported.

Sánchez pleaded not guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder.

He told two television stations who interviewed him in jail that he found the gun used in Steinle's killing wrapped in a shirt on the pedestrian pier she was walking on. Sánchez said the gun went off in his hands, and his public defender, Matt Gonzalez, said Tuesday that the San Francisco woman's death appeared accidental.

Regardless of the reason behind Steinle's death, the shooting has touched off criticism from leading Republican lawmakers — and from top Democrats, including both of California's U.S. senators.

Clinton told CNN that San Francisco was wrong to ignore the ICE detainer request and release Sánchez from custody.

"The city made a mistake, not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported," Clinton said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called on San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to start cooperating with federal immigration officials who want to deport felons such as Sánchez.

"I strongly believe that an undocumented individual, convicted of multiple felonies and with a detainer request from ICE, should not have been released," Feinstein said.

The mayor's office said it has reached out to Homeland Security officials to determine if there's a way to cooperate while still upholding the city's sanctuary policy.

"Mayor Lee shares the senator's concerns surrounding the nature of Mr. Sánchez's transfer to San Francisco and release," said Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, also from Northern California, said she asked Gov. Jerry Brown if state law was followed in Sánchez's release.

"For decades, I have supported deporting violent criminals, and I have always believed that sanctuary should not be given to felons," Boxer said.

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has defended Sánchez's release and the city law requiring it to ignore ICE detainer requests. The sheriff said ICE could have obtained a warrant or court order to keep Sánchez in custody.

"ICE knew where he was," Mirkarimi said Monday.

State and federal Republicans, meanwhile, said they would look into the matter.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate's homeland security committee, criticized federal officials and demanded to know why Sánchez was not deported.

"Does that make any sense to you?" Johnson demanded to know at a hearing Tuesday. "Because I'll tell you it doesn't make any sense to the American public."

Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone said he would introduce legislation in Sacramento to require cities to comply with ICE detainer requests.

At Sánchez's arraignment Tuesday, prosecutor Dianna Garcia argued against releasing Sánchez on bail, saying, "This was an act of random violence, shooting an innocent victim in the back."

The judge set bail at $5 million, which Gonzalez said will keep Sánchez jailed pending trial.

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