San Francisco prosecutors charge illegal immigrant with killing woman at pier

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

San Francisco prosecutors Monday charged an illegal immigrant -- with a lengthy criminal record and deported five times -- with the murder of a young woman at a popular city pier.

Francisco Sanchez, a 45-year-old repeat drug offender released from jail April 15 after law enforcement officials declined to prosecute him, was expected to be arraigned Tuesday in the killing of Kathryn Steinle, 32.

The charge came hours after federal immigration officials fired back at San Francisco for putting Sanchez back on the street, saying "this terrible tragedy" could have been prevented if they had been notified of the suspect's release.

Sanchez, a Mexican national, had been in the custody of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department on a decade-old drug charge when he was released.

In a detailed statement released Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that at the time it had turned over Sanchez to local law enforcement, it also had requested that they be kept apprised of any changes in his status -- and they weren't.

More On This...

    "We're not asking local law enforcement to do our job," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in the statement. "All we're asking is that they notify us when a serious foreign national criminal offender is being released to the street so we can arrange to take custody."

    While saying the agency understands local law enforcement's "reticence" on the issue, Christensen said the bottom line is that if San Francisco authorities "had merely NOTIFIED ICE that they were about to release this individual into the community, ICE could have taken custody of him and had him removed from the country -- thus preventing this terrible tragedy."

    The city did not notify ICE, she said, and, "As a result, an individual with a lengthy criminal history, who is now the suspect in a tragic murder case, was released onto the street rather than being turned over to ICE for deportation."

    The circumstances surrounding Sanchez have reignited the debate over so-called sanctuary city policies.

    As a sanctuary city, San Francisco like many other California cities often does not turn over illegal immigrants to federal officials.

    However, Sanchez has a lengthy rap sheet.

    According to ICE, he had been deported five times, most recently in 2009, and his record included seven prior felony convictions. ICE briefly had him in their custody after he completed a prison sentence in California, but turned him over to San Francisco on an outstanding warrant for a felony drug charge in late March. They lodged what's known as an "immigration detainer," which was not honored.

    Freya Horne, an attorney for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, told the Associated Press on Friday they had no authority to hold him.

    Horne said federal detention orders are not a "legal basis" to hold someone, so Sanchez was released April 15. Horne said the city does not turn over people who are in the country illegally unless there's an active warrant for their arrest.

    But a law enforcement official familiar with the issue told there are "literally no jurisdictions" in the country where ICE gets a judicial warrant to request that local law enforcement notify them of a pending release.

    The official called this claim by San Francisco "ridiculous."

    Meanwhile, Sanchez reportedly has admitted in a jailhouse interview that he shot Steinle.

    He told KGO-TV Sunday in a mix of Spanish and English that he found a gun wrapped inside a shirt while he was sitting on a bench at the pier and smoking a cigarette.

    "So I picked it up and ... it started to fire on its own," Sanchez said, adding that he heard three shots go off.

    Steinle was gunned down while out for an evening stroll at Pier 14 with her father and a family friend on Wednesday. Police said witnesses heard no argument or dispute before the shooting, suggesting it was a random attack.

    A source familiar with the investigation told the San Francisco Chronicle that Sanchez said he was at the popular pier to shoot at sea lions, and discarded the firearm after realizing he had shot Steinle.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.