The gun used in the seemingly random slaying of a woman on a San Francisco pier belonged to a federal agent, a law enforcement official briefed on the matter said Tuesday.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, said a police check of the weapon’s serial number shows it belonged to a federal agent. The official declined to elaborate further.
The San Francisco Police Department, which is investigating the case, declined to comment.
The revelation was the latest dramatic twist in a tragic case that has become a new flashpoint in the country’s debate over immigration policies.
The suspected gunman, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, 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 Sanchez to San Francisco’s jail in March to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge after Sanchez completed his latest prison term for illegally entering the country.
The San Francisco sheriff, citing the city’s “sanctuary city” policy, released Sanchez 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.
Sanchez 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. Sanchez 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, unexpectedly, from top Democrats, including both of California’s U.S. senators.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told CNN that San Francisco was wrong to ignore the ICE detainer request and release Sanchez from custody.
“The city made a mistake, not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported,” Clinton said. “So I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein called on San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to start cooperating with federal immigration officials who want to deport felons such as Sanchez. Feinstein served as San Francisco mayor from 1978 to 1988.
“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. “We should focus on deporting convicted criminals, not setting them loose on our streets.”
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. Sanchez’s transfer to San Francisco and release,” said Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “As the mayor has stated, we need to gather all of the facts as we develop potential solutions.”
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, also from Northern California, said she asked Gov. Jerry Brown if state law was followed in Sanchez’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 Sanchez’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 Sanchez in custody.
“ICE knew where he was,” Mirkarimi said Monday. He said he will continue to ignore ICE detainer requests.
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 Sanchez 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 Sanchez’s arraignment Tuesday, prosecutor Dianna Garcia argued against releasing Sanchez 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 Sanchez jailed pending trial.
A downcast Sanchez spent most of the hearing with his head bowed, appearing to fight back tears while the judge explained the charged to him. Sanchez was aided by a Spanish-language interpreter and entered his plea in Spanish.
Outside court, his attorney said Sanchez has a second-grade education and a non-violent criminal record.
He could face life in prison if convicted.