City leaders launched a counterattack against Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly on Thursday, calling him a “TV show gadfly” after he blamed the city in the deaths of two teenagers and accused local leaders of providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
Faced with angry e-mails and a potential black eye just before the start of tourist season, city officials called a news conference to defend themselves in a case that is drawing national attention.
City leaders tried to shift the debate about the recent deaths of Alison Kunhardt, 17, and Tessa Tranchant, 16, away from illegal immigration and onto drunk driving. Alfredo Ramos, 22, the man charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter in their deaths, had a record of three alcohol-related convictions and was in the country illegally.
Ray Tranchant, Tessa’s father, urged people not to treat the tragedy like “a political football.”
“There’s been some politicizing and mudslinging against the city,” Tranchant said in a quiet voice. He added that he trusts “justice will be done.”
Police Chief Jake Jacocks Jr. said he found it “ironic that had the intoxicated driver been born and raised in Virginia Beach, little notice would have been given to this senseless tragedy by the media or the community at large.
“Unfortunately, most who have been outspoken about this recent and all-too-common tragedy have lost perspective and focus,” he said.
Ramos, born in Mexico, has been in the United States for seven years. He is in jail without bond and faces a maximum of 40 years in prison if convicted.
O’Reilly was castigating a Virginia Beach policy that forbids patrol officers from asking the immigration status of defendants charged with misdemeanors.
Jacocks said the policy is similar to those used by other large cities and is necessary so that illegal immigrants will report crimes and help in the prosecution of crimes without fear of retribution from law enforcement.
Jacocks, along with his leadership command, crafted the policy and put it into practice in September 2005. “As chief of police, it is my policy,” he said.
O’Reilly jabbed at Judge Colon Whitehurst for giving Ramos a “lenient” DUI sentence of 90 days suspended, a $250 fine and a one-year suspension of his driver’s license. The sentence was within legal guidelines.
“Your town, Virginia Beach, Mayor Oberndorf, sanctuary city, orders the police not to contact the feds,” O’Reilly said to Kunhardt.
Oberndorf seemed almost bewildered by the criticism.
“Neither I nor any member of the council have adopted any legislation to make this a sanctuary city,” she said.
She has rarely taken a stance on immigration locally, but as a participant in the U.S. conference of mayors, she has urged President Bush to reform the country’s immigration policies and called the proposal to build the 300-mile fence along the Mexico border “un-American.”
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, said his office received about 20 telephone calls about the issue.
Hall said three callers referred to immigration proposals by Attorney General Bob McDonnell or bills on the topic that had been considered by the General Assembly this year but that most seemed to be generated solely by the television show.
“We’re telling callers that immigration is a federal responsibility,” Hall said. “We’re already undermanned in the State Police and reluctant to order them to do the federal government’s job.”