Killings Turn Focus on San Francisco Sanctuary Law

Paul Elias, AP, July 24, 2008

The scene repeats itself daily on city streets: a driver gets stuck bumper to bumper, blocking an intersection and preventing another car from turning left.

But authorities say that was enough to cause Edwin Ramos to unload an AK-47 assault weapon on a man and his two sons, killing them.

The deaths immediately drew public outrage, which intensified when authorities revealed that Ramos, 21, is an illegal immigrant who managed to avoid deportation despite previous brushes with the law.

The case has put San Francisco’s liberal politics to the test, setting off a debate over its sanctuary law that shields undocumented immigrants from deportation.

On Wednesday, Ramos pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder in the deaths of Anthony Bologna, 49, and his sons, Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16. Bologna and his older son died in the intersection on June 22. His younger son succumbed to his injuries days later.

Shortly after that, police arrested Ramos, a native of El Salvador and reputed member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13. Investigators believe he was the gunman, though two other men were seen in the car with him.

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Amparan declined to discuss details of the case, but he denied his client was involved in gang activity and said Ramos entered the country legally. Federal authorities contend Ramos is undocumented.

The victims’ family learned that Ramos had been arrested at least three times before the shooting and evaded deportation, largely because of San Francisco’s sanctuary status.

The policy, adopted in 1989 by the city’s elected Board of Supervisors, bars local officials from cooperating with federal authorities in their efforts to deport illegal immigrants.

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The Bolognas’ relatives say Ramos apparently benefited from the policy when he reportedly was convicted twice of felonies in 2003 and 2004 but never was turned over for deportation.

“All San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance has done is bring violence and death to this once-great city,” said Frank Kennedy, who is married to Anthony Bologna’s sister.

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ICE spokesman Timothy Counts said his agency did not receive word of Ramos’ arrest in March. He said the only communication received about Ramos was an “electronic message” from the sheriff’s department three hours after his release.

The case has garnered national attention, leading U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and an anti-immigration group called Californians for Population Stabilization to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to take over, alleging San Francisco authorities have mishandled it.

“Because San Francisco’s political leaders have already demonstrated their willingness to act in flagrant violation of federal law, I do not believe that local judicial institutions can be trusted to fairly try the case or mete out an appropriate punishment,” Tancredo said in a letter sent Tuesday to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

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Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization, called on about a dozen cities nationwide with similar sanctuary policies to end those programs.

“We need to remember always that a death-dealing policy like ‘sanctuary’ hides behind the false mantle of compassion,” Hull said.

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Edwin Ramos, 21, is accused of the June 22 shooting deaths of Tony Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16, in the city’s Excelsior district. In an appearance before Judge Lucy Kelly McCabe, Ramos spoke softly and slowly in denying each of the allegations.

The defense sought the gag order after The Chronicle revealed that Ramos was an illegal immigrant who was found to have committed two felonies at age 17—a gang-related assault of a Muni passenger and the attempted robbery of a pregnant woman—but was not surrendered by San Francisco juvenile justice authorities to federal officials for possible deportation.

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Federal authorities say Ramos, a Salvadoran native whom police believe was involved in the MS-13 street gang, was awaiting deportation proceedings at the time of the slayings after being turned down for temporary residency. But Amparan [Ramos’s attorney, Robert Amparan] insisted outside court that Ramos was in the United States legally and that federal officials were wrong about his immigration status.

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McCabe said she saw no grounds to issue a gag order that would prevent attorneys, law enforcement officials and Ramos from talking publicly about the case outside court. She left open the possibility that she would issue an order barring further disclosures related to Ramos’ juvenile criminal records, which by law are not open to public examination.

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Also Wednesday, federal officials provided more details from their records about the chain of events that led to Ramos’ release from San Francisco city jail in April, despite that he had already been flagged by federal authorities as an illegal immigrant.

Ramos was let go after San Francisco prosecutors declined to charge him in connection with a March 30 arrest on suspicion of weapons and gang violations.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey has said deputies faxed a notice to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office four hours after Ramos and a companion were arrested, inquiring about their immigration status. The sheriff says the federal office never replied and that Ramos was released early April 2.

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According to Tim Counts, spokesman for ICE, the only communication his agency received about Ramos came by way of the electronic request at 3:44 a.m. April 2, nearly two hours after Ramos was released. He said there is no record that ICE received any fax from the Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff’s deputies queried the agency by phone April 1 about the man arrested with Ramos, Erick Lopez, and an immigration hold was placed on him, Counts said.

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