Months before the slaying of a 19-year-old Falls Church woman, immigration officials sought to detain the man now on trial in her death. But the Guatemalan native — held at the Fairfax County jail for a few hours on a public intoxication charge — was released without being fingerprinted and before federal immigration officials were able to file paperwork requesting that he be detained until they could take him into custody.
A murder trial began Monday for 27-year-old Julio Miguel Blanco-Garcia, who was charged in December. Prosecutors said Mr. Blanco-Garcia, who admitted he was high on PCP at the time of the killing, fatally stabbed Vanessa Pham after she agreed to give him and his 1-year-old daughter a ride in June 2010.
But outside the courtroom, disclosures that immigration officials previously sought to take him into custody for an overstayed visa have raised questions about whether local and federal policies let him slip through the cracks.
Mr. Blanco-Garcia was arrested for public intoxication and spent approximately four hours in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center on March 3, 2010, according to the county's sheriff's office, which runs the jail.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was notified of Mr. Blanco-Garcia's 2010 misdemeanor encounter with local law enforcement and planned to file paperwork to take custody of him, but based on the low-level nature of the charge he was released by local authorities before ICE lodged an immigration detainer, an ICE official said.
Lt. Steve Elbert, a sheriff's department spokesman, said Mr. Blanco-Garcia was not fingerprinted and was released on personal recognizance. He said it is typical to not fingerprint people arrested for public intoxication, trespassing and some traffic violations.
"If they are not fingerprinting people for that type of offense, they are going to miss people," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors a crackdown on immigration.
Three month's later, Vanessa Pham was found fatally stabbed inside her car. Fingerprints and DNA were found at the scene, but police had no match for the evidence until 2 1/2 years later — after Mr. Blanco-Garcia was convicted of shoplifting champagne in 2012 and fingerprints taken in that case were found to match evidence at the scene of Pham's killing, The Washington Post reported.
"They missed an opportunity," Ms. Vaughan said.
Mr. Blanco-Garcia entered the United States legally in 2002 with a visa but stayed past the six-month period for which it was authorized, according to ICE.
"We're looking into a black hole here as part of the procedure and it should be a wake-up call for the public to ask how Fairfax County handles illegal aliens and what they do when ICE doesn't send the paddy wagon," said Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for strict immigration control. "He should have been detained and deported."
ICE is typically notified about potential illegal immigrants at local jails by information-sharing authorized through the Secure Communities program, which has been active in Fairfax since 2009. Through the program, the FBI automatically shares fingerprints and criminal data it receives from local law enforcement agencies with ICE, which can then investigate a person's immigration status. The program is geared toward deporting violent offenders and people with repeated immigration violations.
Because Mr. Blanco-Garcia was not fingerprinted after his 2010 arrest, it is unclear how ICE learned he was at the jail.
Fairfax County court records also indicate that Mr. Blanco-Garcia was charged with petit larceny in 2011 and the shoplifting incident in 2012. Lt. Elbert said the jail has no record of Mr. Blanco-Garcia being booked or processed at the jail in 2011.
Police declined to speak about any of the cases.
"We can't go into criminal history," Fairfax County Police Department spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said.
Ms. Vaughan speculated that had local authorities held Mr. Blanco-Garcia long enough to give ICE officials time to take him into custody, he could have been deported from the country before Pham's killing. But at the very least, if he had remained in the country but been fingerprinted, Ms. Vaughan suspects that local law enforcement would not have had to wait more than two years to find their suspect.
"Had they shown more interest in the person and bothered to take his fingerprints, he could have been removed," she said. "Unfortunately that scenario is happening too frequently around the country. This case should be a lesson for improvements that can and should be made."
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