Prince George’s County has admitted it did defy an ICE detainer and released an immigrant living in the U.S. illegally who had been accused of attempted murder, only to see the teen implicated in a horrific gang-related killing last month.
A spokesman for the county corrections department said Wednesday it released the alleged MS-13 gang member onto the streets. Andrew Cephas retracted his statement on Tuesday that the department transferred custody of the teen to the state.
Mr. Cephas also retracted his claim that the county notifies U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of impending releases. He said Wednesday that the county doesn’t notify ICE except for the most serious crimes.
Joel Ernesto Escobar had been charged with attempted murder in 2018, but was convicted only of conspiracy to commit robbery. Mr. Cephas said that wasn’t serious enough to make him a priority for the county to turn over for deportation.
Thanks to Prince George’s County’s sanctuary policy, Mr. Escobar, 17, was free in the U.S. last month when police say he, 16-year-old Josue Fuentes-Ponce and 14-year-old Cynthia Hernandez-Nucamendi killed a 14-year-old girl who they feared would snitch about a gang robbery. Authorities say the teens are associated with MS-13.
“The authorities in PG County share culpability for this murder,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “They are accomplices, in a sense.”
Mr. Fuentes-Ponce and Mr. Escobar were first charged with attempted murder last year. The Prince George’s County Department of Corrections held both at one point, then transferred them to a state juvenile facility.
Mr. Fuentes-Ponce was released from the state’s Cheltenham Youth Detention Center, while Mr. Escobar was sentenced to time served and released to Prince George’s County — which then released him into the community.
ICE had asked to be notified of the releases, but the county refused.
“The Department of Corrections follows the Guidance Memorandum of the Maryland Attorney General to not inform the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency of individuals being released with a detainer, which is a civil matter,” Mr. Cephas said, adding that there are exceptions for serious crimes but the attempted murder charges didn’t qualify.
ICE this week said it should have been notified of both releases, including Mr. Fuentes-Ponce’s to the state, so it could track them.
Mr. Cephas said that wasn’t necessary. He said the detainer “stays with the individual in the system no matter where they are transferred.”
“Because of this, the Department of Corrections had no responsibility of informing ICE that the individuals were transferred and no new detainer needed to be filed,” he said Wednesday.
The state disagreed. Eric Solomon, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said that while it housed Mr. Escobar, he was never in its custody since he was being charged as an adult. He remained in the custody of Prince George’s County and was released by the county.
As for Mr. Fuentes-Ponce, his case was remanded to the juvenile system by a judge, and he was ordered released by the court. Mr. Solomon said that while Juvenile Services was aware of the detainer, it was the court that carried out the release.
An ICE official said that regardless of the communications and definitions, someone should have notified the agency when the teens were released last year.
The teens are charged with murder in the death of Ariana Funes-Diaz, who authorities say was beaten with a bat and chopped with a machete. Her body was found earlier this month in a creek in Riverdale.
The teens’ case is at the crux of much of the immigration debate. Mr. Escobar came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2016 as an Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC), and was released to family already in the States. UACs from Central America have surged to the border over the last five years.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fuentes-Ponce came to the U.S. from El Salvador in late 2015 along with a parent. Because of lax policies, they were quickly released and asked to come back for a deportation hearing in 2017.
Like many other immigrant families who are living in the U.S. illegally, they didn’t show, and were ordered deported in absentia.
ICE never picked them up, leaving Mr. Escobar out on the streets for last year’s attempted murder-cum-robbery and, this last month’s alleged gang slaying.