|Slaying suspect once found sanctuary in S.F.|
Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008
The man charged with killing a father and two sons on a San Francisco street last month was one of the youths who benefited from the city's long-standing practice of shielding illegal immigrant juveniles who committed felonies from possible deportation, The Chronicle has learned.
Edwin Ramos, now 21, is being held on three counts of murder in the June 22 deaths of Tony Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16. They were shot near their home in the Excelsior district when Tony Bologna, driving home from a family picnic, briefly blocked the gunman's car from completing a left turn down a narrow street, police say.
Ramos, a native of El Salvador whom prosecutors say is a member of a violent street gang, was found guilty of two felonies as a juvenile - a gang-related assault on a Muni passenger and the attempted robbery of a pregnant woman - according to authorities familiar with his background.
In neither instance did officials with the city's Juvenile Probation Department alert federal immigration authorities, because it was the city agency's policy not to consider immigration status when deciding how to deal with an offender. Had city officials investigated, they would have found that Ramos lacked legal status to remain in the United States.
Federal authorities, however, also missed an opportunity to take Ramos into custody just this past March - after they had learned of his immigration status and started deportation proceedings, and after Ramos was arrested in San Francisco on a gun charge. For reasons the federal agents cannot explain, they did not put an immigration hold on Ramos.
Raised in El Salvador
Juvenile justice authorities locally had a policy for at least a decade of not turning over illegal immigrant felons to the federal government, interpreting San Francisco's self-proclaimed sanctuary-city status and state law as barring local officials from surrendering them for deportation.
Mayor Gavin Newsom rescinded that policy earlier this month after The Chronicle reported that the city had flown a number of youths out of the country on its own, in possible violation of federal law, and then housed some in unlocked group homes from which they quickly escaped.
Ramos came to the United States at age 13 from El Salvador, where he had been raised by his grandmother.
Authorities familiar with his background said Ramos wanted to be near his mother, who had abandoned him when he was 4 months old; she was living with two of her other children in San Francisco.
According to records, his first contact with San Francisco police came Oct. 22, 2003, when officers were summoned to investigate an attack on a Muni bus at 21st and Mission streets.
Ramos, who had just turned 17, had allegedly flashed gang signs and banged on the bus' windows with two other gang members. The three then yelled, "Who are you with?" at a passenger, who responded that he did not belong to a gang, police said.
At that point, Ramos and the other two boarded the bus and beat and kicked the man, an attack that was recorded by the bus' video camera, authorities said.
Ramos was taken to juvenile hall on charges of assault and participating in a street gang. He was later convicted in juvenile court and was put in a shelter.
At that point, under federal law, Ramos could have been referred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. But the Juvenile Probation Department's policy for dealing with offenders stipulated that "probation officers shall not discriminate in any fashion against minors based on their immigration status." If the department made any inquiries into whether Ramos was a legal U.S. resident, it did not pass along its findings to the federal government.
New crime within days
On April 2, 2004, Ramos was released to the custody of his mother, but was still considered a ward of the court and was on probation. Just four days later, records show, he committed another crime at 19th and Mission streets, two blocks from the site of the attack on the Muni passenger.
Records indicate that Ramos and two other men approached a pregnant woman from behind during the middle of the day, and that Ramos tried to yank away her backpack-style purse.
The woman's brother was walking alongside and tried to stop the attack. He pushed Ramos away, he later said, but Ramos punched him and fled.
The man found a police officer and pointed out Ramos nearby. A month later, Ramos was convicted as a juvenile of attempted robbery, a felony, but cleared of assault.
Ramos was sent to Log Cabin Ranch, a city-run camp in the hills of the Peninsula, in June 2004. He was freed in February 2005, this time to live with his mother's sister.
Federal authorities finally learned that Ramos wasn't a legal U.S. resident sometime after he turned 18, when he applied for temporary residency status and was turned down. The records are confidential, so the exact date of Ramos' application is unclear, but ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that once he was turned down, he would have been considered deportable.
By that time, however, Ramos had married a woman who is a U.S. citizen and applied again to immigration officials to stay in the United States, this time as a permanent resident. That request was pending at the time Tony Bologna and his sons were shot to death.
In March, three months before the killings, Ramos was arrested in San Francisco after police pulled him over because his car had illegally tinted windows and no front license plate. An alleged gang member in the car tried to discard a gun, but police recovered it and later concluded that it had been used in a double killing, authorities said.
The police report of the incident cited "numerous documented contacts" that officers had with Ramos and the man who allegedly discarded the gun, and said both were active members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gang.
San Francisco prosecutors, however, declined to file charges against Ramos, saying they couldn't prove that he knew his companion had the gun.
When Ramos was arrested, sheriff's deputies checked his immigration status on a national database and learned that he was considered deportable, immigration and sheriff's officials say. Eileen Hirst, chief of staff for Sheriff Michael Hennessey, said deputies had asked whether federal officials wanted to place a hold on Ramos so he could be taken into immigration custody.
"In our communication with ICE, they specifically told us they were not placing a detainer on him," Hirst said. "We cannot hold people in custody without a documented reason to hold them."
Kice acknowledged that federal authorities had not asked for Ramos to be held. She said she did not know why.
City now referring offenders
Since Newsom announced the city's policy shift, San Francisco has referred at least 10 juvenile offenders to ICE for possible deportation proceedings.
In an interview Friday, Newsom declined to comment on Ramos' history in San Francisco's juvenile justice system, saying it would be wildly inappropriate to do so given the confidentiality of juvenile criminal records.
Newsom's juvenile probation director, William Siffermann, inherited his agency's policy of not turning over illegal immigrant juveniles for deportation when he took the job in early 2005. All of Ramos' contacts with the city's juvenile justice system took place before Siffermann came on board.
Siffermann said in an interview, "I am not going to confirm any of his prior dealings with our department. I can't comment on what the implications were for our department when that decision was made. That is part of what we're reviewing."
Ramos' lawyer in the triple-murder case, Robert Amparan, did not address the issue of Ramos' immigration status, saying only that there were several people who would vouch for his client's character and good work in the community.
"I've gotten several calls from community workers, educators and city service providers who know and work with Edwin," Amparan said. "They all expressed support and say they had never known him to be involved in anything like the allegations against him."
What might not have been
Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, said he welcomed the city's re-examination of its policies related to how it handles illegal immigrant youths who commit felonies.
"A formula has to be found that accommodates the public's right to be safe and the juvenile's need to be protected, in many cases, from themselves," Russoniello said. "It is something that cries out for more attention than we're giving it."
As for the killings of the Bolognas, Russoniello said, "Is this something that could have been prevented? I don't know."
Danielle Bologna, however, said that if the government had done its job, the killings of her husband and two sons "would never have happened."
"It was senseless," she said. "And to think they didn't deport him back, knowing that he did not have papers and he was here illegally, it is a big issue.
"They need to take responsibility, the city," Bologna said. "They didn't do anything. ... He should have been deported. This is huge. I'm extremely angry about this."
E-mail Jaxon Van Derbeken at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle