Triple fatality stirs outrage, re-ignites immigration debate
September 10, 2008
DENVER ” With 12 aliases and two dates of birth, Guatemala native and suspected illegal immigrant Francis M. Hernandez compiled a long Colorado rap sheet but managed to stay off immigration officials’ radar screen.
Hernandez, who officials say passed himself off as a U.S. citizen, now sits behind bars, accused of causing a horrific crash at a suburban Denver ice cream shop that killed three ” including a 3-year-old boy. The tragedy has politicians clashing with each other over illegal immigration and promises to re-ignite what was once a top national campaign issue.
Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter ruefully acknowledged the system failed in Hernandez’s case. Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, who based his presidential campaign on illegal immigration, claimed the governor and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper have “blood on their hands.” U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, a Republican, used the incident to accuse his opponent, Mark Udall, of doing little on immigration reform.
Colorado authorities and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are also in discord: They dispute when ICE was notified to investigate Hernandez’s legal status. State law requires cities and counties to report suspected illegal immigrants to ICE, except for minor crimes.
“This is a case where a man was masquerading, quite successfully, as a U.S. citizen,” said ICE spokesman Tim Counts. Counts said ICE believes Hernandez is here illegally but will launch a full investigation once he’s in their custody.
Hernandez was arrested more than a dozen times since 2003 by nine different state police departments, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation says. Some of the arrests were for criminal impersonation and forgery; the bulk were for traffic violations, including driving without a license and without insurance.
Recommended Stories For You
That’s what police in suburban Aurora say he was doing Sept. 4, when witnesses reported him speeding, weaving in and out of traffic and running a red light before his Chevrolet Suburban slammed a pickup and pushed it into a Baskin Robbins shop.
Inside, waiting for ice cream with his mother, was 3-year-old Marten Kudlis. He died after being pulled from the wreckage. Two women in the pickup, Patricia Guntharp, 49, and Debra Serecky, 51, were killed instantly.
Hernandez faces charges of vehicular homicide, hit and run and reckless driving, and ICE has placed a hold on him. Hernandez’s attorney, Kallman Elinoff, said he doesn’t know whether his client is in the country illegally but that the issue is irrelevant to the case.
Despite Hernandez’s legacy of arrests, federal immigration officials say they were out of the loop. Counts said local police never reported Hernandez to ICE, and that a post-accident ICE review of Hernandez’s booking records showed he often was listed as a U.S. citizen.
In April, Aurora police stopped Hernandez for speeding. Detective Bob Friel said Arapahoe County sheriff’s officials notified ICE about suspicions Hernandez was an undocumented immigrant, Friel said.
Sheriff Grayson Robinson said his staff told him they notified ICE but that no record of the communication exists. Robinson added that it’s a moot point because ICE would only put a hold on someone facing felony charges, which didn’t apply to Hernandez in that case.
Counts said that’s not necessarily true, and that ICE may have launched an investigation of Hernandez given his criminal record.
In Denver, police didn’t contact ICE after Hernandez committed a traffic infraction in July because there was no evidence suggesting he was an illegal immigrant, police spokesman Sharon Hahn said.
Colorado Republicans who say their bills targeting illegal immigration have been shot down by Democrats are criticizing Ritter for what they call his inaction on the issue ” despite the fact that ICE identified more than 4,500 illegal immigrants in Colorado jails in fiscal year 2007 and put them in deportation hearings.
“Doing nothing is really doing something: It’s creating an atmosphere for this to go on,” said House Minority Leader Mike May. He said Republicans will reintroduce legislation next year to deny bail to suspected illegal immigrants accused of felonies or drunken driving and to ban them from making plea bargains for serious crimes.
“We’ve been doing this every year,” May said. “This isn’t new. This isn’t something where we’re jumping on the bandwagon.”
“Mike May should be ashamed of himself,” answered Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer. “He’s playing politics with a horrific tragedy.”