SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU and AP) – The gun used in the seemingly random slaying of a woman on a San Francisco pier belonged to a federal agent, a law enforcement official briefed on the matter said Tuesday.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, said a police check of the weapon's serial number shows it belonged to a federal agent. The official declined to elaborate further.
The San Francisco Police Department, which is investigating the case, declined to comment.
The revelation was the latest dramatic twist in a tragic case that has become a new flashpoint in the country's debate over immigration policies.
The suspected gunman, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, has been deported to his native Mexico five times and is suspected of living in the United States illegally when Kathryn Steinle, 32, was gunned down last week while on an evening stroll with her father along San Francisco's popular waterfront area.
Federal officials transferred Sanchez to San Francisco's jail in March to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge after Sanchez completed his latest prison term for illegally entering the country.
The San Francisco sheriff, citing the city's "sanctuary city" policy, released Sanchez in April after prosecutors dropped the drug charge, despite an Immigration and Customs Enforcement request to hold him for federal authorities so deportation proceedings could begin.
Sanchez told two television stations who interviewed him in jail that he found the gun used in Steinle's killing wrapped in a shirt on the pedestrian pier she was walking on. Sanchez said the gun went off in his hands, and his public defender, Matt Gonzalez, said Tuesday that the San Francisco woman's death appeared accidental.
Sanchez bail was set at $5 million and his next court date was set for July 22.
Sanchez had previously been deported five times for various felonies and was not handed over by San Francisco officials to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for his sixth deportation.
The crime has touched off a firestorm in the debate over illegal immigration. San Francisco officials released Sanchez from jail citing its “sanctuary city law.”
"He had a criminal warrant but was released into the general society to commit a murder. Does that make any sense to you?" Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Senate's homeland security committee, demanded to know at a hearing. "Because I'll tell you it doesn't make any sense to the American public."
Philip Miller, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, blamed San Francisco, saying officials there did not honor a federal request, known as a "detainer," to keep Francisco Sanchez in custody.
Sanchez, who is from Mexico and is in the United States illegally, allegedly shot and killed Steinle as she was sightseeing with her father.
"In that particular case our detainer was not honored," Miller said. "San Francisco sheriff's department did not honor our detainer."
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi defended his department's decision to release Sanchez, saying if Sanchez had been that high on immigration authorities' radar, ICE should have had a court order or arrest warrant and not merely a detainer request.
"I think ICE was quick to do some finger pointing, without I think, reviewing their own bureaucratic ineptitude," said Mirkarimi.
"In the absense of a comprehensive immigration policy, it is now defaulting to local governments to really devise and enact their own laws that navigate around the criminal justice system," Mirkarimi added.
But California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco native, weighed in later Tuesday against her local sheriff's actions, suggesting San Francisco officials should cooperate with federal authorities.
"The tragic death of Ms. Steinle could have been avoided if the sheriff's department had notified ICE prior to the release of Mr. Sanchez, which would have allowed ICE to remove him from the country," she wrote.
Joe Russoniello, former U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of California says there needs to be better communication between local custodial officials and the feds. He also said the city needs to rethink it's sanctuary policy.
"Clearly the sheriff, the new sheriff, had no problem deciding on his own that he was not going to respect either a request to detain or a request to notify, and that's wrong," said Russoniello.
Steinle's death has offered ammunition to GOP critics of Obama administration policies, including presidential candidate Donald Trump, who's cited it to justify his claims that many immigrants entering the country illegally are criminals.
At the same time it plays into a larger, politically charged immigration debate between federal authorities and local jurisdictions.
Hundreds of jurisdictions have refused to participate in a disputed federal program, Secure Communities, that allows federal authorities to request that local communities detain immigrants in the country illegally who are picked up for suspected criminal activities. San Francisco takes it farther than many, even boasting of itself as a "sanctuary city" that protects immigrants.
President Barack Obama announced last fall he was ending the Secure Communities program and replacing it with a new approach meant to address concerns about immigrants being targeted. Yet questions remain about the new program, called the Priority Enforcement Program, which is supposed to focus on immigrants convicted of crimes, but has yet to be fully implemented, including in San Francisco. That uncertain federal outlook may have contributed to a situation where someone who should have been deported was instead released.
The situation has sparked criticism from Republicans who embraced Secure Communities as an effective law enforcement tool and oppose Obama's attempts to do away with it through executive actions without Congress' consent.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., announced Tuesday he would bring Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson before his committee next week to answer questions on the matter.
Yet it was not clear what steps, if any, Congress might be able to take to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy given what all agree is a badly broken immigration system that Congress has not had the political will to fix.
"What happened in San Francisco should not be allowed to happen again," said Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "I'm not sure how we're going to stop it but we're determined to drill down on that and see what can be done."