Mistakes were made, and five people died.
Because of that, the case of Pablo Serrano-Vitorino — an illegal immigrant accused in a deadly two-state shooting rampage earlier this year — has raised questions about U.S. immigration policy and the coordination needed between local and federal law enforcement agencies tasked with implementing it.
On March 7, Serrano-Vitorino allegedly stormed into his neighbor’s Kansas City, Kan., home and fatally shot four men. Hours later, while on the run, he allegedly killed a man in mid-Missouri.
The 40-year-old Mexican citizen was in the United States illegally for the second time. Now jailed in Montgomery County, Mo., he faces five counts of first-degree murder in the Kansas and Missouri killings.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
As a previously deported illegal immigrant, Serrano-Vitorino broke the law by re-entering the county and became subject to federal prosecution and deportation again.
But despite three encounters with law enforcement officers in 2014 and 2015, Serrano-Vitorino avoided the grasp of federal immigration officials.
And he avoided it even though officials in recent years strengthened the system designed to identify and hold illegal immigrants after they commit new crimes.
The changes gave immigration officers a greater ability to take custody of people subject to deportation, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
The policy took effect in November 2014, the month Serrano-Vitorino had his first arrest since his deportation 10 years earlier. It allowed immigration agents to focus resources on people in the country illegally who posed a risk to national security or had been convicted of certain felony crimes.
His status as a previously deported illegal immigrant with a felony conviction meant Serrano-Vitorino fit the new policy’s priority category, said Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Yet twice last year, authorities attempted but failed to have Serrano-Vitorino kept in custody for his immigration issues.
Bad timing in one instance, and a mistake in paperwork being sent to the wrong jail facility in the other, allowed him to remain free.
That is little consolation for the loved ones of those he allegedly gunned down.
“I’m very angry about it,” said Kelly Capps, who had two sons with Kansas victim Mike Capps, her former husband. “It should never have happened.”
The system worked in 2003 after Serrano-Vitorino was convicted in Los Angeles of a felony charge of making a terroristic threat.
After his prison sentence ended, he was deported in April 2004. His fingerprints were added to a database maintained by ICE.
Beginning in 2008, ICE started a program to coordinate with local and state law enforcement agencies to determine when illegal immigrants have been arrested and booked into local jails.
Under the Secure Communities program, fingerprint records obtained at the local level and submitted to the FBI to be checked against the existing criminal database also were provided to ICE to check against its database of known noncitizens.
“This fingerprint check allows state and local law enforcement and ICE automatically and immediately to search the databases for an individual’s criminal and immigration history,” according to an ICE fact sheet about Secure Communities.
If the arrested person matched a record indicating a potential immigration violation, ICE evaluated the person’s status and whether any action would be taken.
According to ICE statistics, during its first three years of operation, Secure Communities resulted in more than 690,000 database matches and the deportation of more than 142,000 people.
While that program was in place, Serrano-Vitorino apparently had no run-ins with police that would have alerted ICE that he had illegally re-entered the country.
Then in November 2014, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, announced that the Secure Communities program was being discontinued.
It was replaced by an initiative called the Priority Enforcement Program.
While maintaining the same mechanism for collecting and identifying people under arrest through fingerprint databases, the program established guidelines for prioritizing cases ICE would pursue.
A memorandum from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson set out three levels of priorities.
First priority was given to those involved in terrorism or espionage; those arrested while attempting to illegally enter the country; those involved in criminal gang activity; and those convicted of certain felony crimes.
The second-highest priority was assigned to those convicted of three or more misdemeanors; those convicted of “significant” misdemeanors, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, burglary, drug trafficking and driving under the influence; those in the country illegally who couldn’t prove they had been in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 2014; and those who had “significantly” abused visa programs.
The third and lowest priority was reserved for those who had received a final order of deportation after Jan. 1, 2014.
“Nothing in this memorandum should be construed to prohibit or discourage the apprehension, detention or removal of aliens unlawfully in the United States who are not identified as priorities herein,” the memo stated.
However, it advised that resources should be allocated “to the greatest possible degree” on the priority levels.
None of the crimes Serrano-Vitorino allegedly committed in 2014 and 2015 would have fit in the list of top priorities for ICE.
In the one case where he might have been considered in the second-highest priority level — a November 2014 conviction for driving under the influence — ICE officials may have never been notified that he was in custody.
In that case, he was arrested in Coffey County, Kan., for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol, failure to produce a license and speeding.
He pleaded no contest and was found guilty of speeding and was placed on diversion for DUI in May 2015, according to Coffey County court records.
If he was fingerprinted after that arrest, ICE officials said, they could find no record that they were notified.
“Had we been contacted, we would have taken action,” Neudauer said.
The Coffey County sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Last June, Serrano-Vitorino was arrested by Kansas City, Kan., police and charged in Municipal Court with domestic battery for allegedly punching his brother during an altercation.
As part of the booking process, after Serrano-Vitorino gave his birth country as Mexico, Wyandotte County officials notified ICE that he was in custody. A spokeswoman for the Wyandotte County sheriff’s office said they do that in all cases of foreign-born detainees.
However, because it was not a fingerprint identification situation, ICE had to first verify if he was someone subject to deportation. But before an ICE agent could respond to that 1:30 a.m. notification, Serrano-Vitorino was released from custody after being held for six hours, the standard “hold” time in domestic violence cases.
Fingerprints taken when Serrano-Vitorino was booked in Wyandotte County were sent later to ICE, but he had been released before ICE could take action, said Neudauer.
According to documents used in the Priority Enforcement Program, ICE can request that someone be detained for them for up to 48 hours, but it does not request or authorize the arresting agency to hold someone beyond the point they would otherwise be released.
He pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge of simple battery and was fined $150, said Kansas City, Kan., court officials.
Last August, an Overland Park police officer pulled Serrano-Vitorino over for traffic offenses. He was issued a citation but was not arrested.
He later paid a fine in Overland Park Municipal Court for driving without a license. As part of the court procedure, he was fingerprinted at the court. The prints were entered in the national database, which prompted ICE to issue paperwork to have him detained for being in the country illegally.
However, ICE inadvertently sent its paperwork to the Johnson County jail. Johnson County officials could not take action because he was not in their custody.
Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said improvements in the system can be made at both the local and federal levels.
She said local law enforcement agencies should obtain fingerprints for electronic databases of all noncitizens arrested, cited or booked into jail.
They should also establish protocols for using the ICE Law Enforcement Support Center on a routine basis. The center is designed to give local law enforcement officers timely information regarding the immigration status of people in the country illegally whom they encounter during daily enforcement activities.
Vaughan said ICE also should be required to respond to all requests from local law enforcement agencies to hold people for immigration violations.
She said ICE should reverse current priority policy that “severely limits” which criminal illegal immigrants can be processed for deportation.
“There are things that can be done to make it less likely,” Vaughan said of situations like that involving Serrano-Vitorino.