St. Petersburg police say they asked federal authorities in early August to detain an illegal immigrant. They didn't yet have evidence but they thought he might have committed a rape and robbery at a downtown restaurant.
But protocol got in the way.
Rigoberto Moron Martinez, 20, had not previously drawn the notice of immigration officials. And he was not yet charged with a felony. Either of those criteria might have triggered an automatic "hold" by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said police spokesman Bill Profitt.
Still, ICE asked officers to send their request in writing, Profitt said.
"They said they would see what they could do," he said.
But five hours after his arrest, Martinez was back on the streets.
That was Aug. 6, the morning after Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives picked up Martinez on an old misdemeanor warrant. St. Petersburg police had crossed the bay and trailed him for two days before handing him over to Hillsborough detectives. They sent his DNA off to be tested.
But on Aug. 16, the Sheriff's Office said, Martinez and two accomplices abducted, robbed and raped two Apollo Beach women.
On Monday, a congresswoman asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to look at how ICE and local law enforcement did their jobs. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she wants to know where the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, St. Petersburg police and ICE "dropped the ball."
She sent a list of 10 questions to Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, asking about his office's protocol in dealing with foreign-born suspects.
Gee, clearly irritated, called it "the most naive questionnaire I have ever read in my life." He said Brown-Waite, seeking re-election, is after headlines. He held a news conference and blasted back.
"I'm always annoyed when somebody in Congress wakes up and realizes a problem we have realized over the last 10 years," Gee said.
Gee, a Republican, is running unopposed this year.
Brown-Waite represents Florida's 5th Congressional District, which includes all or parts of Pasco, Hernando, Lake, Citrus, Levy, Marion, Polk and Sumter counties. She is a member of the Homeland Security Committee.
She said in a phone interview that she's sorry Gee took "this well-intentioned call for a federal investigation so personally."
"This isn't about the sheriff. This isn't about me," she said. "This is about a criminal who slipped through the cracks who should have been detained by ICE. If ICE isn't doing their job, then we need to get after the staff there."
Interim U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said Brown-Waite's letter asking that his office investigate will be forwarded to Washington, D.C.
The local agencies involved in Martinez's Aug. 5 arrest give conflicting accounts about what information was shared before his release.
Police spokesman Profitt said Friday that St. Petersburg police did not tell Hillsborough deputies they suspected Martinez in the Aug. 3 rape and robbery at the restaurant Table. Then on Monday, Profitt said he meant officers hadn't told Hillsborough detention deputies but had told Hillsborough detectives.
But Sheriff Gee said his agency — which includes the jail — didn't know.
Sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway declined to say what deputies might have done differently.
Both agencies produced automated receipts Monday showing they communicated with ICE about Martinez on Aug. 5 after his arrest.
Gee questioned why Brown-Waite didn't contact his office sooner or independently look into how his deputies handled Martinez's case before calling for a federal investigation.
Brown-Waite's husband died a week ago.
"I think I was involved in a funeral," she said. "How insensitive can he be?"
She said her staff asked Gee on Sunday if he'd meet with her, but he refused. "For him to shoot the messenger, and the messenger being me trying to make the streets safer because that's what citizens deserve, shame on him," Brown-Waite said.
Gee estimated that about 10 percent, or roughly 7,000, of the inmates booked into the Hillsborough County jail annually are potential illegal immigrants. He doesn't fault ICE for the problems highlighted by this case.
"They are overwhelmed with this issue," the sheriff said. "You can come up with all the programs you want. But if you don't secure our borders, it won't do any good."
ICE's response varies by jurisdiction, said Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C. The agency's local workload can affect response time. So can the nature of the criminal charge and the immigrant's prior record. Aggravated felonies take priority.
Still, Williams says it's unreasonable to expect local law enforcement agencies to sort through complicated immigration matters or ICE's database, which has plenty of errors.
"I've been an immigration lawyer for 25 years and sometimes I can't figure out someone's immigration status," she said.
Even five days after the arrests of Martinez and his alleged accomplices — Jose Walle, 13, and Vicente Reyes-Carbajal, 20 — ICE is still trying to figure out whether Walle and Reyes-Carbajal are in the United States legally, Gee said.
He said it's a cumbersome process that can be belabored because undocumented immigrants often give investigators false information.
Meanwhile, the sheriff said he does not intend to respond to Brown-Waite's questions. But he said, "If she wants to have an investigation, I want to be the first guy interviewed."
Times staff writers Saundra Amrhein and Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.