St. Petersburg police trailed Rigoberto Martinez for two days on a hunch that he played a role in a rape and robbery at the restaurant Table this month.
He lived in Ruskin, so they crossed the bay and tracked him, then had Hillsborough deputies pick him up on an old warrant, and surreptitiously got his DNA.
But they never told their Hillsborough counterparts that Martinez was a potential suspect in the violent attack. He spent only five hours in jail. Martinez, 20, had lucked out — again.
He had existed for half his life as an illegal immigrant in the United States, twice seeing the inside of a Hillsborough jail cell. Once he was released on his own recognizance. The second time, Aug. 6, he posted bail.
Less than two weeks later, authorities say, Martinez committed the most vicious crime yet. He and two accomplices abducted and robbed two Apollo Beach women, raped them repeatedly and set one's car on fire, according to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.
The men were then linked to the St. Petersburg rape.
Some have asked whether the Apollo Beach rapes could have been prevented had investigators on both sides of Tampa Bay acted differently.
"Where did the system fail those two girls in Apollo Beach? That's my question," Joe Moledo, a manager at Table, said Thursday. He told police on Aug. 4 that Martinez, who quit two weeks before the rape, had a motive to rob the restaurant. "That (Apollo Beach) crime could have possibly been prevented," he said.
St. Petersburg police said they doggedly labored to solve the case and even gave Hillsborough investigators the tip that led to Martinez's arrest on sexual battery, armed robbery and grand theft charges Wednesday night.
"We were working long hours," said spokesman Bill Profitt. "The hurdle was developing enough information to give us probable cause to make an arrest."
Three masked, armed men forced their way into the Table on Aug. 3 as employees cleaned up after Saturday night revelers.
Police arrived shortly after and interviewed the staff, but there were no leads. The next day they spoke to Moledo, who told them about Martinez, a disgruntled former employee.
But with no evidence linking him to the crime, police could not arrest him, Profitt said.
That day, investigators began following Martinez, trying to learn who his friends were, where he hung out.
They saw a chance to get him into custody and had him picked up in Sun City Center on Aug. 5 for not appearing in court on an old domestic violence charge.
Police took his DNA, sent the sample to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and asked them to speed up testing.
"We didn't want him to know that he was a suspect," said Profitt. "When someone finds out that they are a suspect, they discard clothing or any evidence that might link them to a crime."
Even jail officials couldn't know, said Profitt. "We are not going to risk making that information public to anyone."
No one questioned Martinez about the rape at Table.
"Unless we were told, we would have no way of knowing" that Martinez was a suspect, said Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.
Then, on Aug. 16, three men attacked two women at the Docks in Apollo Beach.
That night, Hillsborough officials released photographs of one suspect obtained from ATM and gas station video cameras. A St. Petersburg detective identified the man as Martinez.
Hillsborough detectives arrested him and two others: Jose Walle, 13, and Vicente Carbajal, 20, in the Docks rape.
In custody, Martinez and Walle "made certain admissions" about the St. Petersburg rape, and all three men were charged with that crime on Friday, Profitt said.
Mayor Rick Baker said investigators handled the case appropriately. "I know the police took it very seriously," he said.
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It's not clear how Martinez went unnoticed by immigration authorities. His brief stays in the Hillsborough jail would have been reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Deputies routinely send daily lists of foreign-born inmates to ICE and provide it with access to records of all incoming inmates.
Deputies have no access to federal immigration records, nor do they have the training to verify someone's status, said Col. David Parrish, the head of Hillsborough's jail system. "We get the information to them (ICE), and it's up to them to get something done about it," he said.
The federal officers interview foreign-born inmates to learn whether they are subject to deportation, said ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz.
Those involved in aggravated felonies should not be set free from county jails or state prisons, he said. Instead, they should be turned over to ICE to begin deportation proceedings.
But if an illegal immigrant is acquitted of a local crime or charged with a less serious offense such as a traffic violation, he might just get a notice to appear before an immigration judge, Ortiz said. "It's a case-by-case basis," he said.
In March, the agency began providing some local jails with a database on immigrant status. They haven't done that in Hillsborough, Parrish said.
He faults ICE's response time. After his deputies send the daily list of immigrant inmates, an ICE agent may not arrive until the next day or two days later.
By then, the inmate may have bailed out. Without a federal hold order, deputies don't have the authority to keep them locked up, Parrish said.
"There's no one rushing over here when they get the information," he said of ICE.
Five months ago, Parrish began relying on the U.S. Border Patrol to pick up illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes for possible deportation. When they get out of state prison, they report to the local jail to register a new addresses.
"We'd call ICE and they would not send someone over to pick them up," he said. "The Border Patrol is more responsive."
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said ICE needs more resources. She was drafting a letter Friday to Parrish and ICE asking how gaps can be closed.
"Clearly it's not working," she said.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Dryer contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.