For five days the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office insisted it had no idea a man it released was suspected by the St. Petersburg Police Department of being involved in an Aug. 3 rape and robbery at a downtown St. Petersburg restaurant. Only days after his release, the Sheriff's Office said, Rigoberto Moron Martinez and two accomplices raped and robbed two women in Apollo Beach.
Now the Sheriff's Office says its initial story of being in the dark about Martinez's possible involvement in the earlier rape — which helped to tamp down the suggestion it did anything wrong — was false. Hillsborough detectives knew all along they had a potential rape suspect in hand. A spokesman explained he got his information crossed. "My bad," he said. My bad? The office loses credibility, and now you're flip?
The pronouncements the Sheriff's Office made are significant because they helped to frame the public's understanding of how Martinez could slip through the cracks in cases involving heinous crimes that cut across both political jurisdictions and the procedures of criminal and immigration law. St. Petersburg police tracked Martinez for two days after the Aug. 3 rape and had Hillsborough deputies arrest him on an old charge related to domestic violence. He was released on bail Aug. 6. Less than two weeks later, according to the Sheriff's Office, Martinez and two accomplices raped and robbed two women in Apollo Beach. The cases sparked an outcry, as U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite and others criticized officials for not detaining Martinez or moving to challenge his immigration status.
First things first. Hillsborough did not have enough evidence to hold Martinez in jail. The point of having Hillsborough arrest him was to enable St. Petersburg police to obtain a DNA sample. (That test is still not back from the lab.) Hillsborough offered St. Petersburg the opportunity to interview Martinez but detectives did not want to tip their hand. And his arrest on an old warrant stemming from a domestic violence case was not serious enough for federal immigration officials to intervene.
Still, the Sheriff's Office allowed a false version of events to hang in the public eye. It shifted undue blame on St. Petersburg police, and it painted an inaccurate picture of how well the two agencies did cooperate in building a serious case against Martinez, which could have taken him off the street earlier. Now the furor over who knew what when threatens to overwhelm the larger issues, such as Congress' failure to address the problem local law enforcement has in weeding out undocumented immigrants and moving people from the jails to the immigration system. It will require more candor and less flippancy to do the job.