Jose Villagomez

Jose Fernando Villagomez

A second suspect in a July 24 home invasion assault of a Santa Maria woman who later died was arrested Tuesday, and questions continue to be raised about the criminal background and immigration status of the first suspect.

Jose Fernando Villagomez, 20, was booked on suspicion of sexual assault and attempted murder on Tuesday. He already was in Santa Barbara County Jail on a probation violation.

Marilyn Pharis, 64, died at Marian Regional Medical Center on Saturday, the day after Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez pleaded not guilty to attempted murder, sexual assault and other charges.

Ramirez, 29, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, according to Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin.

Villagomez, however, is a U.S. citizen, having been born in the Bay Area. Martin said that he moved to Mexico as a young child and returned to the United States as a teenager.

Ramirez has been arrested by the department four times, and at the time of his arrest, he was serving a three-year probation term for misdemeanor battery against an unnamed female as well as a drug-related charge.

Martin said he is unsure why Ramirez never was deported.

"We don't have the authority to put someone on immigration hold," he said.

Martin said that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement checks the citizenship status of inmates while they are in County Jail, where they are in the custody of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.

"This starts at the top," he said, referring to ICE.

ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said when a crime suspect is booked, his or her fingerprints are not only sent to the FBI for criminal background and warrant checks but to ICE as well.

Haley said that the Department of Homeland Security is in the process of implementing a new program — called the Priority Enforcement Program — to determine which arrestees that ICE agents should take custody of.

None of Ramirez's crimes fall into ICE's highest priority for removal, which is reserved for undocumented immigrants who are suspected of terrorism or gang participation, convicted of felonies or caught at borders or ports of entry.

The second-highest priority includes misdemeanors.

A second ICE spokeswoman, Virginia Kice said that the agency lodged an immigration detainer against Ramirez following his May 2014 arrest, requesting that ICE be notified prior to his release. Kice said ICE never received the notification.

After another arrest this year, slightly more than a week before the attack on Pharis, ICE declined to issue another detainer after reviewing his case history and finding no deportations or felony convictions.

Martin denied rumors that Santa Maria is a "sanctuary city," saying that rumors of that may stem from a 2010 decision by city leaders that the city could not force businesses to use E-Verify, a federal program designed to help employers determine if prospective employees are in the country legally.

So-called "sanctuary cities" have been in the news recently, partially due to the July 1 shooting of Cal Poly graduate Kate Steinle in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who had been arrested several times. 

An autopsy of Pharis is scheduled for today, and the District Attorney's Office and Police Department are determining whether to press additional charges.

Martin said that police and prosecutors are taking care to not make any mistakes while investigating the case that can be taken advantage of by defense attorneys.

"We're doing this strictly by the books," he said.

Martin and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley will hold a joint press conference at 1 p.m. Friday at the Police Department.

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