An illegal immigrant's frequent arrests in Minnesota over the past 20 years show cracks in a system meant to bar foreign criminals.
The guy found passed out in a St. Paul bus shelter near the University of St. Thomas with a drained bottle of vodka in his coat pocket was not just any homeless drunk.
Mario Montalban-Ramirez, 61, was convicted of manslaughter in Illinois in 1982, convicted of murder in Texas in 1984 and sent back to his native Mexico three times -- in 1996, 1997 and 2003 -- for being in the United States illegally. He also has been a frequent customer in local jails, locked up for such offenses as DWI, theft, assault and being a fugitive from justice.
So how is it that Montalban-Ramirez, who often goes by the name of Oscar Yturria, has been able to spend much of the past two decades in Minnesota -- including several visits to jail since his last deportation?
Federal and local officials acknowledge that they don't know why he's been allowed to stay despite so many run-ins with the law.
It's a lapse they're trying to remedy now, charging him in federal court recently with illegal reentry after deportation. If found guilty, he could spend up to 20 years in federal prison -- after which he would be deported again.
But Montalban-Ramirez illustrates the challenges of keeping even known criminals out of the United States if they are determined to return.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said they could not comment on the case and referred questions to the U.S. attorney's office. ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer acknowledged that detailed records do not exist for many offenders before ICE was created in 2003. He stressed that ICE now "works closely with many law enforcement agencies nationwide to identify deportable criminal aliens who have been arrested on criminal charges. ... We ensure that, when their criminal proceedings are completed, they're released to ICE rather than being released to the streets."
Two killings, no deportation
That doesn't explain how a convicted killer and illegal immigrant has avoided deportation after most of his U.S. crimes.
Illinois Department of Corrections officials confirmed last week that Oscar Yturria was convicted in Cook County, Ill., of voluntary manslaughter in 1982 and sentenced to four years behind bars. He was turned over to the custody of the prison system on June 25, 1982. There is no record of whether Illinois officials knew he was in the United States illegally, a spokeswoman said.
He remained under Illinois prison authority until Feb. 28, 1985. But in April 1984, Montalban-Ramirez, still going by the name Oscar Yturria, stabbed a man to death in Texas.
Sharyn Elman, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said records do not show how Montalban-Ramirez managed to be in Texas before his Illinois sentence was completed. She said he was probably freed on parole.
Texas records show that Montalban-Ramirez pleaded guilty to murder in October 1984 and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Charlotte Harris, his defense attorney, said they were ready to plead not guilty and go to trial when the prosecution offered a deal.
Harris recalls that she knew that Montalban-Ramirez was in the United States illegally, but that she doesn't know if Texas officials knew it at the time.
"It was a totally different world as far as immigration went," said Harris, who is now an assistant federal public defender in Texas. "I don't think the state and the feds were in contact with each other as much as they are today."
Despite the eight-year sentence, Montalban-Ramirez served just two years behind bars before he was again paroled in 1986. He was not deported.
State criminal records obtained by the Star Tribune show that Montalban-Ramirez -- again going by the name Oscar Yturria -- was ticketed in Minnesota for driving under the influence in February 1990. Since then, records show he has tallied eight traffic tickets -- for violations ranging from speeding to DWI. He also has a Washington County conviction in 1993 for driving without a license.
He's become a frequent resident of Twin Cities jails. He was booked four times into the Hennepin County jail from March 1996 through September 1998, mostly for alcohol-related offenses.
That put him on the radar of immigration officials, who deported him in 1996 and 1997.
But that wasn't the end of his legal troubles here. Ramsey County jail records show arrests before and after his deportations.
On May 30, 1997, he was booked for exposing himself and for an immigration violation. On March 11, 2001, he was booked for being a fugitive and felony theft.
On March 17, 2006, he was busted again, for felony assault and being a fugitive. On March 2, 2007, he was jailed for theft of services. Then, on March 19, 2007, he was booked by Metro Transit Police for trespassing.
On May 19, 2007, he was booked for theft and not paying bus fare. Then, on Aug. 5, 2007, he was booked again for trespassing and theft.
Yet the only other deportation on his record is in 2003.
Randy Gustafson, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, said he could provide no details regarding Montalban-Ramirez's arrests from 2007 and earlier, including whether jailers had been in contact with immigration officials.
Neudauer, of ICE, also declined to provide specifics, citing privacy laws. Since 2008, ICE's Criminal Alien Program (CAP) -- in which ICE agents check local jails daily -- is catching more people who have previously been deported for other crimes, he said.
Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said her office prosecutes about 10 cases per month of people illegally reentering the United States after a previous deportation -- compared with almost none before 2008. Montalban-Ramirez was flagged by the CAP program, officials said.
But CAP has holes. ICE agents check jails in a few Minnesota counties. But in others, jailers still have to call ICE to report the arrest of a suspected illegal immigrant. That does not always happen, officials acknowledge.
"The system doesn't work unless people talk to each other," Neudauer said.
One way to patch the cracks in the system may be the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program. Jailers automatically run the fingerprints of suspects who are arrested against immigration records and a national crime database. Minnesota, however, does not participate in the program, and civil rights and immigrant groups have voiced concerns that the program could be used to profile people.
Paul Walsh contributed to this report. James Walsh • 612-673-7428