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Sonoma County Sheriff: ICE statement about recent arrest ‘misleading and inflammatory’

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

JULIE JOHNSON AND NICK RAHAIM,

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano on Thursday lambasted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for making “misleading and inflammatory” statements about a recent arson arrest, and for wrongly injecting the politics of immigration into public discourse at a time when the community is in the midst of the state’s largest wildfire disaster.

Thomas D. Homan, acting director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had a statement sent to Giordano, and released it publicly, calling the Sheriff’s Office a “non-cooperative jurisdiction” and claiming the county’s largest law enforcement agency, which runs the jail, “left their community vulnerable to dangerous individuals” due to its handling of a recently jailed arson suspect.

The federal agency had criticized the Sheriff’s Office Wednesday, one day after a conservative website erroneously linked the arson suspect to the recent deadly wildfires that have killed at least 23 people and burned more than 137 square miles in Sonoma County. Read ICE's statement here.

Giordano said it is wrong to imply the arson suspect — a homeless man often seen sleeping in Maxwell Farms Regional Park — had a connection to the fires, and said it was careless of federal immigration officials to distract his agency and community during an ongoing local emergency.

“The fire’s cause is still under investigation,” Giordano said. “This isn’t the guy who lit the fires, and to equate that is misleading and inflammatory and distracts from the mission we have helping our community recover from these fires.”

Sheriff’s deputies had spotted Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, 29, walking away from a plume of smoke in the park, carrying a lighter and fire extinguisher, Giordano said.

Gonzalez told deputies he had lit a fire to keep warm, according to the sheriff. The fire spread to an approximately quarter-acre area before it was stopped.

Gonzalez, who had an arrest warrant out of Ventura County, was booked into the Sonoma County Jail on suspicion of felony arson. He was arraigned Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court and is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.

Before his Sunday arrest, Gonzalez had been booked into the Sonoma County Jail about eight times for minor misdemeanor offenses, Giordano said.

The federal immigration agency, called ICE, characterized his arrest as “maliciously setting fire to a property.” ICE officials noted the man’s alleged undocumented status and criticized the Sheriff’s Office, claiming it had not adhered to voluntary ICE requests to hold inmates past release dates or notify ICE when undocumented inmates will be released.

“The residents of Sonoma County and the state of California, deserve better than policies that expose them to avoidable dangers,” the ICE statement said.

ICE officials claimed the Sonoma County Jail hadn’t responded to requests for Gonzalez’s release date information, but Giordano said that was not true.

Each time Gonzalez was arrested, ICE sent a request that the jail hold Gonzalez beyond his official release date so federal immigration agents could intervene — a practice found unconstitutional in federal courts, violating a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t cooperate with ICE detainer requests, and instead treats them as requests to be notified of the date and time an inmate will be released.

Jail staff alerted ICE to Gonzalez’s release dates on multiple occasions before Aug. 18, when Giordano changed jail policy.

“We have notified ICE about his release in several of those arrests as they took place before our recent policy change,” Giordano said.

Since that date, jail staff only respond to federal notification requests about release dates in cases where inmates have been convicted of serious and violent crimes outlined by the California Trust Act.

The Sheriff’s Office policy also includes about a dozen additional crimes that would warrant cooperation with ICE, including DUIs, battery and sex crimes relating to minors. It will stop doing so Jan. 1 when a new state law takes effect which further limits what inmate information local jails give to ICE.

Giordano said his agency will honor federal warrants, but ICE had not submitted one for Gonzalez.

“Go get the warrant and we’ll keep the guy,” Giordano said.

Jerry Threet, director of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, said the Sheriff’s Office is correctly following state law as well as case law that has established holding inmates beyond their release dates is unconstitutional.

“The breakdown here is that ICE never misses an opportunity to manipulate the facts,” Threet said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220.