Illegal immigrant charged with murder in California fire had prior arrests, was never deported

The suspect charged with murder in connection with a vacant building fire in Los Angeles was in the United States illegally and had a string of arrests to his name — but the feds never deported him, officials said Friday.

Johnny Sanchez, a 21-year-old citizen of Honduras, was initially arrested in 2012 for crossing the southeastern California border illegally, the Los Angeles Times reported. Authorities said they released him because he had no criminal history or previous immigration violations at the time.

He was arrested again in January on suspicion of domestic violence and twice in the ensuing months on suspicion of drug possession, officials said.

After he crossed the border, authorities reportedly placed him under supervision and ordered Sanchez to report to them regularly — but he stopped doing so in 2014, the Times adds. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement never started the process of deporting him, spokeswoman Virginia Kice said, adding that the reason why was unclear. She told the newspaper it’s ICE policy “to focus on individuals who pose a public safety threat.”

The fire on Monday killed five homeless people. Four of the badly burned bodies weren’t found until Tuesday afternoon, when search dogs located them under a heap of debris on the second floor.

Sanchez was in some kind of fight with the others and lit the fire with the intent to kill, Los Angeles Police Capt. Billy Hayes said.

The suspect was charged Wednesday with five capital murder counts and was ordered held without bail.

The charges against Sanchez, who’s also homeless, make him eligible for the death penalty if he’s convicted, if prosecutors choose to pursue it.

It took nearly 150 firefighters more than two hours to extinguish the fire in the green, two-story building that once was home to an acupuncture clinic. It is surrounded by strip malls and an apartment building in the Westlake District about a mile west of downtown LA.

The structure appeared to be singed and some of its windows were blown out. It did not appear seriously damaged from the outside, but the inside was badly burned and most of the roof was gone.

There had been complaints about the building recently, Terrazas said, and authorities had contacted the owner — who has sought a demolition permit for the building — about keeping people out.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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