2 With MS-13 Links Sought in Bus Death

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Montgomery County police announced yesterday that they were searching for two suspects in the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old honor student on a county transit bus in Silver Spring, and a judge ordered a third suspect be held without bond.

Prosecutors said Hector M. Hernandez's status as an alleged gang member and illegal immigrant made him a flight risk. "MS-13 is known to have international and national ties and [is] known to sequester individuals who flee from justice," Assistant State's Attorney Jeffrey Wennar said at a bond hearing, referring to the gang Mara Salvatrucha.

Wennar also said Hernandez, 20, was arrested last month on a weapons charge. In that case, the Takoma Park resident, the alleged gunman in the Nov. 1 bus slaying, was released without anyone realizing he was in the country illegally.

The killing a month later was the first in the Maryland suburbs in more than a year that police have publicly linked to MS-13. The two suspects being sought -- Gilmar Leonardo Romero, 20, and Mario Ernesto Milan-Canales, 30 -- also are affiliated with the gang, police said.

Police said Romero will be charged with first-degree murder and Milan-Canales with accessory after the fact for first-degree murder. A police spokesman yesterday did not know their immigration status.

Police have said Hernandez boarded a Ride On bus in Silver Spring with a group of friends. Hernandez's group exchanged words with a larger group, none of them known to be gang members, police said. Investigators say the group that included Hernandez got off the bus near Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street.

As they got off, witnesses said, one member of the group held a rear door open, and Hernandez fired several shots into the bus, killing Tai Lam and striking two other teenagers inside.

Hernandez is charged with first-degree murder. Neither Wennar nor the charging documents suggested a specific motive for the shooting.

An attorney from the public defender's office did not address the specifics of the charges and indicated that Hernandez would be retaining a private attorney.

Early in October, Hernandez was arrested after police found him with a knife in his pocket, according to a charging document. Authorities ran a standard warrant search, which would have picked up if he was wanted by immigration officials, said Arthur Wallestein, director of the county's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. At the time, he was not.

As a matter of policy, unlike in neighboring Frederick County, Montgomery jail officials do not routinely go beyond a warrant check to investigate whether suspects are in the country legally.

In Frederick, under an agreement with federal immigration officials, detainees at the jail are asked where they were born and whether they are citizens, which can trigger a series of immigration-related questions, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said.

Those suspected of being illegal immigrants are held in the jail while federal officials are notified, he said. Since April, about 9 percent have proven to be illegal immigrants, he said.

Jenkins said Montgomery's policies have made it "a sanctuary county."

Frederick's strategy has drawn criticism from Hispanic and civil rights groups, who say it has spread alarm across the local immigrant population.

In Montgomery, officials have taken the position that cracking down on immigration in that way could backfire. Immigrants who witness crime or are victims of it might retreat into the shadows, Montgomery law enforcement authorities say.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said the county attempts to assist immigration officials without conducting what he said are potentially discriminatory inquiries. He called Jenkins's characterization of the county "over the top" and said, "I think he doesn't fully understand what we're doing."

Montgomery police often run warrant checks on people they arrest. If a suspect is wanted by immigration officials, police policy is to take him or her into custody and notify immigration authorities.

Since the bus shooting, federal authorities have placed an immigration detainer on Hernandez.

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