Federal immigration officers on Thursday arrested the driver of a Honda Accord that fatally struck two law enforcement officers in Maryland late last year, officials said Friday.

Roberto Garza Palacios, 28, was taken into custody at his residence, said Justine Whelan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He had been living in a two-story Gaithersburg home in the 400 block of Belle Grove Road, according to court records and residents of the house.

Garza Palacios, a native of Guatemala, is “unlawfully present” in the United States, Whelan said. He was charged with overstaying and violating the terms of a work visa that had expired in 2009, Whelan said.

AD

His status in U.S. Immigration Court could not be immediately learned. The arrest follows an effort by ICE nearly three years ago to take Garza Palacios into custody in Montgomery County. In August 2015, ICE learned he had been arrested, and asked Montgomery jail officials to place a hold on him. The request was not honored, and Garza Palacios was released, county and federal officials said.

AD

The fatal collision occurred Dec. 8, when Garza Palacios was living in Maryland and working for a contracting company based in Gaithersburg. That Friday night, he and two others headed south to Washington on Interstate 270.

Ahead, on the interstate shoulder closest to the far left lane, an off-duty FBI agent stood next to an off-duty arson investigator. The agent had just crashed his SUV after becoming distracted by reaching for his cellphone, a state police investigation would show. The arson investigator, who by chance had been driving behind the agent, had stopped to help, according to the investigation.

AD

Garza Palacios struck the two after he drove up on the two stationary cars, was unable to swerve to the right because of traffic and swerved into the shoulder, investigators found.

Carlos Wolff, 36, the FBI agent, and Sander Cohen, 33, the Maryland arson investigator, were hit.

AD

Garza Palacios’s Honda struck both, throwing their bodies over a concrete median into the northbound lanes of the interstate, where Cohen was hit by another car and died. Wolff died at a hospital.

None of the drivers involved in the crashes showed signs of impairment, according to Maryland State Police.

Crash investigators, after consulting with Montgomery County prosecutors, cited Garza Palacios for negligent driving — a ­non-jailable offense that made him subject to a $280 fine. That charge reflected a judgment that while Garza Palacios could have been paying better attention, he was not driving in the uncontrolled fashion required for more serious fatal wreck charges.

AD

“It was an accident — a really, really unfortunate accident,” his lawyer, Asim Humayun, said after the investigation report became public.

AD

Humayun declined to comment Thursday about the immigration-related arrest.

Garza Palacios had come to the attention of ICE in 2015, after he was jailed in Montgomery County amid accusations that he broke about 16 windows with a metal bar and set a sofa on fire near a construction site. In August of that year, ICE asked county jail officials to hold him on a “detainer,” which is a mechanism that allows immigration officers to take suspects into federal custody who are about to be released from local jails.

But jail officials released Garza Palacios without notifying ICE.

AD

Robert Green, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, said the county was following guidance from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which had cautioned counties that holding inmates beyond their local release dates could violate constitutional protections, particularly if the request from ICE lacked an explanation of probable cause that the inmate had immigration violations.

AD

Green said the detainer request from August 2015 lacked sufficient probable cause from ICE, and Garza Palacios was released.

Court records indicate that by the end of 2015, and for much of 2016 and 2017, Garza Palacios was not in custody, and was working as a landscaper and construction worker.

Correction: This file has been updated to correct a spelling of Roberto Garza Palacios’s name.

Read more:

AD
AD