Houston police said Tuesday that a background check of a man with a long criminal and immigration history showed no outstanding warrants, so authorities released him shortly before he allegedly beat three men to death in California.
Ramon Escobar, 47, was not a suspect in his aunt’s disappearance when he was questioned Aug. 30, Houston police spokesman Kese Smith said. Investigators spoke with Escobar because he was one of the last people to see Dina Escobar, 60, before she vanished in late August.
Escobar said at the time that he was in the country on a work visa, Smith said, a claim echoed by family members.
“We had no probable cause to arrest or book him,” Smith said.
Immigration status is checked by Houston police only when a person is being booked into the city jail after being charged with a crime, Smith said.
Authorities say Escobar later traveled to Los Angeles, where he was being held Wednesday for allegedly attacking homeless men as they slept. He is also now a person of interest in the disappearance of his aunt and, days earlier, of his uncle, Rogelio Escobar, 65.
Ramon Escobar, who was believed homeless himself, likely targeted victims to rob them, Los Angeles police Capt. William Hayes told reporters Tuesday.
Detectives have seized a wooden baseball bat and bolt cutters that they believe were used to bludgeon men as they lay sleeping on the beach or on the street in Los Angeles and suburban Santa Monica, police said. All but one of the men was homeless.
It wasn’t immediately known whether Escobar had an attorney who could speak for him.
Escobar was being held without bail, but U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials have filed a detainer seeking to take him into custody if he is released, the agency said.
Escobar was first ordered removed from the country in 1988 and was deported to his native El Salvador six times between 1997 and 2011, ICE said in a statement Tuesday night.
He was released from ICE custody last year after successfully appealing his latest immigration case, ICE said. The agency didn’t indicate his current legal status.
However, Escobar has six felony convictions for burglary and illegal reentry, ICE said.
Escobar spent five years in prison for robbery starting in the mid-1990s, Hayes said. Records in Texas show Escobar has had arrests for vehicle burglary, trespassing, failure to stop, public intoxication and two assaults, most recently in November 2017. That case was described as a misdemeanor.
Texas authorities also want to talk to Escobar about the disappearances late last month of 60-year-old Dina Escobar and her brother, 65-year-old Rogelio Escobar, Houston police said in a statement.
Dina Escobar’s burned van was found in Galveston, Texas, a few days after she went looking for her brother. She was last seen Aug. 28, two days after her brother vanished, the statement said.
Dina Escobar’s daughter, Ligia Salamanca, told KTRK-TV in Houston earlier Tuesday that her cousin, Ramon Escobar, had never come across as violent and wasn’t a source of trouble for the family.
“She loved him as she would a son,” Salamanca said of her mother’s devotion to Ramon Escobar.
Salamanca said he had been looking for work and needed a place to stay, so he was taken in by his uncle, who went missing days later.
Investigators believe Escobar was the man who used a baseball bat to bash the heads of three homeless men sleeping on downtown Los Angeles streets before dawn on Sept. 16, police said in a statement. Two died.
Escobar is believed to be the man captured on surveillance video ransacking the pockets and belongings of some downtown Los Angeles victims.
Two homeless men sleeping on the beach were bludgeoned in the head early on Sept. 8 and Sept. 10, leaving one in critical condition, officials said.
Another man who apparently was sleeping on the beach was found dead under the Santa Monica Pier on Sept. 20. Steven Ray Cruze Jr., 39, of San Gabriel, had been beaten to death.
Authorities at first described him as homeless, but family and friends said the father of two, who loved to fish at the pier, worked boats in neighboring Marina del Rey and sometimes camped out under the pier to avoid the long commute home.
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Associated Press journalists Robert Jablon and John Antczak in Los Angeles, David Warren in Dallas and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
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