HOUSTON — The man wanted in connection with eight slayings committed near railroad tracks was in the custody of immigration officials earlier this month but was let go, federal authorities said Friday.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested Rafael Resendez-Ramirez in the El Paso area during the first week of June for being in this country illegally and deported him to Mexico later the same day, the FBI said. INS officials said they were unaware he was wanted for questioning in four killings at the time.
"I'm not going to discuss whether it was a mechanical error or an error at all," said Don K. Clark, special agent in charge of the Houston FBI office and head of a task force pursuing Ramirez.
"I don't think it's a blow to our investigation. Clearly we would like to have him right this minute. We would have liked to have him some time ago, but what it does do is give us the most current photograph we can get out to the public in hopes somebody may have seen this person."
Investigators believe Ramirez travels the country on freight trains. Fingerprints have linked him to at least some of the slayings. Most of the victims were bludgeoned to death.
The INS took a photo of Ramirez, who often alters his appearance, on June 2 that shows him with a mustache and without glasses, said agency spokesman Russ Bergeron. In earlier photos he has had glasses and other facial hair. He's also been photographed cleanshaven.
Four of the eight slayings linked to Ramirez have occurred since he was taken into custody and released soon thereafter. Two were in Texas and two were in Illinois.
An FBI task force of more than 200 investigators has been fielding hundreds of tips since Ramirez, believed to be 38, went on the agency's 10 Most Wanted list Monday. A $125,000 reward has been posted for his capture.
He has been charged with the two slayings in Illinois and is suspected of a 1997 Kentucky killing and five since last fall in Texas. A common thread is that the crimes occurred in homes near railroad tracks; authorities believe he traverses the country aboard freight trains.
Clark acknowledged some frustration upon learning the man had been picked up and released.
He has a history of slipping into the United States illegally and has served state prison time in New Mexico and Florida.
"Mr. Ramirez has not slipped through our fingers. This is another piece of lead information for us. We're acting on it as soon as we got it, and we've just gotten the photograph yesterday," Clark said.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
Rafael Resendez-Ramirez was later determined to be an alias. Stories July 14-29, 1999 use the name Angel Maturino Resendez; stories after July 29, 1999 use the spelling Angel Maturino Resendiz.