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Suspect in Slaying Had Been Granted U.S. Asylum

Crime: Immigrant John Ghobrial, now accused of killing and carving up a La Habra boy, lied to the INS about a similar crime in Egypt, authorities say.

March 12, 2001|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Egyptian immigrant charged with the grisly murder of a La Habra boy was granted religious asylum although he was wanted by authorities in his native country for allegedly committing a similar crime.

U.S. immigration officials acknowledged that they never checked with Egyptian authorities about John Ghobrial's criminal background. In fact, they said it is long-standing Immigration and Naturalization Service policy not to contact the home countries of asylum applicants for fear that it would endanger them and their families.

With Ghobrial's trial for allegedly killing 12-year-old neighbor Juan Delgado scheduled to begin in August, newly filed court records provide more details about the defendant's journey from a small village in Egypt to the streets of La Habra, where he panhandled for change.

The records state that the defendant was arrested on suspicion of molesting and stabbing his 8-year-old cousin in his hometown three years before the U.S. government granted him asylum.

Federal officials said the case is a rare and tragic aberration, that the vast majority of asylum-seekers are honest about their pasts. But some residents in the La Habra neighborhood now wonder whether authorities could have done more.

"Obviously, this case is heart-rending," said INS spokeswoman Virginia Kice. "But you have to understand, if every time someone sought asylum, we then approached the country to get background on the person, that query could put that person in jeopardy."

Ghobrial had persuasive evidence of persecution at his 1996 asylum hearing: his missing left arm.

The Coptic Christian said he fled Sohag, Egypt, after several people pushed him into the path of a train, severing his arm. His story--set against the backdrop of a long history of persecution of Egypt's Coptic Christians by some extremist Muslims--led the judge to allow Ghobrial into the United States.

Because relatively few asylum applicants prevail, immigration officials said they do not contact home countries for background checks in light of the risks to turned-away immigrants and their families if asylum is not granted.

Instead, immigration judges base their decisions on the testimony of immigrants and reports of human rights abuses in the countries they fled. In his asylum application form, Ghobrial indicated that he had no criminal history.

But Orange County investigators who traveled to Egypt found that their suspect in the Delgado killing was wanted on suspicion of child molestation and attempted murder. Ghobrial allegedly stabbed his cousin repeatedly in the chest and stomach with a penknife. The boy survived.

Shortly after his release on bail, Ghobrial and his brother, Jimmy, fled to Greece, then to Mexico and finally to Texas, where they were detained by U.S. immigration authorities. Their asylum case ultimately was heard by an immigration judge in Los Angeles.

Ghobrial, a trained butcher in Egypt, eventually ended up in La Habra. He didn't have a job, but some residents touched by his disability tried to help him--including one family that let him live in a backyard shed.

Prosecutors allege that Ghobrial struck up a friendship with Juan Delgado, a sixth-grade student who lived in the neighborhood. They said the boy was last seen alive one afternoon in March 1998, while walking with a one-armed man carrying a basketball.

A few days later, neighbors noticed blood leaking from chunks of concrete scattered on front lawns in the quiet residential neighborhood where Ghobrial lived. Authorities later alleged that Ghobrial carved up the boy's body with a meat cleaver and embedded his limbs in concrete.

Ghobrial, 30, has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors intend to produce evidence of the alleged 1993 assault in Egypt to support their case for the death penalty.

Some residents, on learning about the allegations against Ghobrial in Egypt, said the INS should have done a more extensive review before granting his request for asylum.

"Immigration should investigate the background of the people they let in this country," said Maria Asturias, who allowed Ghobrial to live in her shed for three weeks before the slaying. "If they had investigated, they wouldn't have allowed him entry, and we could have avoided this horrible tragedy."

But several top immigration attorneys and experts said that although the case shows a weakness in INS policy, it would be a mistake to require international background checks of all asylum applicants. The FBI does check for criminal records in the United States, but rarely are immigrants' international records reviewed.

"It's inevitable when you have lots of people applying for asylum, some of them are going to get asylum and then do terrible things," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who has represented immigrants seeking asylum. "It's a human system. But it's still the right thing to do . . . not to return people to places where they're going to be persecuted."

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