Identity mistake leads to arrest

Mexican immigrant held 4 days on warrant for Calif. escapee

Hispanic residents protest

July 09, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Confused and angry, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant returned home to Upper Fells Point yesterday after spending four days in jail on a 1997 warrant that was meant for someone else -- from a state he never visited.

On the Fourth of July, state police arrested Adolfo Ramirez, an East Baltimore business owner, because his name, date of birth and physical description, including a few scars, matched that of an escaped convict in Sacramento, Calif.

Police say they made an understandable but not malicious mistake. Fingerprints show that California's Adolfo Ramirez and Maryland's Adolfo Ramirez are different people.

But that is small comfort.

Ramirez, who has no criminal record, said he lost weight while sweating through the record heat in a section of the Anne Arundel County Detention Center that has no air conditioning. His contracting business, Ramirez Drywall, lost a valuable job because of his unexplained absence, said Ramirez, and his brother filed a missing-persons report with the Baltimore police after his disappearance. Worst, said Ramirez, he lost some of his faith in American fairness. He was released late Wednesday night without an apology or explanation, he said.

"I told everyone I could that I've never been to California and that I'm not supposed to be here [in jail]," said Ramirez. "I don't know why they don't believe me."

State police spokesman Pete Piringer said coincidence and a computer database were the only reasons for the stop, but the case of the two Adolfo Ramirezes has nonetheless touched a nerve at a tense moment for East Baltimore's fast-growing Hispanic community.

In recent months, residents there have complained loudly about police insensitivity and harassment.

Yesterday, a former Baltimore police officer pleaded guilty to robbing a Hispanic man while on duty. Several community leaders have questioned the department's inability to solve the April 21 killing of a Dominican grocery clerk.

Police scrutiny

Others say Hispanic men have been under unwarranted scrutiny from police in the past few weeks since the highly publicized manhunt for the Mexican serial killer known as Rafael Resendez-Ramirez. (Adolfo Ramirez, who followed the case closely, said he first thought state police believed he was Resendez-Ramirez).

Hispanic residents, newly incensed over Ramirez's detention, called the Mexican embassy in Washington Tuesday. Juan Cue, the consul general, said his staff will interview Ramirez and investigate the matter.

"I understand the confusion on the police part, but there's no reason for someone who is innocent to be locked away that long," said Sonia Fierro-Luperini, the Schmoke administration's liaison to the Hispanic community. Fierro-Luperini said she was stopped a few years ago by state troopers without cause, and added that police departments across Maryland need to be more sensitive to Hispanics. "Right now, I am afraid of the state police," she said.

Maryland State Police Lt. Col. Jesse Graybill said the department will reach out to Hispanic leaders, but he advised critics to consider the facts of the case. "We followed standard operating procedures and Mr. Ramirez did not object," he said. "His behavior was very unusual."

Ramirez's troubles began Saturday night after he caught a ride with a friend to the Cancun Cantina, a nightclub near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Before the night was over, the friend had left with the car. With his wife and children visiting family in Mexico and his brother unreachable, Ramirez decided to walk home along the highways to his house in East Baltimore. State troopers stopped him along Interstate 97 after midnight, asked for his identification, and then ran his name through a national crime database.

You're from California, Ramirez said a trooper told him, adding that he was shocked -- he had been asked about California during a traffic stop in Rhode Island last month, he said, but had thought nothing more about it. He said he has never been in that state.

A native of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, Ramirez immigrated to Texas at age 15. He worked in construction and followed a boss to Maryland in 1987. He liked the relatively mild climate, and eventually married, had three children -- ages 8, 6 and 4 -- and started his own business. During that time he also became a U.S. citizen.

First police encounter

Other than traffic stops, the Fourth of July was his first encounter with police here, records show. Ramirez's English is relatively good, but he said he sometimes has trouble understanding. State police said he never asked to make a phone call and never expressed anger at his arrest; Ramirez said he protested politely, offered personal information to verify his identity, and was not allowed to phone his brother for 48 hours. Robin Harting, facility administrator for the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, said all detainees, including Ramirez, have access to a phone for collect calls.

Despite the heat, "I slept very well in jail," Ramirez said. "There wasn't much else to do." He said he was most upset about missing Mass Sunday at St. Michael's Catholic Church.

After his release late Wednesday, Ramirez said, he drove to the spot on Interstate 97 where he had been arrested and waited until state police showed up. At that point, he demanded -- and received -- the names of the troopers who arrested him.

Ramirez expressed thanks yesterday for his release, but concern that the activities of the other Adolfo Ramirez, when put on a national crime database, could mistakenly ensnare him again.

"I used to love the Fourth of July, but now, no," he said. "I'll always remember where I spent this one."

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