By Curtis Skinner
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The gun used in a deadly San Francisco shooting that helped spark renewed debate about immigration policy had been stolen from the car of a federal law enforcement ranger, officials said on Wednesday.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 45, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in last week's apparently random shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle, which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has cited to decry U.S.-Mexico border security.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Dana Wilson said the federal officer whose gun was stolen had been in San Francisco on official business when his vehicle was broken into on June 27. The weapon theft was immediately reported to San Francisco police, Wilson said.
Sanchez told local broadcaster KGO-TV in a jailhouse interview that he found the firearm wrapped in a T-shirt.
While he admitted in the interview to shooting Steinle as she walked along the popular Pier 14 with her father on July 1, he said it was an accident.
The incident highlighted the long-standing "sanctuary city" policy in San Francisco, one of several hundred municipalities across the country that limit assistance to federal immigration authorities aiming to apprehend or deport individuals, according to San Francisco officials.
Such laws were rooted in shielding Central and Southern American refugees from deportation in the 1980s, and court rulings have since established that detainment requests from federal immigration officials are not a legal basis for holding someone.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee earlier this week defended the policy as allowing immigrant families to access city services without fear of being reported to federal authorities.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Sanchez was released from federal prison in March after a felony re-entry conviction, then transferred to the San Francisco County Sheriff's Office on a drug arrest warrant. Federal officials asked to be notified prior to his release.
The Sheriff's Office said the drug charges were dismissed, and since there was no active warrant or judicial order for Sanchez's removal, the city's policy deemed him "ineligible for extended detention" and he was freed.
Sanchez's criminal history includes seven felony convictions, and he has been deported to Mexico five times, immigration officials said.
The shooting spurred Republican state Senator John Stone to introduce a bill on Tuesday that would require California cities to detain undocumented immigrant prisoners for 48 hours to give federal immigration officials time to make deportation or prosecution decisions.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Peter Cooney)