Six years ago, an immigration judge ordered the deportation of Binh Thai Luc, the man now suspected of killing five people in a San Francisco home last week, according to federal authorities.
Luc was to return to his native Vietnam after serving time in prison for armed robbery and assault, but he was never deported because the Vietnamese government didn't provide the documents needed to process his removal from the U.S., officials said Monday.
The 35-year-old Vietnam citizen now faces murder charges in the deaths of five people whose bodies were found Friday in what police initially thought was a murder-suicide.
Luc was contacted by ICE agents while he was serving his sentence for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon at San Quentin State Prison. After he was ordered to be deported, the agency sought the official documents it needed to return him to Vietnam, but never got them, said Gillian Christensen, ICE's deputy press secretary.
U.S. law establishes that all aliens who face a deportation order can't be held for more than 180 days. After that, if they can't be removed from the country within the reasonably foreseeable future, ICE has to release them, she said.
That was the case with Luc, who was released into the community after spending time in an ICE detention facility in Eloy, Ariz., in 2006, she said.
"He continued to report to the ICE office in San Francisco as required after his release from ICE custody, and had no other incidents or arrests during that period," Christensen said.
She said the agency could not immediately say how many people with deportation orders were released when their home countries refused to respond or did not provide proper documentation.
"Unfortunately there are some countries that people are very difficult to remove people to, and Vietnam is one of those countries," Christensen told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Binh served almost a decade in prison for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, records show.
State records indicate that he was convicted in 1998 of the armed robbery of a Chinese restaurant in San Jose in 1996. He was in prison from 1998 to 2006, then served two years on parole.
Luc was booked on five counts of murder Sunday. Police say he knew the victims, who were identified Monday by the San Francisco medical examiner as Hua Shun Lei, 65, and Wan Yi Xi, 62, who were married, and their children Vincent Lei, 32, and Ying Xue Lei, 37. The other victim was Chia Huei Chu, 30, the girlfriend of Vincent Lei.
The medical examiner has not yet determined the cause or manner of death, although police said Sunday the victims appeared to have been killed by blunt force trauma.
Ying Xue "Jess" Lei was described by a co-worker as a quiet, capable colleague who shared few details about her personal life.
"She was always a hopeful, nice, fun-loving person," said Todd Sidebottom, who worked with her at Quantitative Medical Systems, a medical device company in Emeryville.
"I came because I wanted to pay my respects to her and the family," he said as he dropped off a bouquet of flowers outside her home over the weekend.
A relative, Lena Huang, reached by The Associated Press, said the family was in mourning and would not comment.
Police Chief Greg Suhr said 40 investigators were working on the case.
Investigators initially couldn't determine if a suspect was at large, and they thought at least two of the victims were shot. The chief said an "edged weapon" was involved in the slayings of the three women and two men.
The bodies were found by a woman with access to the home in the Ingleside District, a middle-class neighborhood in the southern part of the city. The home near San Francisco's City College is in a thriving immigrant community, largely from Asia.
Also arrested was Luc's brother, Brian Luc, 32, on unrelated charges involving drugs, ammunition possession and violation of probation.
Brian Luc was serving three years of probation for drunken driving and firing a gun in a reckless manner, records show.
Suhr did not provide details of that arrest but said the siblings lived together.
The brothers were both being held without bail.
Prosecutors were still awaiting a report from police before filing charges, though an arraignment could happen as early as Wednesday, said Chief Assistant District Attorney Sharon Woo.
Jail records didn't show if either man had retained a lawyer.
Associated Press writer Jason Dearen contributed to this report.