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Friday, February 26, 2021

Tracking one illegal immigrant’s path from Mexico to drunk-driving manslaughter

Even before he took office, President Biden made a big splash with his sweeping immigration reform proposal. While headlines focus on a path to citizenship for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants, it’s important to note the plan’s lackluster efforts on curbing illegal immigration. And while the proposal doesn’t expand the wall on the southern border, Biden hopes to curb illegal immigration by utilizing better technology and infrastructure on the border. Seemingly lost in the proposal is any change in punishments for illegal immigrants who commit other crimes or any way to crack down on the sanctuary jurisdictions that enable them.

Consider the path of destruction caused by just one man who illegally crossed the border and was not deported despite his serious crimes.

In 2007, 16-year-old Tessa Tranchant’s future was alight with promise. Starting at age five, Tessa earned accolades around the country for her skill in Irish dance. In passing years, she became passionate about riding English horses, enjoyed playing guitar, sang the musical score from Rent with gusto, and was an especially accomplished surfer. The all-American teenager seemed destined to fulfill the dreams of her Hispanic, Irish, and European immigrant forebearers.

Tessa Tranchant
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Courtesy Ray Tranchant

Tessa Tranchant 2
Tessa Tranchant

Courtesy Ray Tranchant

But on March 30, 2007, as Tessa and her friend, Alison Kunhardt, waited for a traffic light to turn green, a careless drunk driver, who had entered the country illegally years prior, forever snuffed out both girls’ ambitions.

A ticking time bomb

The record of illegal immigrant Alfredo Ramos’s first six years in the United States is full of purposeful omissions.

In a 2017 prison interview, Ramos claimed that he wanted to come clean about his illegal past. He admitted, through a translator, that he breached the U.S. border in a four-day voyage by foot across the desert from the Mexican state of Sonora to Mesa, Arizona.

From the moment his feet touched U.S. soil around 2001, Ramos’s every movement was calculated to evade detection. For years, he succeeded.

In Mesa, he acquired a vehicle. On someone’s advice, possibly from an older brother also residing illegally in the country, Ramos drove to North Carolina, where an organization he has never named sold him the false documents that he would need to work in the U.S.

According to transcripts from Ramos’s manslaughter trial, the illegal immigrant first lived in Florida before moving to Virginia, where a series of police interactions should have put him on federal authorities’ radar.

Between October 2006 and March 30, 2007, the 22-year-old Ramos accumulated three alcohol-related misdemeanor convictions: public drunkenness in Chesapeake, Virginia; a DUI again in Chesapeake, where his blood alcohol concentration level was 0.14%; and public intoxication in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Ramos was also convicted of identity theft and a seat belt violation in early 2007. Additionally, he was charged in Chesapeake for driving without a license and having no insurance, but the charges were withdrawn.

In the first incident, on October 29, 2006, a Chesapeake police officer discovered Ramos passed out in the passenger seat of his vehicle, which was parked in a driving lane in a restaurant parking lot. It took the officer nearly five minutes to rouse Ramos, who stumbled out of the vehicle, unzipped his fly, moved to the rear of his car, and began to urinate. After being called to an emergency, the officer returned and charged Ramos with public intoxication.

Just two weeks later, on Nov. 13, 2006, Ramos veered over a double yellow line on a two-lane road. His car headed straight toward the vehicle of a Chesapeake police officer, who utilized a small section of shoulder to swerve and recover before pursuing Ramos. When Ramos finally stopped, he blew a 0.14% BAC, almost double the legal limit of 0.08%. He was charged with a DUI.

On Jan. 19, 2007, citizens called 911 to report Ramos’s erratic driving as he careened over curbs, heading toward heavily trafficked Virginia Beach Boulevard. After Ramos popped both of his front tires, a citizen stopped his vehicle by pulling the keys from his ignition, though Ramos continued attempting to accelerate. While waiting for officers from the Virginia Beach Police Department to arrive, Ramos told the citizen to let him go because he “would not do it again, and he lived right up the street.” When officers arrived, they charged Ramos with public drunkenness.

Ramos’s record was lengthy and included clear warnings that he was a ticking time bomb. But since his record technically included only misdemeanors, a Virginia Beach Police Department “sanctuary policy” enacted in 2005 prohibited the authorities from even asking Ramos about his immigration status.

In February 2007, when Ramos came before a judge to answer to his DUI charge, he was given a 90-day suspended sentence and a $250 fine, was ordered to participate in an alcohol awareness program, and his fake Florida license was suspended. Not being legally licensed had not stopped Ramos from driving before his trial, and the suspension of his fake license had no effect on his behavior.

Ramos, the ticking time bomb, ticked ever closer to an explosion.

According to court documents, Ramos initially denied having consumed alcohol on March 30, 2007. Later, he admitted he had two beers. Finally, he settled on admitting to having four to five beers. As the translator said in his 2017 jailhouse interview, “At that time, he was aware that he was that drunk, but he was much younger, and he felt invincible.”

Ramos sped down Virginia Beach Boulevard at more than 65 mph, at least 20 mph above the posted speed limit. His BAC level hovered at 0.24% — or three times the legal limit.

Ramos was less than two miles away from his residence when he slammed his 1998 Mitsubishi into a 1994 Plymouth Duster stopped at a traffic light. On hearing the explosive crash, residents nearby thought a bomb had gone off.

Car Crash
The aftermath of the crash

Courtesy Ray Tranchant

Inside the Plymouth, Tessa Tranchant and Alison were on their way home from the movies. They had just stopped at a convenience store to buy a pack of gum. As Tessa’s father, Ray, said: “They were just sitting at the light, strapped in their seat belts. They were just doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

Neither girl survived.

image (2).png
Tessa Tranchant, left, and Alison Kunhardt, right.

Courtesy Ray Tranchant

Serving justice

Ramos experienced only minor injuries. He did not recall the crash and was unaware that he had killed two teenage girls.

In his March 31, 2007, bail paperwork, Ramos admitted he was in the U.S. illegally. He pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter in August 2007.

Ramos’s defense team tried to stir up sentiment. They reminded the court that Ramos was 15 when he arrived from Mexico and regularly sent his family money. His lawyer mentioned that Ramos was participating in a Bible study in jail and even praised Ramos for not attempting to flee the scene of his crime.

Circuit Judge Thomas Shadrick was not swayed. In November 2007, Shadrick found that Ramos’s actions “demonstrate[d] a gross disregard for every person in this community” and passed down a sentence of 40 years in prison. At the end of 24 years, in 2031, Ramos will be deported to Mexico. If he returns to the U.S. and is caught, Ramos will serve the remaining 16 years of his sentence.

“This is a case that clearly warrants going beyond the guidelines,” Shadrick said, which normally call for a sentence of four to 10 years.

Ramos is currently serving his time at Greensville Correctional Center in spite of repeated attempts (at least four) to have his sentence modified or alleviated.

According to annual Virginia Department of Corrections figures from 2008 to 2018 on the average annual per capita cost of housing offenders, Ramos’s incarceration has already cost Virginia taxpayers an estimated $295,586.

Through the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, state facilities can request funds from the federal Department of Justice to alleviate a portion of the financial burden of housing an illegal immigrant. A Virginia Department of Corrections official did not respond to requests for comment about whether funds from the program are being used to offset Ramos’s incarceration costs. Program figures show that the Commonwealth of Virginia has applied for and received substantial funding during years in which Ramos has been incarcerated. It is probable that taxpayers around the country are paying for at least a portion of the cost of Ramos’s imprisonment, which is likely to total nearly $700,000 by his release date in 2031.

Of course, the costs to Tessa’s and Alison’s families are inestimable.

Father turned activist

Since Tessa’s tragic and preventable death, Ray Tranchant has become an activist for immigration reform and has even testified before Congress.

In that 2009 hearing, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois (who has since retired), belittled Tranchant’s activism. “What I have seen, unfortunately, is the will to target and to victimize and to scapegoat a community of people,” Gutierrez said. “It makes for great political points, but it doesn’t solve the problem and would not have saved your daughter’s life.”

Tranchant found allies, however, in former President Donald Trump and members of his administration, who spoke with him on numerous occasions about the urgent need to secure borders and reform a broken immigration system.

As a second-generation American, Tranchant is a proponent of legal immigration. His mother, an immigrant from Northern Ireland, worked for 10 years to gain her citizenship and was immensely proud to earn the right to vote in the U.S.

It is the influx of illegal immigrants who flout our laws and burden our government that concerns Tranchant, particularly as a growing number of counties and cities designate themselves as sanctuary jurisdictions, where local police departments never or rarely do not turn over illegal immigrants to federal agencies.

Virginia Beach is not a sanctuary city and wasn’t in 2007, but the police department’s policy of not asking about the immigration status of people charged with misdemeanors had a similar effect. The policy was supposedly designed to “encourage illegal aliens to report crimes without fear of retribution,” according to a news report detailing former Virginia Beach Police Chief Jake Jacock’s comments on the policy. Instead, that sanctuary policy enabled Ramos to continue to endanger the public.

After the death of Tessa and Alison, the Virginia Beach Police Department began asking about immigration status in more arrests, according to a news report by the Virginian-Pilot.

In early 2018, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that would have effectively banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, and the legislature did not have the votes to override it.

In Virginia today, Albemarle County, Arlington County, Chesterfield County, Fairfax County, and the City of Alexandria all have various sanctuary policies.

A father grieves his daughter

Ray Tranchant is a friend of my father. Both are members of two small and close-knit groups: graduates of the United States Naval Academy and naval aviators who flew the F-14 Tomcat.

Ray Tranchant

Courtesy Ray Tranchant

My father introduced me to Ray in early 2019. We talked about Tessa and about his fight for immigration reform.

As we discussed border security, Ray slipped into an incredible story about dogfighting Russian MiGs in the Tomcat. Immediately, I was reminded of my father. That uncanny ability to turn any conversation into a pulse-pounding story about those halcyon days of flying jets is a characteristic unique to naval aviators and a tendency admired by those who love them.

Ray’s anecdote became a keenly painful reminder of how much he and Tessa lost.

Anyone can name off the big opportunities that were coming ahead for Tessa: graduations, travel, finding her purpose, starting a family. But Tessa was likewise robbed of the experience of getting to know her parents as an adult. Tessa missed not only the big events, but also the immeasurable small and beautiful moments of human intimacy that make an incredible life.

Ray Tranchant does not know what the future could have held for his daughter. He cannot answer her phone calls or hear her sing show tunes. He will never again watch his daughter surf, ride a horse, or compete in Irish dance. He will not walk Tessa down the aisle or take her children to air shows to marvel at the sleek new jets that replaced his faithful F-14.

Ray has never visited his daughter at her college dorm or her first apartment or her first house. Instead, he visits her at Princess Anne Memorial Park.

Ray Tranchant at Tessa Tranchant’s grave.

Courtesy Kerry Dougherty

He lives with the memory of seeing Tessa’s 16-year-old body — cold to the touch, lying in a hospital bed, and covered with a blanket. A tube filled with blood was still attached to a mask on Tessa’s mouth. Her eyes were wide, her pupils dilated. In a bag near the bed were the clothes cut from her body after the crash.

After Tessa’s death, Ray saw her life flash before his eyes. In his mind, her voice does not change.

“It’s been years,” he told me, “and I would recognize her laugh and voice in a crowded room even today.”

The past can’t be changed, but it can be learned from. In this case, the many points when someone could have stopped Ramos and made a difference can be examined. If the Virginia Beach Police Department had not enacted a sanctuary policy or if a wall and better border security had stopped Ramos’s entry or if criminal organizations operating on U.S. soil had not provided Ramos with fake documents and identifications, perhaps Tessa and Alison would still be alive today.

Beth Bailey (@BWBailey85) is a freelance writer from the Detroit area.

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