Tensions ran high between two groups who gathered near the Santa Maria courthouse on Thursday after the arraignment of the men suspected of raping and murdering a 64-year-old Santa Maria woman.
While about 35 people gathered on the west side of Miller Street at noon to protest illegal immigration, about the same number gathered across the street in counterprotest, saying that the protesters are using a tragedy to further a political agenda.
The competing protest groups shouted back at one another across the street. Cries of “stop the hate” were countered with “stop the murder.”
Earlier in the day, Victor Aureliano Martinez, a 29-year-old transient illegal immigrant, pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder in the death of Marilyn Pharis, a Vandenberg Air Force Base contractor who was attacked in her home on July 24 and died eight days later.
Jose Fernando Villagomez, 20, the second suspect charged in the murder, did not enter a plea.
The case has garnered national media attention due to Martinez’s immigration status and his criminal history. Among multiple brushes with the law is a 2014 arrest on suspicion of felony assault with intent to commit sexual assault.
Martinez was not actually charged with that offense, and he was convicted of misdemeanor battery.
Federal immigration officials say that they asked to be notified before Martinez was released from County Jail, a notification that they never received. Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Barney Melekian said that at that time a detainer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was not simply a request to notify but a request to hold an individual. Melekian said such a hold is illegal for people convicted of a misdemeanor, absent a federal court order.
Reporters from the Los Angeles Times, NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate, and Fox News joined local media in the courtroom at the arraignment.
Afterward, Martinez’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Lori Pedego, worried that the national coverage will taint the jury pool.
“I don’t know, with the national media attention, if he can get a fair trial anywhere in the country at this point,” she said.
Pedego said that people are using Pharis’s death to advance a political point, which could lead to him being “tried in the media.”
Outside the courthouse, anti-illegal immigration protesters held signs advocating for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, including five-year prison sentences for people caught re-entering the country after having been deported.
Santa Maria resident Michael Rivera said that he has been advocating for the city to crack down on illegal immigration for more than 20 years.
“This city has known full well since 1994 that this is a tragedy waiting to happen,” Rivera said.
He said that city leaders turned Santa Maria into a “de facto sanctuary city” to provide cheap labor for the agriculture industry and ignored simple steps they could have taken, such as requiring employers to use E-verify, a federal program designed to help determine if a prospective employee is in the country legally.
“They could have done many things that they never did,” Rivera said.
Across Miller Street, Miguel Hernandez, an organizer with Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy, said that the anti-illegal immigration protesters were using Pharis’s death to further a political agenda.
“They want to use that case to promote a divided community,” he said.
Not everyone with an eye on the case is concerned about Martinez’s immigration status.
Several women affiliated with the North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center attended the court hearing, wearing buttons saying “No more.”
“We’re here today to represent Marilyn, because she doesn’t have a voice anymore,” Alison Wales said.
The group said it is not political. They will hold a vigil for Pharis on the evening of August 21 outside of City Hall.
Martinez’s lawyer also is not focused on immigration.
“Immigration status should play no role in the courtroom,” Pedego said.