LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mistakes and miscommunication by three governments on three continents over nearly 20 years led to a homeless man known as “Africa” being on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, where he was shot by police after authorities say he became combative and appeared to reach for an officer’s weapon.
The problems began in the late 1990s when French officials gave him a passport under what turned out to be a stolen name. He came to the U.S., robbed a bank and then was convicted and imprisoned under the same false name.
U.S. immigration officials wanted to send him back to his native Cameroon but that country never responded to requests to take him. So he was released from a halfway house last May, and U.S. probation officials lost track of him in November.
It took three failed monthly check-ins for a warrant to be issued on a probation violation and it’s unclear whether anyone actually looked for him. He apparently was living the entire time on Skid Row, roughly 50 square blocks of liquor stores, warehouses, charitable missions and a few modest businesses.
Many of the estimated 1,700 people who sleep each night on the sidewalks are mentally ill, like Africa.
Los Angeles police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said the man had no previous arrests in Los Angeles. While officers spoke to him once or twice, he gave them no reason to suspect he was wanted.
“If you’re cool and you’re quiet, and you don’t make a big fuss, you can sit out there quietly and live in your tent pretty much in peace,” said Smith. “If the feds put out a warrant for this guy, shoot, there’s no reason we’d suspect he’s in Skid Row.”
The true name of the man who was long known to authorities as Charley Saturin Robinet remained a mystery Wednesday, three days after a violent death that was captured on a bystander’s video and watched by millions.
Authorities said the man tried to grab a rookie Los Angeles police officer’s gun, prompting three other officers to shoot. Chief Charlie Beck said the officers had arrived to investigate a robbery report and the man refused to obey their commands and became combative.
Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego who is chairman of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said the case points to multiple failures by government.
He criticized France for not being more diligent in investigating the man’s background before issuing a passport and U.S. authorities for not realizing he was a “fraud” before the end of his prison term and then not putting more effort into finding him once he disappeared.
“Shame on all of them,” said Nunez, whose group advocates for stricter immigration policies and enforcement.
Axel Cruau, France’s consul general in Los Angeles, said the system for checking backgrounds was vastly different when the man duped French officials.
“Let’s remember 20 years ago we didn’t have the same databases we have today, the same rules, we didn’t have biometric design, it was before 9/11,” he said.
Using the false name, the man was believed to be a French citizen in 2000 when convicted of robbing a Wells Fargo branch in Los Angeles and pistol-whipping an employee in what he told authorities was an effort to pay for acting classes at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
In 2013, as he was nearing his release from a federal prison in Rochester, Minnesota, French officials found the real Robinet in France, Cruau said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement then determined the impostor actually was from Cameroon but said the African country ignored repeated requests for travel documents, hampering efforts to deport him.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that immigration authorities cannot detain people indefinitely just because no country will take them. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the government would need a special reason to keep someone in custody after six months if deportation seemed unlikely in “the reasonably foreseeable future.”
“ICE makes every possible effort to remove all individuals with final orders of removal within a reasonable period,” spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. “If the actual removal cannot occur within the reasonably foreseeable future, ICE must release the individual.”
A person who said he only has one name, Bindz, and heads the consular section at the Cameroon Embassy in Washington said he couldn’t respond to questions by phone and the ambassador would have to answer in writing.
The man was in immigration custody in September 2013 when a federal judge in California ordered him to a halfway house in Los Angeles. He was released from the halfway house in May, said Ed Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. His sentence included three years of supervision by federal probation officials.
The man had no place to stay and eventually found his way to Skid Row. He was required to provide reports to his probation officer each month and did so for a time, Deputy U.S. Marshal Matthew Cordova said. But he failed to make contact in November, December and January, and a warrant was issued Jan. 9.
Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which represents U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System, declined to comment on what attempts were made to find him, citing an open investigation.