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Hannibal community outraged over Feb. 28 killings, immigration status

Friday, March 20, 2009 | 6:23 p.m. CDT

HANNIBAL — A Hannibal police officer was finishing up mundane paperwork on a quiet Saturday morning when Manuel Cazares walked into the station, blood splattered on his hands and shoes.

Cazares put his hands out, crossed them and told the officer to arrest him.

"I killed two people," he allegedly said.

Details surrounding the allegations are far too common: an abusive relationship, a jilted lover, a sudden attack.

But some in this Mississippi River community of 17,000, best known as Mark Twain's hometown, aren't just outraged by the violence; they also question why Cazares was in Hannibal at all.

Cazares, 32, had had several run-ins with law enforcement before the homicides but had managed to avoid detection as an undocumented immigrant.

Now he is charged with two counts of second-degree murder and armed criminal action in the Feb. 28 stabbings of his ex-girlfriend, 27-year-old Amanda Thomas, and 25-year-old Carl Patrick Epley.

"I don't know how this happens," said Tina White-Masengill, Thomas' sister.

During his three years in Hannibal, Cazares had a few few traffic violations and a property-damage conviction after an arrest for allegedly beating up Thomas and tearing up her home. Thomas had a restraining order against Cazares, who got probation in the property-damage case.

Police said Cazares' name wasn't in a database maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Police and Cazares' boss also said he had authentic-looking identification, including a Social Security card. And police noted that Cazares speaks fluent English.

Cazares' attorney did not return phone messages seeking comment. Cazares is being held in lieu of $1 million bond.

Hannibal police declined several interview requests from The Associated Press but said soon after the killing that they had received several angry calls, some with racial overtones.

Days after the killings, rocks were thrown through plate-glass windows at the Mexican restaurant where Cazares worked. The FBI decided against opening a hate-crime investigation after concluding that it was vandalism, not retaliation.

Hundreds of messages related to the case were posted on the Hannibal Courier-Post Web site, with several questioning why authorities hadn't been able to determine Cazares' legal status before. One suggested police should conduct raids to seek out other undocumented immigrants.

"Of course we have folks who say that's unconstitutional and racial profiling, so we have to ignore the problem until this sort of terrible tragedy takes place," the posting read. The newspaper eventually took down the postings.

At a news conference, Police Capt. James Hark told reporters that tracking undocumented immigrants is a federal responsibility. He said the department is sympathetic to the victims' families "but, in retrospect, there's nothing in the system that would have prevented this from happening."

ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said the agency seeks to work closely with local police to uncover undocumented immigrants.

"When local law enforcement suspect that they have arrested an illegal alien on criminal charges, we encourage them to forward those suspicions to ICE, where we will make the appropriate determination whether that person is in the country legally or illegally, and whether he is deportable," Rusnok said.

The relationship between Cazares and Thomas had long been rocky, with Thomas seeking restraining orders in 2007 and again early last year. Marion County prosecutor Tom Redington said the first order was dismissed when Thomas failed to appear at a court hearing; the second was dismissed at her request.

Thomas made a third attempt around Thanksgiving and obtained a restraining order that was supposed to keep Cazares away from the small brick duplex where she lived with their 20-month-old son and a 7-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

Yet neighbors said they often saw Cazares in the area.

"We pulled up one night and he drives up the street with his car lights off and just sits there watching her house," said neighbor Charles Thomas, who is not related to the victim.

In early February, Thomas told police she thought Cazares was stalking her. White-Masengill said her sister played cell phone messages for police, including one in which he said, "No one can love you like I do."

Redington said he didn't have Cazares arrested immediately because of the "on-again, off-again nature of their relationship." He asked Thomas to obtain records that would show that Cazares had been calling her, but she never got the records.

According to court records, Cazares offered the following account of the killings in his confession:

Despite the restraining order, he and Thomas had spent the night of Feb. 26 together after she called him. He thought they would be together again the next night.

Instead, Thomas went out. At some point she met up with Epley, a friend from her nearby hometown of Monroe City.

Cazares fumed when a friend told him he saw Thomas outside a bar. He stayed up late drinking beer, then went to Thomas' home the next morning and found her with Epley.

Cazares said he went to the kitchen, found a knife and stabbed Epley before turning the knife on Thomas.

He then drove around in Thomas' car before using her cell phone to call his mother. He told her "that I loved her and that I did something that was not right and for her to take care of herself."

He said he considered suicide but instead quietly turned himself in.


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