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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Did Yakima County miss a chance to hold man later charged in shooting death of missionary student?

By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. – When Yakima County sheriff’s deputies found Saul Llamas Rios behind the wheel of a minivan parked at a Naches church on a warm August evening a little more than a year ago, he was passed out and reeking of alcohol – with a loaded .38 revolver tucked into his waistband.

Just down the road was a damaged mailbox he reportedly struck while driving. Rios, 28, attempted to reach for his gun when ordered out of the minivan, but one deputy already had his weapon drawn, and Rios complied after being warned, according to Yakima County District Court records.

Rios was booked into the Yakima County jail on suspicion of hit-and-run property damage, driving with a suspended license and concealing a weapon without a permit, all misdemeanor charges. He was released two days later after posting $2,500 bail.

About 2 1/2 months later, Rios would be arrested again – on suspicion of murder. Deputies say Rios was the man behind an Oct. 26, 2016, random shooting outside Tieton that killed 20-year-old Tieton missionary student Trae Oyler.

It’s unclear if Rios would have been released in August had careful attention been paid to his criminal past and an alias name he gave deputies in the church parking lot. And it’s also unknown if local law enforcement missed an opportunity to arrest him for outstanding warrants at a September court hearing.

But what is clear is an apparent breakdown in communication regarding Rios’ past – including a felony conviction in Butte County, Calif., where two felony arrest warrants seeking him were submitted to a federal database – may have resulted in Rios being out on the street that fateful October night.

“This is an absolute tragic event – no doubt about it,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “The system works a vast majority of the time, but no agency is perfect.”

Now, Rios is charged with first-degree murder in Yakima County Superior Court in addition to several other felony charges and is back in county jail awaiting trial set to begin in early December.

Ken Oyler, Trae’s father, said his son is in God’s kingdom now. The family isn’t requesting any specific sentencing for Rios, if convicted – they just want to honor Trae’s life, living their lives as he would have wanted.

“What (Rios) did, he took something from us he could never replace, the courts could never replace,” Ken Oyler said. “I just left it there. Whatever they decide will be fine with us.”

Honea says he contacted the Yakima County jail about the warrants four days after Rios was booked in August 2016. It was too late – Rios already had made his preliminary court appearance and after posting bail was freed Aug. 6.

But a Washington State Patrol’s criminal records office worker said warrant information about Rios was returned to the jail the night of his arrest – Aug. 4, 2016 – after jailers submitted Rios’ fingerprints for verification.

Yakima County Department of Corrections Chief Scott Himes initially said the jail wasn’t alerted of any warrants involving Rios until after he was arrested on suspicion of murder. But after being told in a subsequent interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic that Honea said the jail was in fact contacted, Himes said a warrant did come back from Washington state regarding Rios from Lewis County, but that it was only for misdemeanor crimes.

“It wasn’t extraditable so we wouldn’t do anything with it,” Himes said.

After reviewing that warrant late last week, Himes said he saw the name Jose Cabrera was listed on the document as an alias for Rios. But Himes contends that the jail received nothing back from state and federal databases regarding the Butte County warrants.

Saul Llamas Rios: A Timeline

Dec. 21, 2006 – Saul Llamas Rios, 17, is arrested at a Moxee park for suspicion of consuming alcohol and being in possession of marijuana and a stolen truck.

April 27, 2012 – Rios is arrested under the name of Jose Cabrera and later convicted in Butte County, Calif. of felony possession of carrying a dagger, an illegal weapon. He’s documented as a gang member there.

Nov. 8, 2012 – Rios is wanted by Butte County sheriff’s deputies on suspicion of pulling a sawed-off shotgun on another man during a fight in an Oroville, Calif., mobile home park. He also is wanted on suspicion of choking and kicking his girlfriend the previous day. Deputies are unable to locate Rios.

Oct. 30, 2015 – A Butte County Superior Court judge signs two no-bail warrants under the name of Jose Cabrera for Rios’ arrest. One is for being a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition, and the other for assault likely to produce great bodily injury and threats to kill his girlfriend. The warrants are entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Aug. 4, 2016 – Rios is arrested in Naches for suspicion of driving with a suspended license, hit-and-run property damage and concealing a gun without a permit. After receiving a report Rios drove into a mailbox in Naches, Yakima County sheriff’s deputies later found him passed out and smelling of alcohol behind the wheel of a minivan in a church parking lot. Rios had a loaded .38 caliber handgun in his waistband. Corrections officers at the Yakima County jail fingerprint Rios and send his prints off to the Washington State Patrol to check his criminal history.

Aug. 5, 2016 – Rios makes a preliminary appearance in Yakima County District Court, where a judge sets his bail at $2,500.

Aug. 6, 2016 – Rios posts bail and is released.

Aug. 8, 2016 – Butte County Sheriff’s Office learns that Rios is being held in the Yakima County jail and calls the jail in an effort to extradite him but learns he was released on bail.

Sept. 19, 2016 – Rios is convicted in Yakima County District Court of hit-and-run property damage and given a 90-day sentence with 89 days suspended and charged a $43 criminal conviction fee.

Oct. 26, 2016 – Yakima County Sheriff’s deputies say Rios shoots and kills Trae Oyler on Rozenkranz Road just outside Tieton. About an hour before the shooting, deputies say, Rios pointed a gun at his girlfriend because she wouldn’t leave with him and also at her friend, threatening to kill them both.

Oct. 27, 2016 – Deputies arrest Rios after connecting him to the minivan believed to be involved in the shooting death of Oyler.

“When we fingerprinted Rios on Aug. 4, we didn’t get anything back until the 8th,” Himes said. “And on the 8th we only got a match that confirmed he was Rios.”

Himes said he learned of the Butte County warrants from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office when Rios was booked the day after Oyler was killed.

Typically, deputies will run a criminal history on suspects using their name. Fingerprints are taken when a suspect is booked into jail, and the jail forwards those prints electronically to the Washington State Patrol, which also sends them to a national database to see if there are any warrants or prior convictions in other states.

Himes said he contacted Honea about the warrants after Rios was booked on suspicion of murder. It was during that conversation, Himes said, that he learned Honea actually contacted the sheriff’s office in August about the warrants. Honea called the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office dispatch number, he said.

“Butte County said they called the 574-2500 number,” Himes said. “I don’t know what YSO told them, to contact the jail or what.”

In some states, such as California and Louisiana, the sheriff’s office runs the county jail so it’s conceivable Honea could have called the sheriff’s office thinking he reached the jail.

But Yakima County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mike Russell said there is no record of anyone contacting his office about warrants involving Rios or the name he used – Jose Cabrera – in California.

“I can find no information at all that the sheriff’s office was contacted on Aug. 8 or any time around that regarding this,” he said.

Honea, who was interviewed for this story on Thursday, wasn’t available Friday to confirm whether he called the jail or sheriff’s office.

When first interviewed by a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter, Russell said he had no way of determining just how his office became aware of the warrants and that there wasn’t a tracking system to determine that. After several phone calls and repeated questions about the warrants and whether Honea contacted the jail or sheriff’s office, late last week Russell said he’d do more digging.

After taking a deeper look, Russell said he managed to contact the deputies who arrested Rios in August 2016 and a former dispatcher.

According to the deputies who arrested him in August, Rios identified himself under several names, including Jose Cabrera-Corea. The deputies, Russell said, ran that name through the state and federal databases and found nothing.

The complete picture of Rios became visible only after an alert former dispatcher working the night Oyler was killed found the warrants after linking Rios to the Cabrera name. Russell couldn’t say exactly where the dispatcher found the warrants.

“She didn’t say how long it took for her to dig or where she dug to find it,” Russell said.

Under the name Jose Cabrera, Rios was wanted in Butte County for two felony warrants – one for illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition, and another for assault likely to produce great bodily harm.

Rios is accused of pulling a sawed-off shotgun on another man during a Nov. 8, 2012, fight in an Oroville, Calif., trailer park. The gun went off during a struggle but no one was hurt, according to Butte County Superior Court documents. A day earlier, Rios allegedly choked and kicked his girlfriend, leaving bruises on her back and legs. He also threatened to kill her, according to Butte County court documents.

Those warrants were entered on Oct. 30, 2015, into the National Crime Information Center, a database maintained by the FBI.

Prior to those incidents, Rios was convicted of a felony in Butte County for possession of an illegal weapon, a dagger.

Rios’ criminal history reaches back to Dec. 21, 2006, when at 17 he was arrested at a Moxee park on suspicion of being under the influence of marijuana and alcohol and being in possession of a stolen truck, according to records from the juvenile division of Yakima County Superior Court.

Himes, Russell and Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic say Rios’ use of multiple names made it difficult to discover his criminal past in California.

“Whether people want to believe it or not, there’s a breakdown (in investigations) when there’s multiple names,” Brusic said. “We followed all our procedures.”

But the NCIC, a federal database used by California and Washington state, collects suspect information and can quickly link suspects who may be using multiple names to a single set of fingerprints.

And that’s how Honea learned that Rios was incarcerated in Yakima. He said FBI agents connected the names Rios and Cabrera when the jail submitted fingerprints to the State Patrol, which forwarded them to the NCIC.

Honea said the FBI informed him on Aug. 8, 2016, and that he contacted the jail to extradite Rios but learned he had posted bail two days earlier.

Meanwhile, Rios was due back in Yakima County District Court for the pending misdemeanor charges.

In a plea agreement on Sept. 19, 2016, Rios was convicted of hit-and-run property damage and sentenced to 90 days in jail with 89 days suspended and charged a $43 conviction fee.

The driving and gun charges were dropped because Rios forfeited the .38, which had not been reported stolen, Brusic said.

The only record found of the gun was when it was initially purchased in 1972 by a man in Tacoma, Russell said.

The sheriff’s office still has the gun.

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