Undocumented immigrant in S.F. dubbed 'Rideshare Rapist' denied bail
Posted July 17, 2018 8:12 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- A former Lyft driver accused of a series of violent rapes he allegedly committed in San Francisco while living in the country illegally -- prompting a scathing reproach of the city's sanctuary policy from federal immigration officials -- was ordered to be held without bail Tuesday.
The disturbing case of Orlando Vilchez Lazo, the 37-year-old suspect police have dubbed the ``Rideshare Rapist,'' provoked condemnation from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials after it was revealed that he is an undocumented immigrant from Peru who had been working for a ride-hailing service.
On Tuesday, he spoke quietly as he stood before Judge Braden Woods in San Francisco Superior Court to face charges of rape by force or violence, sexual penetration by a foreign object, kidnapping and kidnapping to commit another crime.
Vilchez Lazo was employed by ride-hailing service Lyft, but was terminated when the alarming allegations came to light, a company spokeswoman said. He was not using the platform when he committed four rapes over a five-year span by posing as a driver for hire and luring unsuspecting women outside bars in the South of Market neighborhood, police said.
ICE officials released a statement about the case Monday evening attacking San Francisco's sanctuary city policy, saying it ``shields criminal aliens who prey on people in the community.''
It's unclear, though, how Vilchez Lazo's case or his immigration status relates to the city's law that prohibits cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE in certain cases.
``ICE has made this case about sanctuary laws and immigration status, and that has nothing to do with the charges that are being brought by the district attorney,'' said Deputy Public Defender Eric Quandt, who represented Vilchez Lazo on Tuesday.
Federal immigration authorities send requests to local jails around the country asking them to hold undocumented inmates, or notify immigration officials 48 hours before release, so agents can pick them up for deportation. Vilchez Lazo would only be released if all charges against him were dropped.
San Francisco policy prohibits such cooperation unless the defendant has been convicted of a serious crime, while state law prohibits cooperation unless a person has been charged or convicted of a serious crime.
Vilchez Lazo, however, has no criminal record in San Francisco or anywhere else in the state, according to court records and the district attorney's office. He is being held without bail before his trial and, if convicted, faces multiple counts of life in prison.
San Francisco's sanctuary city policy was propelled into the national spotlight after the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on Pier 14. The case was controversial because the shooter, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was in the country illegally and released from jail weeks earlier despite ICE asking for a notification request so he could be deported for a sixth time.
Then-canditate Donald Trump used the case to highlight his tough-on-immigration platform for president.
``In any part of the country, whenever a non-citizen commits a crime, the standard practice now with ICE and Mr. Trump is to point that out,'' said Bill Hing, a San Francisco immigration attorney and University of San Francisco law professor. ``Obviously, this is an unfortunate crime as alleged, but it's not the sanctuary policy that's at fault.''
What is less clear is how Vilchez Lazo was able to drive for Lyft while he was in the country illegally. The company says it hires a third-party for background checks that uses an applicant's social security number to check their driving history and criminal record.
Lyft officials did not immediately respond to questions about Vilchez Lazo's background check, but the company said in a statement Monday that it has since deactivated his account and is cooperating with the police investigation.
``As soon as we were made aware of these horrific and deeply disturbing allegations, we immediately deactivated him,'' Lyft spokeswoman Kate Margolis said. ``Our thoughts are with the victims of these senseless acts, and we stand ready to assist law enforcement with an investigation.''
Vilchez Lazo was arrested last week after a months-long criminal investigation by a task force that included San Francisco police, the district attorney's office and the FBI.
Investigators said Vilchez Lazo would pull his car up and wait outside bars and nightclubs in the South of Market, hoping an unsuspecting victim would get into the vehicle by mistake.
Once inside, he would drive the woman to an undisclosed location and rape her, sometimes at knife point, police said. Investigators matched Vilchez Lazo's DNA to one case from 2013 and three cases from 2018.
Authorities believe he may be responsible for more crimes.
``Any rape is horrible and it's an incident we take very seriously,'' said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco district attorney's office. ``In this case, we have four victims, so if anyone has information, please contact the police department.''
While police said they don't believe Vilchez Lazo was using a ride-hailing app when he committed his crimes, they said he had stickers from ``one of the major companies'' on his vehicle when he hunted for victims.
At Tuesday's court appearance, Vilchez Lazo wore medium-sized orange jail-issued clothing with his hands cuffed behind his back. Slight in stature and speaking softly, he quietly answered the judge, saying he could not afford his own attorney and that he understood the charges against him.
He is due back in court Thursday for arraignment.