Federal immigration agents arrested a Santa Ana man on city streets Monday, just as he was driving with his family to Orange County Superior Court to defend himself against charges he resisted arrest, among other things, in an earlier incident that garnered national headlines due to a graphic video showing local police beating him.
Edgar Vargas and his family were driving to court Monday when federal agents pulled over their car and arrested him, according to his parents and sister – who along with a half dozen other family members came out to support Vargas, who has battled drug abuse and a criminal record.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) said its officials were not aware of Vargas's legal proceedings, and that she was unaware of the details of how Monday's arrest took place.
Yet in an interview with Voice of OC, family members said immigration agents drove unmarked cars with tinted windows and refused to provide their names, before taking away their car keys and leaving.
Vargas’ immediate family said they then walked the remaining distance to Superior Court from the intersection of Flower St. and Myrtle St.
At least seven family members – including his mother, father, sisters, grandmother and grandfather – came to court to show their support for Edgar:
But because Edgar didn't appear, Judge Robert Fitzgerald issued a warrant for his arrest after a short hearing Monday.
Vargas' father, Miguel, seemed shocked as he relayed the morning’s events.
He described his son as caring, helping out with the family’s party supply business and being protective of his younger siblings.
Edgar Vargas and his sisters. (Photo courtesy: Vargas family)
Edgar Vargas was addicted to methamphetamine years ago, he added, contributing to prior felony convictions, but more recently has been working to obtain his high school diploma equivalency at Santa Ana College.
Vargas’ case attracted national media attention last month, when a video showed officers punch him repeatedly and swing a baton at his legs.
Just before the June 20 confrontation, Vargas is seen lying on the ground at the apparent direction of officers.
Officers had been chasing Vargas after a burglary call from a nearby house, police say.
Vargas was charged with attempted burglary, battery upon a peace officer, inflicting great bodily harm, unlawful tampering of a vehicle and resisting a peace officer.
He now faces deportation proceedings and could be sent to Mexico.
Socorro Acosta, whose son made the call to police and was home at the time, said she heard a man on her front porch mumbling and speaking gibberish to himself.
“He looked like he was hiding, high on drugs,” Acosta told the Orange County Register.
She told Voice of OC on Monday that her family is not pressing charges against Vargas.
The move by ICE effectively puts the brakes on proceedings in Vargas’ local criminal case, where a public defender had planned to present evidence for his defense on Monday.
At the preliminary hearing, public defender Frank Bittar said he was planning to show the video of Vargas “surrendering” and then being beaten by police, to counter several of the charges.
“This is all just very, very suspicious,” said Bittar, adding that he’s never heard of ICE targeting someone who is their way to court.
ICE’s approach was also described as unusual by Santa Ana’s police spokesman.
“I’ve never heard of ICE making car stops like that before,” said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.
A spokeswoman for ICE said she didn’t know how her agents arrested Vargas, but that they weren’t aware of Vargas’ legal proceedings before the arrest.
Vargas had more than one felony conviction, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice wrote in a news release, and was targeted for arrest “based solely upon his case history.”
However, Kice declined in an interview to say if her agency had contact with Santa Ana police or District Attorney officials leading up to Vargas’ arrest on Monday.
“I’m just going to cut it off right here,” said Kice, adding that she wasn’t aware of the answer.
“I don’t know, and I’m not going to follow up,” Kice said. “We don’t want to do anything that would potentially impugn any ongoing” investigations.
District attorney spokeswoman Farrah Emami said Tuesday that to her knowledge no one at the DA's office had contact with ICE about Vargas in the days leading up to Monday's arrest.
Emami said she checked with Senior Deputy District Attorney Anthony Ferrentino, who supervises the case's lead prosecutor.
Ferrentino said the prosecutor did not have contact with ICE leading up to the arrest, Emami added, and first learned of the ICE arrest from the defense attorney after it happened.
Bertagna, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he asked Police Chief Carlos Rojas, a commander and detectives about the arrest.
“As far as I know from all the people I’ve talked to, we did not contact ICE nor did we participate with ICE," said Bertagna.
Since Vargas didn’t show up to Monday’s preliminary hearing – due to his federal detention – Judge Fitzgerald issued an arrest warrant for “failure to appear.”
That means his parents lose thousands of dollars in fees they paid for his bail, said Bittar.
Vargas’s sister, Sareth Vargas, said her family had paid $4,000 in bail fees.
If Vargas is released by federal officials, he would be detained in county jail and the family would have to pay another bail fee to get him released, according to Bittar.
Going forward, the case could end up being the focus of a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Vargas’s family members said they plan to speak with an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union about their son.
Meanwhile, the public defender told Vargas’s parents he’ll continue his work on the criminal side.
“We’re not rolling over on this,” Bittar said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Vargas's father's name.