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Calif. governor pardons 2 inmate firefighters who were facing deportation

One of the pardoned inmates had been seriously injured battling a wildfire last year

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pardoned two inmates firefighters who were facing deportation to Laos.

AP Photo/Nic Coury

Vincent Moleski
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced 14 pardons and 13 commutations on Friday, including pardons for two former inmate firefighters who were facing deportation.

Among the inmates granted pardons by the governor were Bounchan Keola, 39, and Kao Ta Saelee, 41, both of whom served as firefighters while incarcerated.

Keola was convicted in 2001 in Contra Costa County of attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm after killing one and injuring two others in two separate gang-related drive-by shootings, according to Newsom administration officials. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

He was 16 at the time of the crimes, and has since “presented evidence that a collateral consequence of his conviction, namely, his impending deportation and permanent separation from his family and removal from his community, further justifies this exercise of executive clemency,” according to his pardon letter.

The Guardian reported in November that Keola was crushed by a tree while fighting the Zogg wildfire, which started in September 2020 in Shasta County. Two weeks later, upon his release date, California corrections officials arranged to transfer him to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in order to be deported to his home country of Laos, which he left when he was 4, according to the British newspaper report.

Saelee, like Keola, was also facing deportation, and also served as an inmate firefighter. He was convicted in December 1998 in Fresno County of attempted murder, second degree robbery and assault with a firearm. At 18, Saelee robbed three convenience stores and shot at store owners during one robbery. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Saelee’s family fled Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. The Guardian profiled him in September 2020, while he was in ICE custody in Louisiana. The newspaper reported that California corrections officials handed him over to ICE on his release date.

California’s practice of coordinating with ICE to transfer released prisoners into immigration enforcement custody has been criticized by advocates and lawmakers locally and nationwide. U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., responded to Saelee’s story by calling on California to end all ICE transfers out of prisons.

Meanwhile, California legislators backing Assembly Bill 937 seek to do just that. The bill, introduced in February, would “prohibit any state or local agency from arresting or assisting with the arrest, confinement, detention, transfer, interrogation, or deportation of an individual for an immigration enforcement purpose.”

Newsom also granted 11 pardons to drug offenders. Among these, three had been convicted only of simple possession. One pardon was granted to a man out of Orange County who had been convicted of making a false claim for payment.

Among the inmates who were granted commutations was Larry Garcia. He was 24 when he was hired by a woman in 1986 to kill her husband. He and the woman beat her husband to death with a metal pipe. In February 1988 in Los Angeles County, Garcia was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The Governor’s Office said that he “has devoted himself to his self-improvement” and received commendations from corrections staff. The California Supreme Court recommended him for a clemency grant, which is necessary for people convicted of more than one felony. He will be able to face a parole board after 34 years in prison.

Jose Barajas was 26 when he defrauded a person in 1996 and subsequently hired people to kill them. The hired guns shot near the victim’s home but didn’t hit anyone. In January 1998, Barajas was sentenced in Los Angeles County to 42 years and four months to life in prison. Owing to his “exemplary disciplinary record,” Barajas will now be able to appear before a parole board after 24 years in prison.

Newsom’s other commutations were granted for inmates convicted of robberies and burglaries, or who were involved in nonfatal shootings, or who were connected with killings but did not directly kill anyone themselves.


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