ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal law enforcement agencies have been hunting Francisco Melgar-Cabrera since 2009 for his role in the murder of Stephanie Anderson, a 34-year-old cook killed in a bold daytime armed robbery at a Denny’s restaurant on Albuquerque’s West Side.
They know the 29-year-old Melgar-Cabrera has been in his native El Salvador staying with relatives in villages and small towns. At various times over the past three years, U.S. federal agents have even known in what house Melgar-Cabrera was living and with which relatives.
But they can’t touch him.
Although no one in federal law enforcement will confirm it on the record, the Journal has learned that the government of El Salvador has denied a U.S. Justice Department request to issue a provincial arrest warrant for Melgar-Cabrera.
The most likely reason: U.S. prosecutors have refused to take a possible death penalty off the table for Melgar-Cabrera’s role in a crime that shocked Albuquerque.
His two alleged accomplices, Marvin Aguilar-Lopez and Pablo De Leon Ortiz, were arrested in Albuquerque in the days after the shooting. They have pleaded guilty to robbery and murder. One is in prison; the other awaiting sentencing.
But Melgar-Cabrera escaped. He made his way out of the country and back to his native El Salvador.
An FBI spokesman referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which in turn said it couldn’t comment about the status of the U.S. government’s request for Melgar-Cabrera’s arrest in El Salvador, which must happen before a formal extradition request can be made.
The El Salvadoran embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions, and communications between the U.S. Department of Justice and El Salvador go through confidential diplomatic channels.
But the Journal has confirmed that federal law enforcement officials know where Melgar-Cabrera is and have tracked his movements in El Salvador for the last few years. They declined to state how they have tracked him.
A 1911 treaty between the U.S. and El Salvador does not allow El Salvador to extradite its citizens in cases where the defendant faces the death penalty or a prison sentence exceeding 70 years.
El Salvador has cooperated in the arrests and extradition of suspected members of the notorious street gang MS-13 for a wide assortment of crimes in the United States, including murder, but only after the death penalty has been waived.
Federal prosecutors waived the death penalty in the prosecutions of Melgar-Cabrera’s co-defendants but not in his case, according to federal court records.
On the morning of June 20, 2009, Aguilar-Lopez, Ortiz and Melgar-Cabrera stormed into a crowded West Side Denny’s restaurant with guns drawn in an attempt to rob the business.
In the resulting confusion, an employee dropped a tray and one of the robbers slipped on the ice while he was chasing an employee, his gun went off and Anderson was killed by a ricocheting bullet.
All three suspects were identified as illegal immigrants from El Salvador and two of them – Ortiz and Melgar-Cabrera – were identified by Albuquerque Police as members of the MS-13 gang.
All three had previously been deported but re-entered the country illegally.
Federal law enforcement agencies initially took the case because of the MS-13 gang issue, but later determined they were not members of the gang. They kept the case under the theory that the robbers interfered with interstate commerce by robbing the chain restaurant.
Marvin Aguilar-Lopez and Pablo De Leon Ortiz were arrested within a week of the fatal holdup and have pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Melgar-Cabrera’s brother, Jose Humberto Melgar-Cabrera, was charged with helping his brother escape to Arizona after the robbery. He has pleaded guilty.
Four additional robbery and firearms offenses were filed later against Aguilar-Lopez, De Leon Ortiz and Francisco Melgar-Cabrera based on the armed robbery of the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon on Coors in June 2009.
Aguilar-Lopez entered a guilty plea to the armed robbery of the Denny’s Restaurant, and the felony murder of Anderson.
His plea agreement calls for a 40-year prison term and subsequent deportation, but his sentence was delayed while the court determined if Aguilar-Lopez was mentally competent to enter his guilty plea. He was ruled competent last month and has 30 days in which to ask the court’s permission to withdraw his guilty plea.
Ortiz agreed in negotiations with federal prosecutors to serve 35 years in federal prison for his participation in felony murder, and that was the term he was sentenced to by U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson, who noted that Ortiz had a state-issued driver’s license despite being in the country illegally.
Melgar-Cabrera’s older brother Jose Melgar-Cabrera was sentenced to four years in prison for helping Francisco avoid arrest shortly after the robbery.
Jose Melgar-Cabrera drove Francisco to Phoenix, Ariz., escaping police by minutes as they swooped down on Francisco’s westside home.