The Sheriff’s Office says it arrested two Phoenix men who allegedly burglarized a store in Sonoita on Saturday morning, shortly after they were released by the Border Patrol following a prior arrest.

The men, both U.S. citizens, were charged with burglary and criminal damage and booked into the county jail, according to a news release from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. Dispatch reports indicate that the break-in happened at a shop next door to the Sonoita Border Patrol Station, and that it was reported a little before 7:30 a.m. Saturday by a Border Patrol agent.

The alleged offense itself isn’t especially unusual – crime statistics show the Sheriff’s Office received 27 burglary calls in 2020 and 53 in 2019. But the sequence of events leading up to it raises questions about why the out-of-town suspects, who had reportedly been detained by the Border Patrol following a suspected human-smuggling incident, were released early in the morning on foot in Sonoita, a rural community with little in the way of resources or transportation for someone who’s just walked out of detention.

And it comes in the midst of increasingly heated national rhetoric about immigration issues and reports that Border Patrol has warned local law enforcement agencies that it might release asylum-seeking migrants from its Nogales or Sonoita stations. The NI first learned of the burglary from a local resident who said a rumor was going around that the crime had been committed by undocumented foreign nationals.

In reality, the two men arrested by deputies on Saturday – 22-year-old Adrian Vivar and 29-year-old Geovanni Perez – are U.S. citizens and residents of Arizona. And Border Patrol spokesman said on Monday that the agency hadn’t released any asylum-seeking migrants in Sonoita, like it’s done in other rural Arizona communities like Ajo and Gila Bend.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway acknowledged the potential for the Sonoita burglary to add to the tension surrounding migrant releases.

“If there’s people interested in talking about, say, a migrant crisis, then they will maybe amplify stories like this, even though this involved U.S. citizens,” Hathaway said.

According to information provided by the Sheriff’s Office, after the Border Patrol first reported the burglary on Saturday morning, agents and sheriff’s deputies investigated the scene and found that cash, clothing and other items had been taken from the store.

While the investigation was underway, Border Patrol agents reported having contact with three people on State Route 83, which runs north-south through Sonoita. The agents reportedly told sheriff’s deputies that they had previously taken the three into custody, but released them that morning. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office added that the Border Patrol had originally arrested the trio on Friday.

Deputies reportedly found two of the people – Vivar and Perez – in possession of items stolen from the store, and subsequently arrested them. The Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the three were apparently on the state highway trying to hitchhike back to Phoenix after the Border Patrol seized their car. There wasn’t evidence connecting the third person, a woman, to the alleged robbery, the spokesman added.

A Border Patrol spokesman didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions seeking further information about the incident. But the sheriff’s spokesman said the suspects had initially been detained following an “alien smuggling event,” but were then released directly from the Sonoita Border Patrol Station, which sits just west of the State Route 82 and State Route 83 crossroads.

Hathaway said he’d been told that Border Patrol agents called the U.S. Attorney’s Office after the arrest, but the prosecutor declined to accept the case, leading the Border Patrol to release the three suspects.

The sheriff added that it’s not unusual for the Border Patrol to release people who are arrested on suspicion of human trafficking or drug smuggling if there’s ultimately not enough evidence to bring a successful case against them – at least if the suspects are legally present in the county.

“If you have a declination to prosecute them, what do you do? You have to release them,” Hathaway said. “That’s the same with any police department or the Sheriff’s Office.”

Vivar and Perez remained in custody at the county jail as of Tuesday afternoon with bond set at $5,000 each.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Clark.)

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