WASHINGTON—Two excruciating weeks of sleepless nights and frantic days ended with the worst news parents can hear—their child was dead.
Chris Stansberry and Kimberly Roberts of Iowa lost their 18-year-old daughter Tierra Stansberry on June 13, 2016, when an illegal alien set fire to the Los Angeles building she was in.
Tierra was one of five people who died in the fire, along with her 24-year-old boyfriend, Joseph Proenneke.
Tierra had arrived in Los Angeles hours earlier to find Proenneke and convince him to return home to Iowa. She found him in an abandoned building by the city’s MacArthur Park, near downtown. Several transients were living there, including an illegal alien from Honduras, Johnny Josue Sanchez.
Sanchez got into a fight with another squatter and threatened to kill him. Sanchez then set fires at the exits of the building, fatally trapping five of the eight people inside.
“Three of them were able to make it out after firefighters cut the bars off the windows on the second story. They were screaming for help,” Roberts said, recalling the details she heard at the trial.
The building ultimately collapsed in the blaze and cadaver dogs were sent in the next day to find remains.
At first, there was a frantic period of trying to contact Tierra and receiving no reply, then sending investigators her dental records and photos for identification.
“We didn’t know completely, 100 percent, that it was Tierra for almost two weeks,” Roberts said.
Stansberry said the couple didn’t get much sleep during that time, “but since she didn’t call, no contact with her, we were pretty sure it was her.”
Proenneke’s mother, Mary Davis, and his stepfather, Jerry Clemons—both of whom had traveled with Tierra—also died in the fire. The fifth fatality was California resident DeAndre Mitchell.
‘It Never Should Have Happened’
Both Roberts and Stansberry said it made it worse for them that Sanchez was in the country illegally.
Stansberry said that Sanchez had been in jail multiple times previously, for domestic violence allegations and drug possession. He was arrested on suspicion of drug possession on June 8, just days before the fire.
Sanchez was released each time, and ICE said it wasn’t notified, as per Los Angeles sanctuary policies that limit communication and cooperation with immigration officials.
“It never should have happened, because if he wasn’t here or if he was deported, we never would’ve had to … [worry] about this. We wouldn’t be having a memory of a picture. We’d be making memories at home,” Roberts said.
“It is worse when it’s not someone who is supposed to be around.”
ICE confirmed that Sanchez illegally crossed the U.S.–Mexico border into California in November 2012 when he was 18. Border Patrol turned him over to ICE, which determined he had no prior immigration or criminal history and released him with a requirement to report to ICE on a regular basis. During the Obama era, immigration enforcement only focused on illegal aliens with serious criminal histories.
“[Department of Homeland Security] databases indicate Mr. Sanchez reported to ICE as required until August 2014, when he failed to appear for his scheduled appointment,” a spokesperson for ICE confirmed via email.
The next contact ICE had with Sanchez was two years later, after he was arrested for murder. The agency placed a detainer on him with the Los Angeles County Jail on June 23, 2016.
Roberts said Tierra was a caring person.
“She always thought of everybody before herself. She made sure everybody else was happy before she even thought about her own happiness. And she’d do anything for anybody,” she said.
Stansberry called her a “goofball.”
“She was outgoing, funny, always goofing off,” he said, mentioning the years-old posts that still pop up on his Facebook account showing Tierra and her sister dancing or “just goofing off.”
He said that when Tierra was a child, she always had a wish to help other children.
Roberts and Stansberry traveled from Iowa to Los Angeles throughout Sanchez’s trial, conviction, and most recently his sentencing.
“We’ve been there for all the trial dates and everything, so flying back and forth,” Roberts said. “And it takes a toll, because we know why we’re going and we know what we’re getting ourselves into emotionally. And it’s physically draining. But it’s all worth it for her.
“We needed to see that justice was served. And, yes, she got justice, but it’s never going to bring her back. It doesn’t change the fact of the outcome. But the one thing is, he can’t do this to anybody else.”
On Nov. 8, 2019, Sanchez was sentenced to life without parole.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Roberts said. “And so we know for a fact that someone else’s family, at his hand, isn’t going to go through what we’re going through.”
Stansberry and Roberts are part of Angel Families, a support group for families who have lost loved ones through illegal alien crime. In September, the couple joined Angel Families members and nearly 200 sheriffs outside the U.S. Capitol to denounce illegal immigration and the sanctuary policies that harbor illegal immigrants.
Roberts said they’d be satisfied if jails would work with ICE to detain and transfer illegal aliens, rather than release them, as is the case in many sanctuary jurisdictions.
“We need to protect our own before we do anything else. And our government needs to work together to make sure that the American people are protected, and no other family goes through what we have to go through,” she said.