MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — There was a feeling of relief Wednesday inside the Hidden Harbor Estates 55+ community in Martin County following the arrest of a suspect accused of sexually assaulting an elderly woman.
It was a culmination of nearly a week of nightly worry for residents as detectives warned people who live here to lock up and be on guard.
Marvin Ailon-Mendoza, 20, was arrested and booked into jail Tuesday night on charges of burglary, carrying a knife and sexually battering an 82-year-old woman while wearing a mask.
A judge issued a $520,000 bond during a court appearance Wednesday afternoon.
Local resident James Timson said his 94-year-old mother-in-law was very concerned before the arrest.
"We fixed her door so it would lock better," Timson said.
That changed after Mendoza's arrest.
"The first words out of her mouth, 'They caught him.' She's extremely happy," Timson said.
Investigators said Mendoza, who is undocumented from Guatemala, has a history of sex crimes in the area.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder credits DNA evidence to track down Mendoza.
"If we didn’t have DNA evidence this case would have been very, very difficult," Snyder said.
Snyder was instrumental in writing and helping pass legislation during his time as a Florida state representative that required people arrested for felonies to submit DNA samples.
Previously, the law used to only require the submission of DNA after a conviction, despite DNA often being needed for a conviction.
The arrest of Mendoza was a full-circle moment, Snyder said.
"With his background and his felony arrests, we had his DNA in a state a national database. Without that we would have been in big trouble," Snyder said.
Snyder said Mendoza traveled to the United States in 2016 as an unaccompanied minor, seeking asylum.
Snyder said he began asylum-seeking hearings in New York state but never completed the hearings. Snyder believes that's because Mendoza started committing crimes.
"During the asylum-seeking process, he [did] get arrested several times," Snyder said he learned after discussions with Homeland Security.
His juvenile felony charges included grand theft, "and one was a battery by way of strangulation which is also a felony," Snyder said.
When Mendoza moved to Martin County, authorities said he committed more crimes.
"And unfortunately, because of our broken immigration system, nothing happens," Snyder said.
Records show Mendoza was convicted of exposing his sexual organs at Shepard Park in Stuart in 2019. An arrest report said a woman complained that he was masturbating within 100 feet of children while watching a woman bending over to photograph her dog.
The State Attorney's Office said he did not have to register as a sex offender because the charge had to be downgraded to a misdemeanor.
"Unfortunately, in that case, they were not able to find the children who were the victims, so the state was forced to drop it to a misdemeanor," Snyder said.
He was also charged with violating probation following the exposure conviction.
"His sex crimes were beginning to escalate," Snyder said of his latest allegation of rape.
Immigration Attorney Christopher Gaston learned of the case Wednesday.
"I agree 100% this points to the weakness in our immigration system," Gaston said.
He helps law-abiding immigrants stay in the country.
"When you hear about a case like this, we do get concerned that it causes a generalization throughout the entire undocumented community," Gaston said.
Gaston explained the offense, if Mendoza is convicted, would put him on the fast track for deportation, only most likely after serving a lengthy if not lifetime sentence.
Snyder also would rather Mendoza avoid deportation.
"I want to see him spend the rest of his life in the Department of Corrections because we know deportation and the system is so broken, I don't trust it. I don’t think people in Martin County trust it, but I trust my jail and I trust the department of corrections and that’s where he belongs," Snyder said.
Investigators are still working to determine if there might be other victims. They said he used multiple aliases.
Investigators said the victim was extremely relieved to learn Mendoza was arrested.
They also said he is not cooperating with investigators and told one that he wishes he was dead.