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Victims: He Didn't Do It

Garden Grove teen serving a 13-year sentence for a holdup has two unusual allies in his appeal.

September 02, 2000|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyers seeking a new trial for a Garden Grove teenager convicted of robbery will have some unusual ammunition: statements from two of the victims maintaining he did not commit the crime.

A jury earlier this year found 18-year-old George Arnulfo Lopez guilty of entering an Anaheim loan office with a shotgun and holding up three employees; he was sentenced to 13 years in state prison.

But two of the employees said in interviews and court papers this week that Lopez was not the robber, and their statements are expected to take center stage at an upcoming appeals court hearing to determine whether he should receive a new trial. The case is considered highly uncommon because victims have become advocates in the effort to reverse the conviction.

"I have no doubt George Lopez is innocent," victim Dora Guaderrama said in an interview this week. "He was not the guy holding the shotgun."

Another employee, Marissa Leon, stated in a signed declaration: "I can firmly attest to this young man not being the guilty party. . . . George Lopez is too thin and too small in build. Also his complexion was too light."

A third victim, Hector Patino, identified Lopez in photograph and in-person lineups but told jurors from the witness stand that he wasn't sure Lopez was the robber. In April, Patino wrote a letter to the judge reiterating that "the suspect presented to me at the trial . . . may not be the actual person who committed the crime."

Lopez's attorney knew that Guaderrama and Leon harbored doubts that Lopez was the gunman but chose not to present the information to jurors, according to court records. The attorney, Charles Stoddard, said his strategy seemed correct at the time but that he now faults himself for the conviction.

"I take a lot of responsibility for it because obviously it was in my hands," Stoddard said. "So I have my demons to wrestle with in this one. It's every lawyer's worst nightmare to have an innocent client end up being convicted."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Joe D'Agostino, who prosecuted Lopez, declined on Friday to discuss the case. "It's on appeal," he said. "We'll allow the legal process go forward."

Prosecutors have up to now opposed attempts to reverse the conviction and argued that the jury made the right decision.

Lopez maintained his innocence during an interview last week at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, saying he hopes an appeals court will see the flaws in the case against him. There were no fingerprints or other physical evidence linking him to the gun or the crime scene.

"I don't think it's fair to put someone away because someone says he looks like the guy but they aren't sure," he said. "It hurts. I miss being out there, being with my family."

Lopez has received support from some unexpected places. For example, the sentencing report prepared by the Orange County Probation Department expressed skepticism about Lopez's guilt.

"It is difficult to imagine the defendant participating in an offense of this magnitude given his background," wrote Deputy Probation Officer Elizabeth McWethy. "He appears to be very unsophisticated, emotionally fragile and meek. He appears to be overwhelmed at where he finds himself and very fearful of incarceration."

The case stems from a daytime robbery on May 17, 1999, at the Commercial Credit Corp. building on Lincoln Avenue.

Prosecutors argued that the robbery was an inside job. They charged that Lopez committed the crime with ex-convict Chadric Long. The men dated sisters, and Long's girlfriend worked at the loan office.

Authorities said Lopez toted a sawed-off shotgun during the robbery. Long, they said, was unarmed. Because there was no money in the loan office, the robbers took jewelry from one employee and the wallet from another before fleeing.

Police connected Lopez, then 17, to the Commercial Credit robbery four days later during a shopping trip to a Radio Shack in Orange. While Lopez was in the store, police recognized Long, who was wanted for a parole violation, and approached his car. Long fled.

Under the back seat of the car, police found a sawed-off shotgun like the kind used in the robbery. Police arrested Lopez as he returned to the car. Two others in Long's car were also arrested.

The Commercial Credit robbery was one of five committed within a three-day period in May 1999 in Anaheim, Tustin and Orange that police believed were connected. Either one or two men participated in the robberies. They wore dark jackets and used the same distinctive weapon--a sawed-off shotgun with white tape around the barrel--identical to the one found in Long's car.

One of the men arrested at the Radio Shack eventually pleaded guilty to committing some of those robberies, but not the Commercial Credit holdup. The man, an 18-year-old Orange gang member, pleaded guilty two months before Lopez's trial. He admitted using the sawed-off shotgun in each of those crimes.

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