On September 20, 2000, the Bank of America branch in Gilbert, Arizona was held up by a short, Hispanic woman with a pock-marked face who posed as a customer.
When the robber reached the teller, she handed a note to Elizabeth Chlupsa demanding that she hand over money or be shot. Chlupsa complied and the robber fled without speaking a word.
Rachel Jernigan, 30, became a suspect following a chance conversation between the FBI agent investigating the robbery and a U.S. postal inspector who was suspected Jernigan was the culprit in some shoplifting of stamps at a local post office. When the postal inspector noted that Jernigan fit the description of the bank robber, the FBI agent compared bank surveillance photos to Jernigan and then created a photo lineup. Chlupsa picked Jernigan as the robber.
Jernigan was arrested on November 10, 2000 and charged with the September 20 heist as well as an October 11, 2000 robbery in Tempe, Arizona, and an October 25, 2000 robbery in Chandler, Arizona.
Following Jernigan’s arrest, but before her trial, two other bank robberies were committed—on November 28, 2000 and on November 30, 2000—by a person matching Jernigan’s description: a short, Hispanic woman with acne.
After the Tempe and Chandler robberies were severed from her case, Jernigan went on trial on March 20, 2001 for the robbery in Gilbert. The prosecution relied entirely on the accounts of five eyewitnesses and the bank surveillance video, which was used primarily to bolster the eyewitnesses’ testimony.
There was no physical evidence linking Jernigan to the crime. A fingerprint lifted from the teller window did not match Jernigan and after Jernigan was arrested, the police failed to find the stolen money, the firearm used to conduct the robbery or any clothing resembling that worn by the robber.
Jernigan denied involvement in any bank robberies and her attorney argued that she had been misidentified.
On March 23, 2001, Jernigan was convicted of bank robbery and use of a firearm during a bank robbery. She was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The other two bank robbery charges were dismissed.
On December 11, 2001, Juanita Rodriguez-Gallegos robbed the same bank allegedly robbed by Jernigan on September 20, 2000. During that robbery a teller placed a tracking device in the money. Police stopped Rodriguez-Gallegos half an hour after the robbery and the teller identified her as the robber.
She was charged with the November 28, 2000, November 30, 2000, and December 11, 2001 bank robberies, and with one count of brandishing a firearm during a violent crime. She pled guilty to the firearm offense, and the remaining charges were dropped.
Jernigan discovered Rodriguez-Gallegos's arrest from fellow inmates and moved for a new trial in January 2004. The motion contended that the prosecution had improperly withheld the existence of bank robber who resembled Jernigan who had been robbing banks in the same area after Jernigan’s incarceration. The district court denied the motion.
On July 9, 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the trial court ruling and granted Jernigan a new trial, saying that the evidence should have been turned over to Jernigan’s defense attorney.
The court noted, “The uncanny similarity between the descriptions of the alleged robbers would be noteworthy even if the eyewitness accounts did not describe a most unlikely bank robber. In 2000 (the year the robberies in question took place), only six percent of all bank robbery perpetrators were female. Only six percent of bank robbers overall (male and female) were Hispanic….The likelihood of two short, Hispanic female robbers with pockmarked skin holding up banks in the same area is therefore extremely low.”
In early 2008, Rodriguez-Gallegos admitted that she had committed the robbery for which Jernigan had been prosecuted.
On February 5, 2008, the charges were dismissed and Jernigan was released.
In December 2008, Jernigan filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit was settled in 2012 for $1 million.
– Maurice Possley