At 5 p.m. on May 17, 1999, two men armed with a sawed off shotgun with tape around the barrel entered City Financial, a personal lending business, in Anaheim, California and demanded money. The robbers took personal valuables from two employees. They demanded the purse of a third employee, but left without it.
Hector Patino, the assistant store manager, described the two robbers as Hispanic men and said the man with the shotgun weighed about 190 pounds.
Four days later, a police officer saw a car in a shopping center in Orange, California and watched as one person left the car and walked into a Radio Shack store. As the officer watched, another person left the store and made a quick motion with his hand across his neck as if cutting his throat. The officer recognized the second man as Chad Long, who had an outstanding arrest warrant.
Long got into the car and the car was driven toward the Radio Shack. As the officer approached, Long and another man fled from the car. The officer ordered the driver, Johnny Santacruz, to the ground. At that moment, the first man who had entered the Radio Shack, 17-year-old George Lopez, walked out. Lopez and Santacruz were arrested. The car was impounded and police found a sawed off shotgun with tape around the barrel in the backseat.
Lopez was released after he said he had gone into the Radio Shack to buy time for his cell phone—which employees at the store confirmed.
At the time, Lopez was working two jobs. During the day, he worked for a picture framing business in Santa Ana, California, and in the afternoons and evenings, he worked at a school district. On May 17, 1999, Lopez’s timecard showed he left work at 4:04 p.m.—seemingly enough time to commit the robbery.
On July 12, 1999, Santacruz was charged with three robberies in Orange committed with a sawed off shotgun. The first was on May 18, 1999 at an auto parts store, the second was on May 19, 1999 at a tropical fish store, and the third was also on May 19, 1999 at a furniture store.
In August 1999, Patino was shown a photographic lineup containing a photograph of Lopez and he said that Lopez “seemed to be” the man he saw with the shotgun on May 17. He signed a form indicating that he was “positive” that Lopez was the gunman. Another victim of the robbery, Dora Guaderrama, manager of the office, identified Chad Long as the man without the gun. She and fellow employee Melissa Leon, whose purse the robbers left behind, were unable to identify Lopez.
Lopez, who had no criminal record, and Long then were charged with the hold-up of City Financial. Authorities said portrayed the crime as an inside job, saying that Lopez and Long were dating sisters and that Long’s girlfriend was an employee at the loan office, but was not at work on the day of the crime.
They were also both charged with a robbery at 11 a.m. that same day at another business. That charge against Lopez was soon dismissed, apparently after Lopez’s timecard at the framing shop showed he was at work at the time of the crime.
Long pled guilty to conspiracy for his role in the City Financial robbery and was sentenced to 24 months in prison.
In January 2000, Lopez went on trial before a jury in Orange County Superior Court. Patino testified during direct examination that Lopez “looks like” the gunman, but added that he thought Lopez had changed—that he was much thinner than he recalled. In fact, Lopez weighed about 150 pounds and had always weighed that much.
Asked on cross-examination if he was positive, Patino said, “In all honesty, he looks like the guy. It’s been some time, so I can’t be 100 percent.”
Guaderrama and Leon also were called as prosecution witnesses, but neither was asked to identify Lopez.
At a recess in the trial, Guaderrama and Leon told the prosecution and defense attorney for Lopez that after seeing Lopez in the courtroom, they both realized that he was not either of the robbers.
Lopez’s attorney, however, decided not to call either woman as a defense witness. The prosecution continued with their case.
On February 1, 2000, Lopez was convicted of two counts of robbery and one count of attempted robbery. In April, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Not long after, Patino wrote a letter to the judge saying that “the suspect presented to me at the trial…may not be the actual person who committed the crime.”
The Los Angeles Times interviewed the two women and both were adamant that Lopez was not involved. “I have no doubt George Lopez is innocent,” Guaderrama told the newspaper. Leon stated, “George Lopez is too thin and too small in build.”
In July 2001, while Lopez was appealing his conviction, Santacruz told the newspaper that he was the gunman who committed the robbery, not Lopez. Santacruz told the newspaper he committed at least 11 robberies of Orange County businesses in 1999 to pay for narcotics.
Lawyers for Lopez filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that Lopez’s trial lawyer provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call the witnesses who said Lopez was not the robber and for failing to discover that Santacruz pleaded guilty to three other robberies also committed with a sawed off shotgun with a taped barrel.
On September 7, 2001, Lopez was released without bail. On January 8, 2002, the Orange County District Attorney filed a motion to vacate the convictions and dismiss the charges. On January 11, an Orange County Superior Court judge dismissed the case.
Lopez later sued his trial attorney and settled for $600,000. However, he received very little of the money because the lawyer then filed for bankruptcy.
– Maurice Possley