On November 18, 1994, a man in a Jeans-For-Less store in Wilmington, California, brought clothing to the counter as if he intended to make a purchase. Instead, the man drew a pistol, came behind the counter and forced the store’s owner, Moheb Hanna, to hand over cash from a cash register. The gunman then fled.
On November 28, 1994, a man walked into Tom’s Burgers in Carson, California, inquired about the day’s specials, then drew a handgun, jumped the counter and ordered a clerk to open the cash register. The robber took $500 and fled.
On December 5, 1994, a man returned to the same Tom’s Burgers, again drew a pistol, jumped the counter and ordered the same clerk, Marcia Garcia, to open the cash register. The man took an undetermined amount of cash after pointing his gun at the restaurant manager, Lionel Brambila. The gunman then ordered another employee to open the other cash register and hand over the cash in the till. The gunman then fled. The employees told police that the same man had committed both robberies of the restaurant.
In January 1995, Los Angeles police showed photographic lineups to the five witnesses in the three robberies. All the witnesses except Brambila (who selected no one) identified the photograph of 38-year-old Roy Alvarez, who had been released from prison in 1994 after serving a sentence for armed robbery. In 1985 Alvarez had pled guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 15 years. At the time, police linked him to 25 different armed robberies.
On January 12, 1995, Alvarez was arrested and charged with the two robberies of Tom’s Burgers and the robbery of the Jeans-For-Less store.
He went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in October 1995. Brambila, the manager of Tom’s, did not identify Alvarez, but he did tell the jury that he believed the same man robbed the restaurant on November 28 and December 5.
Garcia testified that although she had picked Alvarez’s photo from the lineup, she no longer believed Alvarez was the robber.
Two other employees who witnessed the robberies, Gloria Estanislao and Cecilia Medina, also said they were no longer sure of their identifications of Alvarez. Estanislao said Alvarez resembled the robber, but that he was heavier and had a lighter complexion than the robber. Medina said that Alvarez was heavier and that the robber had acne scars, which Alvarez did not have.
Moheb Hanna, the owner of Jeans-For-Less, testified that he was positive that Alvarez robbed his store.
The detective on the case testified that the technique employed by the robber in these three crimes–posing as a customer, drawing a pistol and jumping over or going behind the counter–was “very, very rare.”
Before the case was submitted to the jury for deliberation, the trial judge dismissed the charges relating to the November 28, 1994 robbery of Tom’s Burgers for lack of evidence. The prosecution then offered Alvarez a deal to plead guilty to the remaining charges in return for a five-year prison term. Alvarez rejected the offer.
In November 1995, the jury convicted Alvarez of the December 5 robbery of Tom’s Burgers and the robbery of the Jeans-For-Less store.
Prior to sentencing, Alvarez discovered that in December 1994—two weeks before he was arrested—the same detective who handled his case arrested another man, Raul Silva, on charges of committing several armed robberies of video stores in the same geographic area. Alvarez wrote a letter to Hanna, owner of the Jeans-For-Less store and said that he was not the robber and that Silva probably was. Hanna then went to the police, who put a photograph of Silva in a photographic lineup. Hanna said Silva—not Alvarez—was the gunman who robbed his store.
Alvarez’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial based on Hanna’s identification of Silva. The trial judge vacated the conviction for the robbery of the Jeans-For-Less store, and then sentenced Alvarez to 14 years in prison for the December 5, 1994 Tom’s Burgers robbery.
After his conviction was affirmed on initial appeal, attorney Valerie Wass and attorney Jill Ishida from the California Appellate Project re-investigated the case and in 2002 filed a state-court petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition alleged that Alvarez’s attorney had failed to call three witnesses who would have testified that Alvarez was at his job on November 28, 1994, the day of the first Tom’s Burgers robbery. The petition accused the prosecution of withholding evidence of Silva’s arrest and that Silva (who pled guilty to other robberies) committed his crimes by posing as a customer, leaping over the counter and demanding cash at gunpoint.
The petition noted that Silva had acne scars on his face and that he was much skinnier than Alvarez—which fit the witnesses’ descriptions of the robber in the cases for which Alvarez was convicted.
On September 9, 2002, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said it would not oppose the granting of the petition. A judge vacated Alvarez’s conviction, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Alvarez was released.
Alvarez sought compensation from the state of California, but his claim was denied. Alvarez also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, but the case was dismissed.
In 2010, Alvarez was charged with assault for pulling a bottle from his pocket and threatening to kill a man during an argument. Alvarez was convicted and sentenced under California’s Three Strikes Law to 42 years to life in prison.
– Maurice Possley