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Inmate Says He, Not Pal, Robbed Loan Office; Crime:
Statement comes as George Lopez's attorneys seek new trial for 1999
armed heist in Anaheim.


A convicted robber said in a prison interview this week that he was the gunman who held up an Anaheim loan office in 1999, not the young man serving 13 years for the crime.

The admission raises new questions about the conviction last year of George Lopez and comes as his attorneys are seeking a new trial. A jury convicted Lopez of robbing Commercial Credit Corp., even though two victims said he was not the gunman.

The man who now maintains he held up the loan office is 18-year- old gang member Johnny SantaCruz, who's serving a 15-year sentence for robbing three Orange County businesses the same week the loan office was robbed.
SantaCruz said the loan office was one of at least 11 Orange County businesses he robbed during a period of "partying," in which most of his money went to drugs.

SantaCruz, of Orange, and Lopez, of Garden Grove, were arrested together four days after the robbery when police searched a car they were traveling in and discovered a gun. But SantaCruz said that day was the first time he had ever met Lopez and that Lopez didn't know the gun was in the car. SantaCruz insisted that Lopez had no involvement in the robberies.

"He didn't do it. . . . He's innocent," SantaCruz told The Times in an interview at Ironwood State Prison. "I saw an opportunity. I was going to take their money."
SantaCruz has refused to cooperate with investigators for the defense, who in recent months questioned him about the heist. But in the interview, SantaCruz said he would plead guilty if he received a reduced sentence and Lopez were freed.

Last year, SantaCruz pleaded guilty to robbing three businesses in Tustin and Orange. In those crimes, SantaCruz used a sawed-off shotgun with masking tape wrapped around the barrel, the same type of weapon described by the victims of the loan store robbery.

SantaCruz's statement comes three weeks before Orange County prosecutors are scheduled to respond to Lopez's bid for a new trial. A state appeals court in June found that Lopez's appeal may have merit and ordered prosecutors to prove why the original conviction should stand.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Gurwitz said his office will investigate SantaCruz's statements.
Gurwitz also said his office will continue to oppose a new trial for Lopez only "if we are convinced that the evidence supports the jury's verdicts."
Prosecutors charged Lopez with the Anaheim robbery in August 1999- -three months after he and SantaCruz were arrested outside an Orange shopping plaza.

Lopez was inside the plaza's Radio Shack purchasing cellular phone air time when police officers approached the vehicle. Officers discovered the sawed-off shotgun under the back seat and arrested the occupants. When Lopez left the store, he was also arrested.

Police, suspecting a robbery was in progress, checked with the Radio Shack clerk and confirmed that Lopez had purchased air time. Lopez claims his sister-in-law's boyfriend offered him a ride to the store and the man unexpectedly picked up SantaCruz and another man on the way there. Police said the other occupants of the car were gang members but said Lopez has no gang affiliations and no prior arrests.

Authorities later linked Lopez to the loan office robbery when one of the victims identified his photograph.

But during the trial, two of the victims told the prosecutor outside of court they didn't believe Lopez was the gunman. The prosecutor passed along the statement to Lopez's defense lawyer, who chose not to ask them to testify about their doubts.

Since the trial, both victims have said Lopez was not the robber.
"I'm sure it wasn't him," victim Dora Guaderrama said in an interview earlier this year.
Marissa Leon, another employee who witnessed the crime, said in a sworn declaration: "George Lopez simply did not match the person that I saw the day of the robbery."

The third victim, Hector Patino, originally told investigators that a photograph of Lopez looked like the gunman. But he could not identify him in court and said in an interview he now doubts Lopez committed the crime.
One legal expert said the witnesses' statements, coupled with SantaCruz's admission, will likely make it difficult for the district attorney's office to avoid a retrial.

"With two witnesses who say, 'It's not the guy,' and a third person who admitted that he did it and would be willing to plead guilty, that's pretty strong evidence to at least not oppose the writ," said Brent Romney, a professor at Western State law school in Fullerton and former Orange County prosecutor.
SantaCruz said he didn't come forward earlier because he was fearful that the Anaheim robbery might add years to his prison sentence--or potentially give him life under the three-strikes law.

He said he started feeling guilty when he met Lopez at the Blythe prison and learned he was in prison for the Anaheim robbery. Both men are assigned to the same prison block and they've gotten to know each other.
"What I hope happens is I serve my time, [and] George is released," SantaCruz said.
Lopez's appellate lawyer, James Crawford, said he hopes prosecutors do not dismiss SantaCruz's statements as one friend vouching for another.
Crawford noted that SantaCruz is 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, matching the physical description witnesses gave police. Lopez is 5- foot-9 and 150 pounds.
"SantaCruz has no reason to lie," Crawford said. "There's no reason for him to come forward and take additional time unless what he's saying is truthful."
Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER

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