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James Crawford in the Orange County Register

Confession could prove man innocent
Courts Documents say another man admits to robbing a loan office in 1999.


Byline:ALDRIN BROWN and GREG HARDESTY   
Attorneys for a Garden Grove man who claims he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to 13 years for a May 1999 holdup of an Anaheim loan office will ask a judge today to set him free after another convicted robber reportedly confessed to the crime.

The key eyewitness already has said he erroneously identified George Arnulfo Lopez, 18, as the man who held a shotgun and demanded money from employees at City Financial Corp.'s Lincoln Avenue office.

According to court papers filed in support of Lopez's release, Johnny SantaCruz, who pleaded guilty last year to three armed robberies in Orange County during the same week as the Anaheim holdup, has confessed this week to being the gunman.

``I think we've solved the crime,'' Lopez's attorney, James Crawford, said.
Prosecutors plan to oppose Lopez's request to be freed while a judge decides whether to grant a new trial.
``We're investigating all of Mr. Lopez's claims,'' Deputy District Attorney Brian Gurwitz said. ``It would be irresponsible for us to agree to Lopez's release before we investigate this new claim.''


Lopez was arrested while in the company of SantaCruz and Chad Long, who pleaded guilty to the City Financial robbery. The shotgun was found in a car they had been riding in.

SantaCruz, 18, pleaded guilty to using a sawed-off shotgun with tape around the handle in the three other robberies. He also matches exactly the victims' initial description of the gunman: a 190 pound, dark-skinned Hispanic male with a shaved head.

Lopez, who had no other criminal record, weighed only 153 pounds at the time of his arrest and is light-skinned.
Following the trial, several jurors said eyewitness identification by City Financial employee and robbery victim Hector Patino was largely responsible for convincing them to convict Lopez.

But in recent months, Patino, who testified that Lopez might have been one of the robbers, has said he was confused by the photo lineup process. He now says he fingered Lopez in court based on seeing the Garden Grove man's picture during police interviews.

Two other City Financial employees who were present at the time of the robbery told prosecutors during the trial that Lopez was not involved, but those statements were never presented to jurors.
Lopez is appealing his conviction, citing incompetence by his defense attorney as one of the reasons.

Thus far, prosecutors have continued to oppose Lopez's release, arguing that eyewitnesses often are swayed following convictions by appellate attorneys.
Despite the outcome of today's hearing, the Orange County District Attorney's office has until Aug. 17 to file a motion showing why Lopez's conviction should not be overturned.

Meanwhile, Lopez's mother, Patricia, said she was grateful to SantaCruz for coming forward.

``He apologized for everything George was going through at prison,'' she said. ``I believe he just figured he had to tell the truth -- that it wasn't right for George's son to be without his father.''

Contact Brown at (714) 796-6741 or abrown@ocregister.com

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