Jury selection is set to get underway Tuesday for the trial of a convicted murderer accused in a five-month robbery spree targeting Riverside County businesses, in what investigators described as the "most prolific" crime series committed by one man in the county's history.
Sergio Nicolas Lopez, 34, of Hemet could face life in prison if convicted of 69 felony counts, including burglary, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment.
Superior Court Judge Patrick Magers heard pretrial motions on evidence and witnesses today and is expected to summon more than 150 prospective jurors to the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta Tuesday for screening as to their availability and qualifications.
Opening statements could begin by next Monday.
The District Attorney's Office alleges Lopez is responsible for at least 20 robberies between November 2010 and April 2011. The defendant allegedly told sheriff's investigators after his arrest that he committed the hold-ups for cash to support his heroin addiction.
Prosecutors allege Lopez's first known robbery occurred on Nov. 20, 2010, at a Supercuts in Hemet. Three women working in the shop told detectives that a Hispanic man carrying what appeared to be a black semiautomatic handgun and covering his face with a white shirt walked into the shop near closing time and demanded money.
The defendant allegedly handed one of the women a bank bag and had her stuff it with cash from the register, then herded all of the victims into a broom closet, directing them to stay there for 15 minutes, according to a trial brief filed by Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Garcia.
She said the bandit's modus operandi never changed.
"The suspect targeted small businesses with a few young female victims, at closing time -- never late at night or during the day," Garcia wrote. "He would initially tell the victims to 'get to the back,' next asking 'who's in charge?' Then he would ask for the money from the register, then the safe, watching from an area that would be unseen by any potential customers. He would ultimately lock the victims in a room, telling them to wait a specified period of time (before coming out)."
A number of victims reported that the robber indicated others were assisting him, and he was periodically heard talking on either a Bluetooth wireless device or mobile phone, according to the brief.
He threatened to shoot at least one person, court papers allege.
Businesses were robbed countywide -- Hemet, Indio, Moreno Valley, Murrieta, Riverside, San Jacinto and Temecula.
The defendant apparently had a predilection for holding up hair salons and juice bars, such as Juice It Up, according to the brief.
On the evening of April 29, 2011, Lopez allegedly burst into Anna's Linens in the 42-200 block of Jackson Court in Indio, brandished a pistol and told a female clerk to "Give me the money!" After snatching funds from the cash drawer, the masked bandit fled the area in a gray Honda Accord.
Moments later, an Indio police officer spotted the same vehicle speeding along Monroe Avenue, leading to a pursuit. The patrolman chased the car for 15 minutes, until the Honda veered off the roadway and onto a curb, where the driver bailed out and fled into the Arabian Gardens Mobile Home Park on Fred Waring Drive.
Lopez was allegedly able to leave the area by catching a ride with a resident. Officers stopped the pickup truck the defendant was riding in and briefly detained him, but ultimately let him go, according to the trial brief.
However, evidence collected at the scene, including gloves, a sweatshirt, a toy pistol and -- most importantly -- the Honda, which turned out to belong to the defendant's girlfriend, culminated in his arrest a few days later.
Lopez allegedly confessed to half of the robberies.
"By all accounts ... these crimes represent the most prolific robbery series in the history of Riverside County," sheriff's Sgt. Don Williamson said after charges were filed in the case.
Lopez has a 1993 conviction for a gang-related murder in Los Angeles County. He was convicted as a juvenile and released within a few years, according to court papers.
He's being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Southwest Detention Center.
– City News Service.