Let Lopez Go

More than a week after Johnny Manuel Santacruz told the LA Times that he robbed an Anaheim lender two years ago, the Orange County district attorney's office has yet to interview him—and continues to insist that another man, George Lopez, committed the crime.

Lopez has already served two years at Ironwood State Prison near Blythe. He will soon be transferred to the Theo Lacy Justice Center in Orange, where he will await a Sept. 7 hearing in front of Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Didier, who is considering whether to release Lopez.

There's every reason for Didier to let Lopez go. The 19-year-old former Garden Grove resident is a married father with no previous criminal record. He was charged in the May 17, 1999, robbery after a store employee fingered his photograph in a police investigation. It was an odd choice: witnesses described the suspect as a dark-skinned Latino weighing 190 pounds, but Lopez is light-skinned and slightly built. Santacruz, on the other hand, is a dark-skinned Latino weighing 190 pounds.

Lopez also has a time card showing he was at work when the crime occurred. Santacruz is serving time at Ironwood for three similar robberies in May 1999—all involving a sawed-off shotgun with tape wrapped around the barrel, the same weapon allegedly used in the May 17 robbery.

So why won't the DA interview Santacruz, who signed statements declaring Lopez's innocence before admitting responsibility for the May 17 robbery?

“We cannot comment on the Lopez case at this time,” said DA spokesperson Tori Richards.

Lopez first came to police attention on May 21, 1999. He and his wife, Leah, had spent the day at the house of her sister, Jessica Mendoza. According to Leah, George needed a lift to Radio Shack to purchase air time for his cell phone.

At first, Mendoza agreed to give Lopez a ride. Had she done so, Lopez might never have been arrested and certainly wouldn't have spent the past two years in prison. But fate intervened. Mendoza's ex-boyfriend, Chad Long, showed up unannounced. When Mendoza refused to see him, Long invited Lopez to check out the new paint job on his car.

“George went out there, and I guess mentioned he was going to purchase time for his phone, and Chad said he would take him,” Leah Lopez told the Weekly. Before bringing Lopez to the Radio Shack, however, Long picked up two of his friends, including Santacruz, whom Lopez had never met before.

According to a May 21, 1999, Orange police report, Long's freshly painted Honda was spotted at about 6:50 p.m. parked about a block from the Radio Shack. The officer who filed the report thought one of its occupants resembled a PAL—a “parolee at large.”

“There was a front passenger and a right rear passenger,” his report states. “Both had shaved heads and appeared to be gang members. . . . At that time, a male Hispanic, shaved head, baggy tan plaid shirt, and baggy black jeans walked from the Radio Shack. The male Hispanic walked toward the Honda. The male Hispanic resembled a PAL I had seen in [a] briefing at the [Orange] P.D. The PAL's name was Chadric Long.”

The officer watched as Long got inside his Honda and then parked it directly in front of the Radio Shack. “Long looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the marked police unit behind them,” the report continues. “Long immediately stopped the Honda and opened the driver's door. Long got out of the Honda, looked at me, and ran S/B [southbound] through the parking lot. Front passenger, suspect Lorenzo Flores, also opened his door and ran S/B through the parking lot. I ordered left-rear passenger, suspect Johnny Santa Cruz [sic], to remain in the vehicle with his hands up. I requested emergency assistance through [Orange] P.D. communications.”

Inside the car, the officer discovered a loaded, sawed-off shotgun that matched the description of the weapon allegedly used in a string of recent robberies.

Where was George Lopez while all this was going on? Inside the Radio Shack, purchasing air time, a fact that goes unmentioned in the police report, which states simply, “Subject George Lopez walked from the Radio Shack and approached the Honda. I ordered Lopez to the ground and waited for assistance.”

Patricia Lopez, George's mother, says her son told her that after purchasing air time, he walked out of the Radio Shack and saw a police officer standing next to the Honda. He asked the officer what was going on, and the cop asked him if he was with the people in the car. When Lopez said yes, the officer arrested him. Lopez says the officer suspected the group of intending to rob the Radio Shack. When Lopez handed the officer his receipt from the store, he says the officer took it from him but said he was arresting him anyway. Patricia Lopez says police refused to provide her with a copy of the receipt; her efforts to obtain a copy from Radio Shack haven't succeeded either.

According to an Orange P.D. evidence report, Thessolonias Watkins, a Radio Shack store employee, identified Lopez from a photo lineup and reads, “Subject #3 came into store and purchased cell phone time.” After spending five days in juvenile hall, Lopez walked: police dropped all charges against him.

“Everything was dismissed against him,” Patricia Lopez told the Weekly. “But on Aug. 22, I got a call from [a] detective saying they wanted to talk to George. I wanted to go in and see the questioning, but I was six months pregnant. The officer said George wasn't under arrest.” Patricia Lopez added that her husband brought George to the station and asked police if he could be present during the interrogation of their son, “but the officer told him, 'No, no, no, this is between me and George. We just want to bring this to a conclusion.'”

Before long, Lopez found himself a lead suspect in the May 17 robbery. There was never any physical evidence linking Lopez to the crime—other than his fateful decision to accept a ride from Long, whose car contained Santacruz and the sawed-off shotgun.

“Everybody else in the car booked it,” Patricia Lopez added. “But George, having his receipt and being innocent, walked up to the police officer to ask what's happening, and they treat him like a criminal. He could have walked the other way, and they never would have noticed. But he had nothing to hide.”

Patricia can't understand why prosecutors have failed to interview Santacruz about his statements that he, and not her son, committed the May 17 robbery. She hopes the September hearing will allow robbery witnesses to tell the court George Lopez is innocent.

“What more do they want?” Patricia asked, referring to the Orange County district attorney's office. “What more can the witnesses themselves do? They have said numerous times that it's not George who robbed them. They have even signed written statements saying it's not him. We're talking about his life here. I just want my boy home.”

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