Prosecutor: Bellingham police use of deadly force justified in shootout with robbers

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 16, 2013 

meridian robbery

Officers inspect the area around a car, right, that crashed during a police pursuit Thursday evening, Aug. 8, on Mount Baker Highway. Two men suspected of robbing a Bellingham gas station at gunpoint then fled police and allegedly fired shotgun rounds at the conclusion of the chase. Both suspects were wounded; no officers were hit.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Officers were "totally justified" when they returned fire on two armed robbery suspects last week, the Whatcom County prosecutor announced Friday, Aug. 16.

Charging papers allege that Rafael Martinez-Garcia, 25, and Pastor Lopez-Franco, 20, held up a gas station with a sawed-off shotgun in the early evening of Aug. 8. Afterward, the charges say, the suspects led police on a high-speed chase on Mount Baker Highway, firing two rounds from the driver's side window before crashing in a roundabout.

Lopez-Franco, the driver, ducked behind the car and kept shooting at three officers, according to Prosecutor David McEachran.

Officers returned fire and wounded both men.

Anytime local police use deadly force, McEachran's office determines if the force was justified.

He announced Friday that charges leveled earlier in the week against the two men - first-degree robbery, four counts of first-degree assault and attempting to elude police vehicles - would proceed as filed.

"Whenever a person shoots a firearm at a police officer," McEachran wrote, "he or she must realize, or will shortly understand, that the officers will use whatever force is necessary to nullify the threat and protect themselves and the public."

It took one week for McEachran to call the use of deadly force justified - a relatively swift decision compared to past officer-involved shootings in Whatcom County. He emphasized the well-organized team effort by police during the investigation.

Lopez-Franco suffered several bullet wounds and remains at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Prosecutors don't know how much longer he'll stay there.

"It could be weeks, to be candid," McEachran said.

The sheriff's office has contracted with King County to ensure Lopez-Franco is under 24-hour law enforcement surveillance. Once he's well enough to face charges, he'll be brought to Whatcom County Jail.

Martinez-Garcia made his first appearance in court this week. He remains jailed with bail set at $1.5 million.

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