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Mount Baker Highway shootout duo guilty of robbery, assault, eluding

Bellingham police arrest Rafael Martinez-Garcia Aug. 8 after a chase and shootout with police that ended on Mount Baker Highway at Smith Road. Martinez-Garcia and Pastor Lopez-Franco have been charged with robbing a Shell gas station clerk on Meridian Street in Bellingham, then firing a shotgun at police during a failed getaway.
Bellingham police arrest Rafael Martinez-Garcia Aug. 8 after a chase and shootout with police that ended on Mount Baker Highway at Smith Road. Martinez-Garcia and Pastor Lopez-Franco have been charged with robbing a Shell gas station clerk on Meridian Street in Bellingham, then firing a shotgun at police during a failed getaway. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERAL

Two men from Eastern Washington pleaded guilty Thursday, Nov. 6, for robbing a Bellingham gas station, leading police on a car chase and firing at police before, and after, crashing on Mount Baker Highway.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett ordered Rafael Martinez-Garcia, 27, of Cheney, to serve a prison sentence of 11 years and three months for his role in the armed robbery of a Meridian Street Shell gas station at 4:50 p.m. Aug. 8, 2013.

Security footage showed his co-defendant, Pastor Lopez-Franco, 21, of Brewster, walk into the store armed with a sawed-off shotgun. Lopez-Franco shoved the gun in the gas station owner’s face, while Martinez-Garcia pilfered the cash register.

Briefly, they were $520 richer.

The clerk alerted police just as the men fled out the door: They’d hopped into a purplish Honda Accord, with unusual aftermarket taillights. Officers chased the fleeing robbers east on Mount Baker Highway.

Martinez-Garcia took the wheel so Lopez-Franco, the driver, could lean out the window to shoot at pursuing police. He fired once — birdshot — then flashed his middle finger at officers. He fired again, and the Honda crashed in a roundabout at Smith Road. Lopez-Franco kept shooting from behind the spun-out car.

Police returned fire and hit Lopez-Franco several times. He survived, thanks to a Whatcom County sheriff’s deputy, Ryan Rathbun, and a Bellingham police officer, Sgt. Donald Almer, quickly giving him first aid. This year Almer was awarded Washington’s highest award for police, the state Medal of Honor, for wounding, disarming and helping to save the driver. No officers or innocent citizens were harmed that day; Martinez-Garcia sat in the car with his hands up and, in the fray, suffered bullet graze wounds.

Martinez-Garcia, a sex offender with a past rape conviction, admitted guilt in court Thursday to robbery in the first degree while armed with a firearm — an unloaded handgun — and attempting to elude police.

“We’re simply fortunate that the events played out in a way that no one lost a life,” Judge Garrett told Martinez-Garcia, “because certainly that could have happened in this situation.”

He also was sentenced Thursday for a separate Spokane County case, in the Whatcom County courtroom, for attacking a police officer who tried to detain him. The officer had stopped him on his bike at Eastern Washington University. Martinez-Garcia had enough heroin on him that he eventually pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute, as well as felony assault on an officer.

Lopez-Franco — who spent a month recovering at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle but can now walk on his own — pleaded guilty Thursday to robbery in the first degree while armed with a firearm, assault in the first degree while armed with a firearm and attempting to elude police.

Lopez-Franco’s sentencing hearing hasn’t been scheduled. He faces roughly 18 to 23 years in prison, followed by deportation. He’s been deported at least twice before.

Prosecutor Dave McEachran said he will seek the maximum term.

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