Sheriff: Robbery suspect, 25, grabbed the wheel so getaway driver could fire shotgun at police

BELLINGHAM - A robbery suspect will be held at $1.5 million bail on charges of holding up a Bellingham gas station with a shotgun, and later grabbing the steering wheel while the getaway driver allegedly fired out the window at police.

Rafael Martinez-Garcia, 25, of Cheney, made his first appearance in court Monday afternoon, Aug. 12. Suspected gunman Pastor Lopez-Franco, 20, of Brewster, remained at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with bullet wounds from a shootout with police.

The two men strode into a Shell station on Meridian Street Thursday evening. Lopez-Franco, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, told the man at the counter to give him money from the cash register or he would "blow his head off," according to a brief statement of probable cause read in court Monday.

The robbers took $520 cash, said Deputy Prosecutor Nathan Deen, then hopped into a reddish-violet Honda Accord with distinctive after-market taillights.

Minutes later, police saw the car heading east, out of town, to Mount Baker Highway. It turned into a high-speed pursuit, topping out at 70-plus mph.

One of the men leaned out of the driver's side window and fired directly at officers, according to prosecutors.

Lopez-Franco was driving. Near the end of the chase, Martinez-Garcia reached over and grabbed the wheel so Lopez-Franco could point the shotgun out the window and shoot, said Sheriff Bill Elfo.

The car crashed in the first turn of a roundabout at East Smith Road, about a mile west of Nugents Corner. Lopez-Franco got out and kept firing, police said. Officers shot him several times, but he survived.

At least one bullet struck Martinez-Garcia's arm. He had two visible bandages - one above his right wrist, another below his right shoulder, each a little larger than a nicotine patch - at his Monday court hearing.

Whatcom County Superior Court Commissioner David M. Thorn found probable cause for first-degree robbery and first-degree assault. Prosecutor Dave McEachran, who will handle the case, might file more charges, depending on the outcome of a police investigation.

Martinez-Garcia has a lengthy criminal history: Rape of a 13-year-old child, failing to register as a sex offender, and illegal possession of prescription drugs. He had several warrants out for his arrest at the time of the robbery. Thorn set his bail at $1.5 million.

Lopez-Franco will remain at Harborview until he's well enough to appear in court.