Crime

Robber of Bellingham gas station gets 22 years for ‘moment of absolute sheer idiocy’

Security cameras recorded two men, one armed with a shotgun, robbing a Shell station on Meridian Street in Bellingham on Aug. 8, 2013. Gas station owner David Larson, who had been stocking a beer cooler when they came in, emptied the register at gunpoint. Moments later, Larson went outside to get a description of their car, which police used to spot the vehicle. A chase and shootout ended with the arrests of Rafael Martinez-Garcia and Pastor Lopez-Franco.
Security cameras recorded two men, one armed with a shotgun, robbing a Shell station on Meridian Street in Bellingham on Aug. 8, 2013. Gas station owner David Larson, who had been stocking a beer cooler when they came in, emptied the register at gunpoint. Moments later, Larson went outside to get a description of their car, which police used to spot the vehicle. A chase and shootout ended with the arrests of Rafael Martinez-Garcia and Pastor Lopez-Franco. The Bellingham Herald

An armed robber and getaway driver must spend 22 years and six months in prison for robbing a Bellingham gas station and opening fire on police while they chased his car up Mount Baker Highway, a Whatcom County judge ruled Tuesday morning, Dec. 9.

At a sentencing hearing, lawyers spelled out how and why Pastor Alberto Lopez-Franco, 21, ended up in Bellingham on Aug. 8, 2013.

He was lost.

Earlier that week Lopez-Franco, of Okanogan County, and Rafael Martinez-Garcia, 27, of Cheney, had driven across the Cascades to visit another friend in Seattle. They thought they could find her home by memory.

“Of course, he gets to Seattle, and it’s big and busy, and he has no clue where to find this person,” Lopez-Franco’s attorney, Thomas Fryer, told Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett.

They spent the night at a hotel, and the next morning they decided to return to Eastern Washington. They took a wrong turn, however, and instead of driving back east, over the mountains, they unknowingly pointed their purple Honda Accord north on Interstate 5, to Bellingham. As they kept driving, the gas tank needle neared empty. The two men spent the next night in a park. Meanwhile, Lopez-Franco and Martinez-Garcia were using methamphetamine. Still reeling from a high, they worked up the courage, Fryer said, to rob a gas station.

“I think these two were sort of playing off each other, for what it’s worth,” Fryer said. “I think it’s kind of (like in) the book Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood.’ You have these two guys who commit these really horrific crimes, but it’s fairly clear: Neither one ever would have done these things alone.”

Martinez-Garcia, a felon, had a history of rape, drug dealing and gang ties. Lopez-Franco, a Mexican citizen, had been deported and denied entry into the United States, but otherwise he had no criminal history.

“So we have a moment of absolute sheer idiocy,” Fryer said of his client. “We have a young man who in, literally, an hour throws his life away.”

Together the two men rushed into a Shell mini mart on Meridian Street in the late afternoon on a Thursday in August. Security footage showed Lopez-Franco armed with a sawed-off shotgun. He shoved the barrel in the gas station owner’s face. He racked the slide, spitting out a shell, to prove the gun was real. Martinez-Garcia took $520 cash from the register. They fled in the car.

Lopez-Franco drove toward Mount Baker Highway, a long dead-end road with no pass over the mountains. Minutes later police spotted the Honda and its unusual aftermarket taillights. Lopez-Franco fired the shotgun out the driver’s side window at a Bellingham police sergeant, while Martinez-Garcia grabbed the wheel. Lopez-Franco flipped his middle finger at the sergeant and fired again, said County Prosecutor Dave McEachran.

The car crashed in a roundabout at Smith Road. Lopez-Franco got out and kept firing from behind the car. Police shot him several times. No officers were hurt, and Lopez-Franco survived. He spent a month at Harborview Medical Center, racking up about $600,000 in medical bills that were paid for by city taxpayers, McEachran said.

Last month Judge Garrett sentenced Martinez-Garcia to 11 years and three months in prison for robbery in the first degree while armed with a firearm — an unloaded handgun — and attempting to elude police. Lopez-Franco pleaded guilty at the same hearing: 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.

In letters to the judge, family members said Lopez-Franco had a difficult upbringing. He started working at age 8 in a Mexican bakery. He had an alcoholic father. His mother, who raised him and 15 siblings, died from a brain tumor in 2007. Her death devastated him. He told family members he wanted to die with her. Last year, shortly after he was moved from the hospital to jail, he tried to kill himself, said Joe Strong, a jail chaplain who spoke in support of Lopez-Franco.

Lopez-Franco started reading Christian literature in Spanish, Strong said, leading him to a sort of spiritual rebirth.

“I gave him book after book after book, and he memorized practically everything I gave him,” Strong said. “You could see he was not that drug-crazy inmate that he was when he entered. I’ve never seen any man change like this man has changed.”

Lopez-Franco apologized Tuesday for the crimes.

Garrett ordered him to serve 22 years and six months in prison, above the midpoint of the range suggested by state law because, Garrett said, he had many chances to stop the chain of events but didn’t. (Under state law he had faced 20 to 23 1/3 years.) Garrett told Lopez-Franco she didn’t give him the maximum because of the chaplain’s words and his own apology.

“Taken together,” she said, “I do believe they indicate he’s gained some insight into the seriousness of what he did.”

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