Inmate's Letter Insists Convict Is Not Guilty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A prisoner has written a sworn statement insisting that a Garden Grove man convicted of robbery last year is innocent of the crime.

The letter, filed with an appeals court, comes on the eve of a hearing to determine whether George Arnulfo Lopez should receive a new trial. Lopez, 19, was convicted last year of robbing an Anaheim loan office. But two of the victims have come forward to say Lopez didn't commit the crime.

Prisoner Johnny SantaCruz admits robbing three stores with the same gun used in the loan office robbery. In his letter, SantaCruz said he will tell authorities who committed the Anaheim crime as long as they don't use his statements against him.

"I know for a fact . . . that George Lopez is innocent," SantaCruz wrote, vowing to tell authorities "who, where and why" the robbery occurred. "The D.A. has made a big mistake."

The 4th District Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear Lopez's appeal in the coming weeks. The appeal will focus largely on the efforts of Lopez's trial lawyer, who did not ask the victims to testify about their doubts in the first trial.

Prosectors oppose a new trial, saying the jury made the correct decision. Deputy Atty. Gen. Laura Halgren said SantaCruz's statements are irrelevant and that authorities have not yet decided whether to meet with him.

"The suggestion, 'You give me full immunity, I'll tell you everything,' has no credibility," Halgren said.

'He Knows the Truth'

Lopez, speaking by telephone from Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, said he hopes SantaCruz's statements will lead authorities to reverse his conviction.

"I'm just glad that he's willing to come forward so I can go home with my family," Lopez said. "He knows the truth."

SantaCruz's decision to talk is "very significant," said James Crawford, Lopez's attorney. "It establishes that someone else was the gunman."

Meanwhile, Lopez is nearing his second full year in prison.

The case stems from a robbery on May 17, 1999, at the Commercial Credit Corp. building on Lincoln Avenue.

Prosecutors argued that the robbery was an inside job. They charged that Lopez committed the crime with ex-convict Chadric Long. The men dated sisters, and Long's girlfriend worked at the loan office.

Authorities said Lopez toted a sawed-off shotgun during the robbery. Long, they said, was unarmed. Because there was no money in the loan office, the robbers took jewelry from one employee and a wallet from another before fleeing.

Implicated by a Conspirator in Holdup

Earlier this year, Long pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the robbery. He signed a court document indicating Lopez also conspired to rob the store. But SantaCruz said Long is lying. Both SantaCruz and Long were members of an Orange street gang. Lopez, who has no prior criminal record, was not a gang member, according to authorities.

Two of the victims said in interviews and court papers that Lopez was not the robber and should receive a new trial. The case is considered highly unusual because victims have become advocates to reverse the conviction.

"I have no doubt George Lopez is innocent," victim Dora Guaderrama said in an interview earlier this year. "He was not the guy holding the shotgun."

Another employee, Marissa Leon, stated in a signed declaration: "I can firmly attest to this young man not being the guilty party. . . . George Lopez is too thin and too small in build. Also his complexion was too light."

A third victim, Hector Patino, identified Lopez in photograph and in-person lineups but told jurors from the witness stand that he wasn't sure Lopez was the robber. In April, Patino wrote a letter to a judge reiterating that "the suspect presented to me at the trial . . . may not be the actual person who committed the crime."

Leon and Guaderrama testified in the original case. But according to court records, they were never asked by either defense or prosecution attorneys whether Lopez was the robber.

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