Fresno trial opens for 4 in violent home invasions
Four men, operating with a crew out of Phoenix, are responsible for five violent home-invasion robberies in the central San Joaquin Valley two years ago, a prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements of the men’s trial.
Daniel Rivas, 31, Alejandro Rodriguez-Leon, 26, Robert Palofox, 24, and Victor Centeno, 20, are charged in Fresno County Superior Court with 18 felonies, including counts of conspiracy to commit robbery in concert, false imprisonment, auto theft and assault. If convicted, they face life in prison.
Only Rivas is from Fresno. The rest are from Phoenix, Ariz., said Chris Walsh, a deputy district attorney.
In opening remarks, Walsh said the four defendants were part of a crew of 10 suspects who targeted affluent homeowners in Fresno and Merced counties.
Rivas, a local gardener, scouted the two counties and looked for homes that contained cash, gold, jewelry and valuables, Walsh said. He then told his brother-in-law, Estevan Landeros, who recruited a crew in Phoenix to hit the homes, the prosecutor told jurors.
The remaining six defendants, including Landeros, will be tried later, Walsh said.
The robberies took place in Clovis, Atwater, Kerman and Selma between Feb. 24 and March 16, 2010.
In a news conference in May 2010, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said the defendants terrorized homeowners with “blitz-type attacks.” Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin called the suspects a “pack of jackals.”
According to Walsh, some in the crew stood as lookouts while the others burst into the homes with guns drawn. They communicated with walkie-talkie-type cellphones, he said.
In one robbery, an elderly couple was tied up while baby-sitting their grandchildren, Walsh said. The children got so scared they told the robbers where to find the valuables, the prosecutor said.
In another case, the robbers held a woman and a 6-year-old child at gunpoint while they looted the house.
In still another case, a homeowner was pistol-whipped, Walsh said.
Rivas’ attorney, Curtis Sok, however, told jurors in opening statements that his client wasn’t the mastermind. He also said authorities have no evidence to prove his client was inside or outside any of the victims’ homes.
Attorney Mark Siegel, who represents Rodriguez-Leon, said his client was working in Phoenix when the robberies occurred. Lawyers for the other two defendants declined to give an opening statement.
The defendants were linked to the crimes by their vehicles, Walsh said.
Using the news media, authorities told the public they were looking for three SUVs with Arizona license plates. A witness later spotted the vehicles at a mini-mart at Gettysburg and Blackstone avenues in Fresno and notified authorities.
Video from the store’s surveillance cameras led to the identification of the defendants, Walsh said. Some of them later gave police incriminating statements, Walsh said. Other suspects were picked out of a photo lineup by the victims, he said.
By Pablo Lopez