Hemet man convicted of five hold-ups in Southwest Riverside County

A convicted murderer accused in a months-long robbery spree described as the “most prolific” series by one man in Riverside County history was found guilty today of five hold-ups, but jurors acquitted him of two other crimes and were divided on verdicts on the remaining allegations.

After deliberating five days, a Murrieta jury convicted 34-year-old Sergio Nicolas Lopez of Hemet of five robberies committed between November 2010 and April 2011.

The panel found him not guilty of a robbery and a burglary, and informed Riverside County Superior Court Judge Patrick Magers that it was unable to reach a unanimous decision on the other 11 robbery allegations, prompting Magers to declare a mistrial on those counts.

The judge scheduled a status conference for Sept. 2, when the District Attorney’s Office will announce whether it intends to proceed with retrying Lopez on the unresolved charges.

Meantime, he remains in custody without bail at the Southwest Detention Center in Murrieta. Prosecutors allege the defendant was responsible for at least 18 robberies over roughly five months. He allegedly told sheriff’s investigators after his arrest that he committed the hold-ups for cash to support his heroin addiction.

According to the D.A.’s office, Lopez’s first known robbery occurred on Nov. 20, 2010, at a Supercuts in Hemet. Three women working in the shop told detectives that a Hispanic man carrying what appeared to be a black semiautomatic handgun and covering his face with a white shirt walked into the shop near closing time and demanded money.

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Garcia said the bandit’s modus operandi never changed. “The suspect targeted small businesses with a few young female victims, at closing time — never late at night or during the day,” Garcia wrote in a trial brief. “He would ask for the money from the register, then the safe, watching from an area that would be unseen by any potential customers. He would ultimately lock the victims in a room, telling them to wait a specified period of time” before coming out, and threatened to shoot at least one person, Garcia said.

Businesses were robbed countywide — Hemet, Indio, Moreno Valley, Murrieta, Riverside, San Jacinto and Temecula. — with most of the targets being hair salons and juice bars, Garcia said.

On the evening of April 29, 2011, Lopez allegedly burst into Anna’s Linens in the 42-200 block of Jackson Court in Indio, brandished a pistol and told a female clerk to “Give me the money!” After snatching funds from the cash drawer, the masked bandit fled the area in a gray Honda Accord.

Moments later, an Indio police officer spotted the same vehicle speeding along Monroe Avenue. The patrolman chased the car for 15 minutes, until the Honda veered off the roadway and onto a curb, where the driver bailed out and fled into the Arabian Gardens Mobile Home Park on Fred Waring Drive.

Lopez was allegedly able to leave the area by catching a ride with a resident. Officers stopped the pickup truck as it was departing and questioned the defendant, but ultimately let him go. Evidence collected at the scene, including gloves, a sweatshirt, a toy pistol and — most importantly — the Honda, which turned out to belong to the defendant’s girlfriend, culminated in his arrest a few days later. “By all accounts … these crimes represent the most prolific robbery series in the history of Riverside County,” sheriff’s Sgt. Don Williamson said after charges were filed in the case.

Lopez has a 1993 conviction for a gang-related murder in Los Angeles County. He was convicted as a juvenile and released within a few years, according to court papers.

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