LANCASTER – All charges have been dismissed against Damon Banks, the 28-year-old man accused of robbing three Lancaster restaurants within a two-hour span on June 10, 2012.
At a pre-trial hearing Thursday, prosecutor Thomas Trainor announced he was unable to proceed with the case. A motion to dismiss by Banks’ defense attorney, Stephen King, was then granted.
Family members clapped after the judge’s ruling. Banks choked back tears and clenched his fists as he tightly hugged his mother outside the Antelope Valley courtroom.
“I’m staying as far away from Lancaster as possible,” Banks said to no one in particular.
Minutes later, Banks described how his trip to Lancaster last summer turned his life upside down and nearly cost him his freedom.
“I lost my job, I’m in financial hardship, I lost my place, my fiancée got her car repossessed, my daughter’s school had to be changed… as of right now, I’m a 28-year-old man staying at home with my mother,” Banks said. “I lost my life, my character, my name.”
For Banks, this ordeal began when he drove up to Lancaster from Long Beach on June 9, 2012 on a trip to see his grandmother. He attended a fight party in Lancaster, instead, and postponed plans to see grandma until the following day. On the afternoon of June 10, Banks grabbed a bite to eat at Subway, made his visit to Grandma, and then headed back down the hill to Long Beach.
Between 7 and 9 p.m. on June 10, two armed robbers struck Lancaster and held up Subway, Little Caesars and Wienerschnitzel. (Read more here.) Less than two weeks later, authorities identified Banks as one of the suspects.
“He did go into the Subway, but it was earlier that day,” King said, adding that his client’s fingerprints were at Subway because he’d pushed the door on his way out. “Initially, because he was dressed in the same garments as the person that actually perpetrated the crime, that ended up being enough… unfortunately, when you’re not from a certain ethnic group or racial group, you may think that all Black people look alike.”
Authorities put out a $300,000 arrest warrant for Banks and a second suspect, 27-year-old Lee Vance McQuilkin. The men were placed on a “Most Wanted” list that was circulated to the local media. Banks had no criminal record, so his California Driver’s License photo was used for the list.
When Banks saw his image in the media, he contacted detectives on the case. He drove back to Lancaster on July 3 believing he would clear his name and walk out of the station. Banks was arrested and jailed, instead.
On July 5, Banks pleaded not guilty to several counts of armed robbery. (Read more here.) He said his public defender at the time urged him to admit guilt because his fingerprints were at one of the stores and there were five eyewitnesses.
Banks dropped the public defender and secured a private defense attorney to fight the case.
At a preliminary hearing on August 6, three of the eyewitnesses fingered Banks as the robber, one even said Banks was the gunman. But their stories were inconsistent. The three witnesses gave different accounts of Banks’ clothing, teeth and facial hair. And one witness had been unable to ID Banks in the days following the robbery.
King focused on these inconsistencies but could not get the judge to dismiss the case. (Read more here). Banks was ordered to stand trial on four counts of robbery and faced up to 15 years in prison.
At the time, King said he was waiting on records from cell phone towers, which would prove that Banks had made it all the way back to Long Beach before any of the robberies were committed.
The records were slow to come. Banks sat in county lock-up for seven weeks before his family could gather the money for bail.
By the time he bailed out on August 13, Banks had been fired from his job as a maintenance mechanic in Cerritos. He was deemed a flight risk and ordered to wear an ankle bracelet. The pending case kept him from landing another job and destroyed his morale.
“He was crying, right now Damon can’t sleep, he lost weight,” said his mother Cecilia Duckworth. “He felt like nothing.”
Banks finally caught a break when prosecutors carefully reviewed cell phone and GPS records.
The tower records for Banks’ cell phone showed a hit on a tower in Long Beach around the time the robberies were committed, King said.
King said the prosecutor called him Wednesday and said they had independent forensic evidence that put Banks elsewhere during the crime. The prosecutor said the district attorney’s office would no longer pursue the case.
“I’m happy that the matter has been resolved but I do wish that there was a way to be more diligent with how cases get filed,” King said. “Looking at it from his shoes, it’s like ‘I came all the way up here, I showed you my work records, I showed you everything, you locked me up anyway, you put me through this, then eight months later you say we should have listened.’”
“This is good that this case is dismissed, but how do we recoup from this?” said Duckworth, adding that she drained her savings to assist with her son’s defense.
“I’ve already spent well over $25,000 cash out of my pocket, and I still have to finish paying the bail,” she said. “But I felt like it was a risk to take, because I did not want my son incarcerated for something he did not do.”
With the saga behind him, Banks said he’s hoping to pick up the pieces of his life.
“I really feel bad that this is still going on in 2013, that people are still prejudiced and biased…” Banks said. “I’m seeking some type of justice and retribution for them turning my life upside down and then saying, ‘oh, I made a mistake.’ That’s not even fair.”
Charges were also dismissed against Lee McQuilkin, the second suspect in the case. McQuilkin was released from county jail at 12:17 p.m. Thursday. He had been locked up on armed robbery charges since his arrest on September 20, 2012.