LANCASTER – The store manager of a Lancaster Little Caesars Pizza said armed robbers forced their way into the store and stole about $2,500 on the morning of Dec. 12, 2011. A manager at the Little Caesars in Palmdale said thieves stormed the store after closing time on May 24, 2012, making off with around $300. An overnight manager at a 24-hour Walgreens in Lancaster said robbers ordered him to a back room at gunpoint and demanded money from the store’s safe in the early morning hours of June 28, 2012.
The three local store managers testified during the first two days of a preliminary court hearing for Mahealani Austin, Marcus Robinson and Brooke Hollins – the Palmdale residents charged in connection with a string of armed robberies throughout Lancaster and Palmdale.
Austin, 26, Robinson, 25, and Hollins, 23, were arrested Feb. 5, 2014, after a “surveillance and search warrant operation,” which also turned up a firearm and other evidence related to the crimes, Sheriff’s officials said in a statement.
Two days later, the trio pleaded not guilty to 72 criminal counts, including multiple counts of robbery, kidnapping for robbery and assault with a firearm. On February 21, prosecutors amended the charges, dismissing more than half of the criminal counts.
According to the amended criminal complaint, Austin, Robinson, and Hollins are now charged with 33 criminal counts, including 15 counts of second-degree robbery, four counts of attempted second-degree robbery, 12 counts of kidnapping to commit another crime and two counts of making criminal threats. Robinson is charged with an additional felony, possession of marijuana for sale, in connection with his Feb. 5 arrest.
The complaint names 17 alleged victims and charges that the crimes took place between Dec. 12, 2011 and Sept. 24, 2012.
Witnesses: Robbers were wearing all black and ski masks
Testifying Monday at the preliminary court hearing, Little Caesars Pizza Manager James Cooper gave his account of what happened on the morning of Dec. 12, 2011.
He and another worker were preparing to open the restaurant, at 43440 10th Street West, when they were surprised by two men dressed in black and wearing ski masks, Cooper testified. He said he was counting the store’s “weekend deposits”, when the robbers forced their way in behind an employee who had unlocked the door to take out the trash.
Cooper said he left the money on the counter and ran out a back exit.
“I saw the guy with the gun, I’m not gonna stick around, it’s not my money,” Cooper testified. He said he ran across the way to a nearby Verizon store to call police. The second store worker followed soon after, Cooper testified. When the two returned to the store, around $2,500 was missing from the counter, Cooper testified.
In reviewing surveillance video of the robbery, Cooper said he noticed that one of the robbers had locked the door behind the fleeing store workers.
“The person picked the keys up and knew exactly what key it was to lock the door,” Cooper testified, adding that the robber chose the correct key from multiple keys on a key ring.
Mahealani Austin worked at the store before he was fired in 2011, Cooper testified. However, Cooper said he could not identify who had robbed his store on Dec. 12, 2011, because the robbers were wearing masks.
Two armed robbers stormed the Little Caesars in Palmdale on May 24, 2012; and they, too, were dressed in black and wearing black masks, testified store manager Christopher Chwalek.
According to Chwalek’s testimony, the robbery happened around 11 p.m., when he and two employees were leaving the store for the night. Chwalek testified that he had just set the alarm and was about to exit the store, when two men ran from around the corner and ordered him back inside.
“The first thing that I heard was ‘shut off the alarm!’” Chwalek testified. He said he felt a cold, metal object touch the back of his ear as he was shutting off the alarm. The masked robbers threatened to start shooting if he did not hurry up, Chwalek testified. A co-worker bagged money from the store’s safe and gave it to the robbers, and the total loss was between $250 to $300, according to Chwalek’s testimony.
Around 4:30 a.m. on June 28, 2012, two masked men in black, one carrying a gun, entered the Walgreens at 1834 West Avenue J in Lancaster, testified store manager Jefferson Resurreccion.
“I just put my hands up and did everything they asked me to do,” Resurreccion said.
The men walked him to a back room at gunpoint and ordered him to open the store’s safe, Resurreccion testified. He said he noticed the gunman had light-colored eyes and a black facial tattoo that was visible, even in the mask.
When defense attorneys pointed out that this description did not fit either Austin or Robinson, Resurreccion said he could not be sure whether the two defendants were the ones who had robbed his store.
The preliminary court hearing began Monday, May 5, and is expected to last all week. At the conclusion of the hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa M. Chung will decide if there is enough evidence for the trio to stand trial.
Austin, Robinson, and Hollins have been jailed since their arrest, with bail set at more than $11 million for each defendant. They face up to life in prison, if convicted.
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