LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Kentucky robbery that turned deadly when a man was shot while trying to stop the holdup at a Hispanic grocery store is connected to a robbery spree across three states, federal authorities said.
At least a dozen Hispanic stores were robbed in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina from January to early September, U.S. Attorney Russell M. Coleman said.
Authorities suspect the crimes were carried out by an organized group of about 11 members, though not everyone participated in each holdup, an FBI agent said in an affidavit.
One man charged in the fatal Kentucky robbery told investigators he had to repay another suspect the money spent to get him into the U.S. illegally, FBI Special Agent William B. Kurtz said in the affidavit. The man told authorities he was given an identification card with an alias, and was told he could commit robberies to earn money to repay his debt, the affidavit said.
The details came to light when a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday charged five people in connection with the March 17 robbery of the La Placita market in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
All five suspects are charged with interference with commerce by threats or violence and use of a firearm during a crime of violence, causing death.
The Bowling Green store’s owner and manager, Vanessa Jimenez, said Friday she was relieved that charges have been filed as she copes with the tragedy.
“It’s a hard time for us, but we’re happy that police helped us catch these people,” she said in a phone interview.
Federal authorities anticipate filing additional charges in the case, said Stephanie Collins, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She didn’t have details about the other robberies.
Those charged in the Kentucky case are identified as Jorge Santos Caballero-Melgar, Jose Adan Mejia Varela, Johnny Alexander Relles-Martinez, Lillian Duron and Estrellita Soto.
The complaint alleges Relles-Martinez and Varela entered the Bowling Green store, locked the door and demanded money from clerks. Caballero-Melgar allegedly served as a lookout.
When one of the suspects unlocked the door to walk toward a car, Jose Cruz entered the store to pick up his child, authorities said. Realizing the store was being robbed, Cruz began fighting with one of the robbers, they said. The other went back in and tried to pistol whip Cruz, according to the complaint.
Cruz was shot during the fight and died at a hospital. His child was among witnesses.
Authorities said Duron made a wire transfer from the store about an hour before the robbery, authorities said, adding surveillance video showed Duron and Soto in the store and in the store parking lot just before the holdup. Soto is accused of telling Caballero-Melgar where money was kept in the store, and alerted him when customers had left and only two female clerks were inside, they said.
The three male suspects traveled from Kentucky to a parking lot in Tennessee, where they divided about $12,000 stolen from the Bowling Green store, the affidavit said. All five defendants in the Kentucky case are believed to be connected to robberies elsewhere, authorities said.
Coleman credited the arrests to “plain, old good police work.”
“We are all safer when local and federal law enforcement work together to tackle violent crimes like this dangerous string of multi-state robberies,” he said in a statement.
Caballero-Melgar and Varela were being held in a Virginia jail, authorities said. A Nov. 29 initial appearance is set in Bowling Green on the federal charges.
Duron and Soto, who made initial appearances this week in the case, have been held in the Warren County Regional Jail in Bowling Green since their arrests. Relles-Martinez made his initial appearance this week from a Kansas jail where he’s being held.
It could not be determined whether the defendants have attorneys.