Woman linked to crime spree pleads not guilty

Cindy Garcia arrested after Barrio Logan shootout

SAN DIEGO - A San Diego woman accused of taking part in a spree of armed holdups along with an ex-firefighter-boyfriend who was shot dead two days later in a Halloween-night gun battle with police in Barrio Logan pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of carjacking, robbery and making a criminal threat, along with an allegation that she personally used a gun in the crimes.

Cindy Altamirano Garcia, who turned 18 three weeks ago, was ordered held in lieu of $1 million bail. She faces 19 years in state prison if convicted.

Garcia was arrested at the scene of the shootout that killed her alleged accomplice, 40-year-old Philip Martin Hernandez, according to San Diego police.

Officers investigating Monday's series of armed robberies and firearm assaults were tailing a white van occupied by the suspects shortly after 9:30 p.m. Wednesday when the driver pulled over on Harbor Drive, near Cesar Chavez Parkway, SDPD Capt. Terry McManus said.

Hernandez jumped out of the vehicle and allegedly began shooting at the patrol personnel with a rifle, prompting them to return fire. Struck by at least one round, the suspect turned, walked in front of the van, collapsed and died. Garcia, who also had a gun, got out of a passenger-side door and was arrested, said Deputy District Attorney Jim Koerber.

No one but Hernandez was wounded in the volley of gunfire, though several of the suspect's shots hit a police vehicle, McManus said.

Both suspects were wearing law enforcement-style vests at the time of the shootout, according to McManus. Similarly, during the spate of holdups and shootings two days earlier, the perpetrators wore garments with law enforcement insignias and the word "police" emblazoned on them.

During one of the robberies, off-duty San Diego police Officer Les Stewart, 57, was shot from behind at a walk-up ATM in Escondido. He was either grazed in the scalp by a bullet or pistol-whipped, Koerber said.

The daylong criminal rampage began at about 2 a.m. Monday, when Hernandez, a former Riverside-area firefighter who had child-molestation charges pending against him in that county, apparently riddled his own truck with bullets near Mission Bay for unknown reasons, then set it ablaze, according to police.

The next episode in the crime spree occurred roughly a half-hour later, when a man was critically wounded by gunfire on Upas Street in Hillcrest. The victim's condition was so grave that homicide detectives took over the investigation. Hernandez thought the victim was an officer from Blythe who had been investigating him for statutory rape charges, according to Koerber.

At about 9 a.m. Hernandez allegedly confronted a man who was unloading some items from the trunk of his car in a parking lot in the 8900 block of Rio San Diego Drive in Mission Valley, pulled a silver pistol on him and stole his wallet. The thief then fled to the west in a full-sized white sedan.

Shortly before 12:30 p.m., Hernandez allegedly robbed Stewart, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, at a credit-union ATM in the 1600 block of South Escondido Boulevard.

About an hour later, Hernandez and Garcia approached a man in a parking lot at a shopping center on College Grove Way in the Oak Park district of San Diego, police said.

Hernandez allegedly pointed a silver handgun at the man and demanded that he hand over the keys to his black 2006 Suzuki Aerio hatchback.

Koerber said both Garcia and Hernandez were dressed in black clothing with the word "police" written on them.

"Miss Garcia then approached, wearing a ski mask, pointing a gun at the victim's head and told him not to move or she'd blow his head off," Koreber told Judge Jeffrey Fraser.

The victim complied, and the thieves fled in the stolen vehicle.

Around the same time, several 911 callers reported that a white Ford Crown Victoria was ablaze -- apparently torched by the robbers -- in the lot where the carjacking had taken place.

The stolen vehicle was found in the 100 block of Jefferson Avenue in Chula Vista shortly after 7 p.m., according to police. It also had been set on fire.

With the help of witnesses, investigators on Wednesday evening identified Garcia and Hernandez as the alleged perpetrators of the violent succession of crimes and determined that they likely were traveling in a white van, McManus told news crews.

Later in the night, officers spotted the cargo vehicle heading eastbound in the 1400 block of National Avenue in the East Village area of downtown San Diego, called for backup and began following it.

Near the Coronado Bridge, Hernandez pulled over. The patrol personnel, who stopped a number of car lengths away for safety purposes, came under fire "immediately" from what appeared to be a high-powered rifle, the captain said. Three of the officers shot back at the assailant.

In addition to the long-barreled gun, investigators documenting the scene of the shootout recovered several other firearms, including a pistol, that the suspects apparently had been carrying.

Koerber said Hernandez started dating Garcia when she was 16.

In August, police in Blythe obtained an arrest warrant for Hernandez on suspicion of four felony counts of having sexual intercourse with a minor, said John Hall, spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.

The alleged victim told detectives Hernandez had befriended her at a park in National City, then "manipulated" her into an intimate relationship by promising her money, Hall said.

In April, the girl and the suspect began living together in an apartment, where they allegedly had sex about 10 times in a one-month period. She eventually moved out and reported the purported crimes, telling police Hernandez had turned overly controlling and possessive, McManus said.

Hernandez had been scheduled to be arraigned on the molestation charges on Monday but failed to appear in court, according to authorities.

The couple separated for several months, but got back together and even vacationed in Europe before their alleged crime spree.

"The defendant and Mr. Hernandez had conspired and made preparations to kidnap an individual, hold an individual for ransom and then leave that person in the van and burn the van to destroy the evidence," Koerber said.

Koerber said Hernandez and Garcia also had planned to locate and kill the San Diego police officer who had arrested Hernandez in mid-October on the sex abuse warrant.

The wounded officer remained hospitalized in stable condition. The victim of the Hillcrest shooting was still in critical condition in a trauma center.

Garcia has a preliminary hearing set for Nov. 16.

In an interview with 10News, Garcia said she tried to stop Hernandez but couldn't. She also said she tried to leave him several times during the four-day spree.

Garcia also described Hernandez, a former Cal Fire firefighter, as "a very good person" and said she "fell in love with the man."

"Because of him, I know how the world goes round," she said.

She said they began their relationship when she was 16. She claims they got married when she was 17 in Lake Tahoe.

"I didn't stop him. I tried, but I couldn't do nothing," said Garcia.

Garcia said Hernandez went on the crime spree on purpose and that before the crime spree, he told her something that made her want to leave him for the first time.

But Garcia said she couldn't get up the will to leave because she loved him so much.

"He was going to kill, that was his plan, that's what he was getting ready for. That's why he had those weapons," she said.

Garcia added, "They wanted to take him to prison for life and that he would die slowly and he didn't want to die slowly. He much had rather died."

Hernandez was facing four counts of unlawful sex with an underage girl in Riverside County and 10News learned that the girl in that case is Garcia.

Severance asked her if she was a willing participant or a victim in the spree, Garcia said she was "both."

"Are you a victim here?" asked Severance.

Garcia replied, "They should have killed me too … No one is going to have the answers they want. I can't answer for him. I can only say what I saw."

"You were there when he robbed people. He shot an off-duty police officer. It grazed his head. You lit two cars on fire. Police are saying you put a police jacket on and robbed someone alongside Philip," said Severance.

"That's the carjacking, why I'm here. A felony charge they are putting on me," Garcia said.

"So what do you have to say to that?" asked Severance.

"I'll pay. I'm sorry," Garcia said.
 

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