Local News

Thursday, Jan 19 2012 07:20 PM

Four found guilty of 2007 Golden West Casino robbery

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Jajuan Bell, defendant in the Golden West Casino robbery, listens to the verdict Thursday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    John Fitzgerald Williams, defendant in the Golden West Casino robbery, listens to the verdict Thursday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Deon Lavell Joseph, defendant in the Golden West Casino robbery, listens to the verdict Thursday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Lynel Travon Lewis, defendant in the Golden West Casino robbery, listens to the verdict Thursday.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Four L.A.-based gang members were found guilty Thursday of more than 20 felony counts each in connection with the brazen 2007 armed robbery of Golden West Casino.

The verdicts bring an end to a trial that stretched on for more than a month and included a copious amount of evidence. They also all but guarantee that each man will spend the next few decades behind bars.

Prosecutor Jim Simson said he expects the defendants will each receive more than 50 years at their March 9 sentencing. The convicted charges include robbery, conspiracy and assault with a machinegun.

"Without exception we got everything we wanted," Simson said. "It was as near perfect a verdict as I've seen."

The defendants -- Jajuan Bell, 33, John Fitzgerald Williams, 23, Lynel Travon Lewis, 34, and Deon Lavell Joseph, 28 -- showed little emotion as the verdicts were read.

"He's very disappointed," attorney Michael C. Lukehart said of Williams, his client.

Lukehart said he had hoped the jury would see that much of the evidence against Williams was purely circumstantial. He said he'll appeal.

Attorney Fred Gagliardini, who defended Joseph, said there was an overwhelming amount of evidence presented to the jury. He said that, based on the notes jurors sent to Judge Charles R. Brehmer and on the dates they signed the verdicts, it appears they took their job very seriously and deliberated on only one defendant at a time, as they should.

"I can't ask for any more than that from any jury," Gagliardini said.

Lewis was represented by Thomas Alan Rogers, who declined comment until after sentencing. Attorney Charles Soria, who represented Bell, waved a hand dismissively upon being asked a question as he left the courtroom.

In video surveillance of the Sept. 13, 2007 robbery, armed suspects with their heads wrapped with T-shirts stormed the casino and ordered customers and employees to cluster together in several areas of the business, investigative reports say. One suspect chased down a man who tried to run away and another suspect dove under a teller cage and stole money from a cash register, the reports say.

Sheriff's investigation reports say the defendants got away with $60,000 from the casino. A stolen car was used in the robbery and was found with its engine running a few blocks from the casino at Madison Street and Planz Road, the reports say.

They apparently ditched it and left town in another vehicle.

Then the defendants put a plan in motion to strike the casino again.

Investigators were tipped off about the second planned heist and took action. Detectives wiretapped Bell and several suspects' phones and overheard them talking about robbing Golden West Casino and what type of weapons they would bring, according to court documents.

When the defendants headed to the casino a second time, investigators were ready.

On March 31, deputies used spike strips on Highway 58 near Towerline Road to stop the men as they drove to the casino, deputies reported. About 30 gang, special enforcement, narcotics and SWAT officers, with help from the California Highway Patrol, overwhelmed the suspects before they could plan to attack or escape.

Deputies seized an AK-47 and 12-gauge shotguns from the suspects' vehicle. Simson, the prosecutor, said some of the weapons were found to be the same ones used in the 2007 robbery.

Also, DNA evidence on money bags, masks, gloves and stolen items linked the defendants to the robbery, Simson said.

Now that the case is over, Simson said he's feeling enormous relief. And he's thankful that those who were victimized by the defendants won't ever have to worry about them again.

"Justice isn't always done, but it was done in this case," he said.

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