Two people who admitted taking part in a string of robberies testified Thursday that Jorge Caballero-Melgar asked them to join in the crimes and took a share of the stolen money after acting as a lookout.
Caballero-Melgar is on trial in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green on several criminal counts, including murder in the death of Jose Cruz, 31, of Bowling Green, who was shot while attempting to intervene in the March 17, 2017, robbery of La Placita market on Morgantown Road.
Jurors on Thursday heard testimony from co-defendants Elmer Manual Ordonez Sanchez and Elvin Fernando Lopez Sanchez.
Though neither man was accused of involvement in the La Placita robbery, they have pleaded guilty and been sentenced for other crimes stemming from robberies that took place over several months in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Altogether, 13 people were charged with taking part in a conspiracy to rob multiple businesses. Caballero-Melgar is the only defendant to take his case to trial.
During their time on the witness stand, Elmer and Elvin Sanchez, who are not related, took jurors through their actions during each of multiple robberies.
Jurors were able to view surveillance video footage from the robberies.
Both witnesses testified Caballero-Melgar got in touch with them over the phone to ask them to take part in each robbery.
They also said Caballero-Melgar typically acted as a lookout while the robberies occurred.
“We’d do the robbery, get the money and we were always in communication by telephone with Jorge,” Elmer Sanchez said through an interpreter. “We’d go to another place (after the robbery) to share the money, divide it up.”
Both witnesses said every participant in the robbery received an equal share of the proceeds, including Caballero-Melgar.
The robberies described by both men included one at Beat the Clock Tax Service in Lexington in 2016, Tienda la Roca in North Carolina in 2017, C&A Store in McMinnville, Tenn., in 2017, Check Into Cash in Nashville in 2017, Las Americas in Nashville in 2017 and Mercadito La Luz in North Carolina in 2017.
Elvin Sanchez said a co-defendant knew someone living in Snow Hill, N.C., who had information about Mercadito La Luz, and Caballero-Melgar told him he had a job for him to do there.
Caballero-Melgar waited outside the business while the store was robbed, and Elvin Sanchez testified that he and four other men saw they were being followed as they drove from the scene and attempted to lose the vehicle pursuing them.
“When we got back, there was a police officer waiting for us,” Elvin Sanchez said through an interpreter. “I think he must have received a call with information about what we were driving.”
Caballero-Melgar was not arrested at that time, Elvin Sanchez said.
Both witnesses testified about carrying firearms during the robberies and restraining employees with duct tape around their wrists.
The robbery in Lexington was one of the more successful ventures, with $66,000 being stolen, Elvin Sanchez said.
FBI agent testifies
On Wednesday afternoon, FBI Special Agent William Kurtz testified that sifting through phone records enabled law enforcement to develop suspects in the La Placita robbery and in other robberies in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Kurtz said the FBI was contacted three days after the robbery by the Bowling Green Police Department, which sought federal involvement after detectives began to suspect the robbery at La Placita might be related to robberies that had recently occurred elsewhere.
Investigators initially sought data through cell tower orders, obtaining the lists of cellphone numbers reporting activity within a 30-minute window in the area of five reported robberies.
Kurtz said three numbers stood out for appearing in the vicinity of each of the five robberies around the time they occurred.
With the help of court orders and searches through databases, police found the numbers belonged to Caballero-Melgar, Jonny Reyes-Martinez and Jose Varela, Kurtz said.
Documents containing phone subscriber information obtained through court orders, along with physical surveillance activity, enabled police to locate an address for Caballero-Melgar.
“Phone evidence gave us the initial leads that led to initial identification of suspects,” Kurtz said. “The evidence was bolstered by interviews and other records we obtained.”
Over the course of the investigation, police discovered two phone numbers associated with Caballero-Melgar and three numbers associated with Reyes-Martinez, Kurtz said.
The evidence showed that the robbers sometimes used prepaid cellphones to keep in touch with one another.
An address associated with the account on one prepaid phone was found to be a former residence for Caballero-Melgar, Kurtz said.
An analysis of call records showed calls of varying duration between phones registered to Caballero-Melgar and Reyes-Martinez at multiple robbery sites, including a 29-minute call around the time of the La Placita robbery and seven separate phone calls made immediately afterward.
The cellphone that was discovered by police at La Placita was determined to belong to Reyes-Martinez, and Kurtz said a contact on the phone for Caballero-Melgar was saved under “JJJ.”
Also testifying Wednesday was Michele Chaput, a former manager at a Check Into Cash location in Nashville.
Chaput said she was working there Feb. 9, 2017, when two armed men entered the store demanding money.
One of the men asked Chaput if she spoke Spanish before darting around the counter and pointing a gun at her, Chaput said.
Chaput testified she was restrained at her wrists and feet with duct tape, and during the robbery one of the men held a phone to her ear, and a male voice on the other end asked for the location of the money in the store.
– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.