The alleged gunman in a Bowling Green robbery that turned deadly pleaded guilty Wednesday to multiple charges in federal court.
Jonny Alexander Reyes-Martinez, 32, of Nashville, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to murder through use of a firearm during a crime of violence, interference with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to carry or possess a firearm during a crime of violence and illegal possession of a firearm.
Reyes-Martinez admitted taking part in the March 17, 2017, robbery of La Placita market on Morgantown Road, in which Jose Cruz, 31, of Bowling Green, was shot and killed as he attempted to intervene.
Authorities said $23,500 was stolen during the incident and that Reyes-Martinez was part of a group of 13 people based in Nashville who carried out a total of 15 robberies at mostly Hispanic-owned businesses in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and North Carolina over several months in 2017.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford said Wednesday that Reyes-Martinez participated in 13 of the robberies, in which employees were typically restrained with duct tape at their wrists and sometimes their ankles while armed robbers made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Before each robbery, members of the conspiracy would do in-store surveillance, conduct a money transfer at each business and stay in touch with one another via cellphones, Ford said.
The shooting at La Placita was investigated initially by the Bowling Green Police Department, and the FBI became involved as investigators realized the scope of the crimes.
Evidence left behind at La Placita, including a pair of gloves and a cellphone, enabled law enforcement to link Reyes-Martinez to the robbery, Ford said.
“He can be seen on surveillance video on that day entering the store,” Ford said. “He is carrying a firearm, as is his co-conspirator.”
Court records said Reyes-Martinez and Jose Adan Mejia Varela entered La Placita on the day of the robbery as another reported co-conspirator, Jorge Caballero-Melgar, waited outside.
Employees in the store were restrained with duct tape, and Reyes-Martinez reportedly struck one of them with a gun.
Cruz arrived at the store as the robbery was taking place to pick up one of his children, who was inside.
Cruz entered the store, realized a robbery was occurring and attempted to fight Reyes-Martinez, according to prosecutors.
Varela, who had gone out into the parking lot by the time Cruz entered, returned to the store and joined the fight, during which a gun discharged and a bullet struck Varela in the elbow before fragmenting and entering Cruz’s back, authorities said.
Reyes-Martinez was arrested May 30, 2017, in Kansas with another person who is not suspected of involvement in the La Placita robbery.
Later in the year, Reyes-Martinez was interviewed, with the aid of an interpreter, in FC Leavenworth penitentiary by two FBI agents, during which he confessed to his involvement in the robbery and gave details about the shooting.
“The person that went in came at us and we struggled, fighting there, and yes, a shot released from the gun. ... I honestly got scared when he started to fight with me,” Reyes-Martinez said in the interview about Cruz’s intervention, according to a transcript filed in the case.
Reyes-Martinez later told police he remembered the sound of the gunshot while struggling with Cruz and ran from the store without knowing what happened to Cruz.
“It was never my intention to hurt him,” Reyes-Martinez told police, according to the transcript. “I know that asking for forgiveness does not remedy anything ... in that moment I was not thinking about what I was doing.”
A plea agreement suggests a penalty range of 17.5 to 35 years for Reyes-Martinez, who is set to be sentenced June 23 by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Greg Stivers.
Caballero-Melgar also appeared in court Wednesday for a pretrial conference.
Of the five co-defendants charged in the La Placita case, Caballero-Melgar is the only one who has not pleaded guilty.
“This defendant is not contesting that these robberies took place, he is contesting his role in the robberies,” Ford said Wednesday.
Caballero-Melgar’s attorney, Bryce Caldwell, said federal prosecutors offered a plea agreement to resolve the case that Caballero-Melgar has rejected.
Ford said the plea offer recommended a sentence ranging from 262 to 405 months, but Caballero-Melgar expressed interest in a narrower range of time for his sentencing.
Caballero-Melgar faces murder, robbery and conspiracy charges as well as a charge of illegal re-entry after deportation, and faces a life sentence if convicted. His trial is set for April 27.
Varela has pleaded guilty to the same charges as Reyes-Martinez and awaits sentencing.
Two other co-defendants, Lilian Duron and Estrellita Soto, pleaded guilty to a robbery charges. Duron is serving a four-year prison sentence while Soto has been sentenced to five years and 10 months.
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