One of two men who was facing a trial Friday for the robberies of armored cars at banks in Sonoma and Marin counties has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and will testify against his co-defendant, a former Santa Rosa police officer. Andrew Cooper Esslinger, 27, of Santa Rosa, pleaded guilty in Sonoma County Superior Court Monday to conspiracy, possession of narcotics for sale and possession of a firearm. He faces a six-year prison sentence as part of his plea agreement. A sentencing date will be set May 3. Esslinger agreed to testify against Robert Starling, 35, of Santa Rosa. Starling was held over for trial on charges stemming from four robberies: at the Exchange Bank on Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa on Sept. 27, 2007; the Bank of America on Sonoma Avenue in Santa Rosa on April 23, 2008; the Bank of America on Grant Street in Novato on April 15, 2009 and the Bank of America on May 18, 2009 in Sebastopol. Esslinger was held for trial for the Novato and Sebastopol robberies after a preliminary hearing in February. At that hearing, Deputy District Attorney Marianna Green said the pattern in the robberies was the same. A man armed with a black semi-automatic handgun, ran toward the guard and yelled at him to get down on the ground outside the bank. Police estimated that a total of more than $400,000 was stolen in all four robberies, but in the Novato robbery, the suspect grabbed an empty bank bag from a cart outside the bank and fled when he realized it was empty. Both men also were accused of reporting a false kidnapping in south Novato to a Novato police dispatcher to distract police from the downtown robbery. Additionally, they were accused of reporting to Rohnert Park police there was a gun on the campus of the Rancho Cotati High School on March 18, 2009, prompting police to lock down the campus for several hours. No armored car robberies occurred that day. Starling was a Santa Rosa patrol officer between December 2000 and April 2001. He left the force and was rehired in May 2003, then voluntarily left in July 2006, according to Santa Rosa police.
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