Former Santa Rosa police Officer Robert Starling testified this afternoon he used a fake gun, speed and the element of surprise to rob a Loomis armored car at the Exchange Bank in Santa Rosa in 2007. The $180,000 heist was the first of four such robberies in Marin and Sonoma counties between Sept. 27, 2007, and May 18, 2009. Each of the four counts of robbery against Starling also includes an enhancement alleging a use of a weapon that carries an additional 10-year prison sentence, although he would not likely be sentenced to the full 40 years if he were convicted of all four them. Deputy Public Defender Jeff Mitchell has argued the weapons enhancements to not apply because Starling used a fake gun. Police estimate more than $500,000 was stolen in three robberies. At the Bank of America on Grant Street in Novato on April 15, 2009, Starling
allegedly grabbed an empty money bag, dropped it and fled. His accomplice Andrew Cooper Esslinger, 27, of Santa Rosa, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified against Starling in Sonoma County Superior Court Monday and this morning.
Starling, 35, was a Santa Rosa and Sonoma State University police officer. He said after he left the Santa Rosa Police Department in 2006, he was having financial troubles and he worked as a driver of a Brinks armored car for six weeks in 2007. Between his police officer experience and what he learned about security breaches during the armored car deliveries, Starling said he soon “formulated the idea that I could successfully rob these vehicles.” Starling said he brought an Airsoft gun that fires round plastic pellets to the robberies instead of a real gun because he knew he would never survive a shoot-out with responding officers anyway. He also testified he knew using a weapon during a robbery adds years to any potential sentence and killing someone with it during a robbery would expose him to the death penalty. Because he was using an Airsoft gun he purchased at a flea market, Starling said he had to not only take the armored car courier by surprise while his hands were full of the money, but he had to complete the heist in five to seven seconds before the guard realized the gun was fake. Starling said he also screamed to distract the courier so he would listen to him and not look at him or the gun. He said the courier at the Stony Point Road robbery saw him coming, dropped the bag and ran. He said he didn’t think any courier would chase him or shoot him in the back. Starling said he wasn’t worried about the armored car driver because drivers are prohibited from leaving the vehicle and the company policy is for them to drive away from the scene of any robbery. Still, he considered the heist “high risk,” he said. “I would either get caught at the scene or get away. My actual chance of pulling this off was 50-50,” Starling said.Starling also is charged with robberies outside the Bank of America on Sonoma Ave. in Santa Rosa on April 23, 2008, and outside the Bank of America in Sebastopol on May 18, 2009. Starling and Esslinger also were charged with reporting to Rohnert Park police there was a gun on the Rancho Cotate High School campus on March 18, 2009, to distract them from a planned robbery in Rohnert Park. The campus was locked down for several hours but there was no armored car robbery that day. Before he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in return for a six-year prison sentence, Esslinger faced a trial for participating in two of the robberies. Esslinger, who also testified today, said both of them went in
separate cars to the banks. He said he was Starling’s “eyes and ears” regarding where the armored car courier was so Starling could surprise him at the right spot and the right moment. Esslinger said he told Santa Rosa police investigators Starling
said “he would come and find me if I spoke to police”, and that he was “afraid I might get whacked.” The trial resumes 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
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