Authorities confirmed today that a Watsonville woman dubbed the “Central Coast Bandit” was arrested Friday after an attempted robbery and high-speed chase that ended in a car crash in Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County. Cristina Fernandez Padilla, 50, is believed to be involved in a series of six bank robberies since December in coastal and central California, including one in Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said.
The Central Coast Bandit became infamous for wearing an assortment of hats and “cheerfully” entered each bank carrying a handbag and dressed in a non-descript T-shirt “looking like an average woman going about running some errands,” according to FBI spokeswoman Gina Swankie in Sacramento. In the alleged attempted bank robbery Friday, a woman matching the bandit’s description walked into the Golden 1 Credit Union in San Luis Obispo just before 5 p.m., Cipolla said.
The suspect, apparently believing she had been recognized, walked back out to a parked car and as she left a description of the vehicle and its license plate were reported to the San Luis Obispo Police Department, Cipolla said. Police officers spotted the suspect car but when they tried to stop her the driver sped onto northbound U.S. Highway 101 and eventually reached the top of the Cuesta Grade on the highway, Cipolla said. Officers from the Atascadero Police Department then noticed the fleeing car as it continued north on 101, Cipolla said.
The driver turned off of the highway onto surface streets and parking lots in Atascadero and then steered back onto the highway headed north again, Cipolla said. The California Highway Patrol then picked up the pursuit as the driver exited 101 onto surface streets in Paso Robles and continued the high-speed chase. After the driver allegedly rammed into a civilian vehicle on purpose at the intersection of 24th Street and Riverside Avenue, her attempted getaway ended when her car crashed at 35th and Pine streets.
Paso Robles police took Padilla into custody on suspicion of robbing banks in Atascadero and Pismo Beach and credit unions in Paso Robles and the unincorporated area of Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County, Cipolla said. The robberies took place between Feb. 13 and Aug. 14, according to Swankie. Aside from four counts of robbery, she was also arrested on suspicion of felony evading arrest and assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm in the ramming incident with her car, Cipolla said.
Search warrants were prepared so that investigators can sift through her car and residence in Watsonville in addition to the separate car she drove during the chase, Cipolla said. Padilla is being held on $290,000 bail at the San Luis Obispo County Jail in San Luis Obispo, he said. She is also believed responsible for robbing the Monterey Credit Union in Pacific Grove on Dec. 31 and the Farmers and Merchant Bank in Modesto in Stanislaus County on July 18, Swankie said.
Follow up interviews will be conducted in the multi-agency investigation to determine whether state or federal charges will be filed against Padilla, Cipolla said. Since the banks that were robbed are federally insured, federal charges could be filed but the decision is up to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, which has jurisdiction since Padilla was arrested in San Luis Obispo County, Swankie said. During the robberies, the suspected bandit never displayed a handgun but wrote notes to tellers demanding money and the FBI considered her armed and dangerous, Swankie said.
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