Five people have been charged in connection with the death of a Bowling Green man who was shot during a robbery at a small grocery earlier this year.
The crime has been tied to a string of at least 12 violent robberies at similar markets in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina between Jan. 13 and Sept. 2, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Bowling Green.
The Bowling Green Daily News reported that Hispanic grocery stores were targeted by an organized group of about 11 people, but not all of them participated in all of the crimes.
A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Bowling Green says Johnny Alexander Relles-Martinez and José Adan Mejia Varela were armed when they went into La Placita market on Morgantown Road in Bowling Green at 2:58 p.m. March 17, locked the door behind them and demanded money from the store employees.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
La Placita is a Hispanic market that offers check-cashing and wire transfer services, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
While the robbery was being committed, José Cruz, 31, went to the store to pick up his children from his ex-wife, who worked at the store, according to the Daily News. The children were locked inside, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
“When Varela unlocked the door to walk toward a waiting car, Cruz entered the store, realized that a second gunman, Martinez, was robbing the store and began fighting him. Varela returned to the store and attempted to pistol-whip Mr. Cruz,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Martinez shot Cruz during the fight, and Cruz’s children saw the shooting, which was confirmed via video, 911 audio and witnesses, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. Cruz died at a local hospital.
Martinez, who is being held in a jail in Leavenworth, Kansas, made an initial court appearance Tuesday.
Varela and another man charged in the case, Jorge Santos Caballero-Melgar, are being held in Virginia and are scheduled to appear on federal charges in Bowling Green on Nov. 29.
Melgar is accused of being the lookout during the robbery.
Two women, Lillian Duron and Estrellita Soto, who also are charged in the case, appeared Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brent Brennenstuhl in Bowling Green. New details were revealed in a criminal complaint that was unsealed afterward.
An affidavit in support of the complaint says the women are shown on surveillance video in the store and in the parking lot just before the robbery. Soto is accused of telling Melgar where the money in the store was kept and letting him know when all customers were gone, leaving two female clerks in the store. Duron made a wire transfer at the store about an hour before the robbery, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
“This outcome was due to plain old good police work, by Bowling Green’s finest, in concert with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and a host of other police agencies in other states,” U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman said in a news release. “We are all safer when local and federal law enforcement work together to tackle violent crimes like this dangerous string of multi-state robberies.”