A Buena Park man was sentenced to less than 9 years in federal prison Friday after being convicted in 23 armed robberies at gas stations and corner stores across Los Angeles and Orange counties over a two-year span, officials said.
Gerardo Sotelo, 28, pleaded guilty in February to using a replica firearm in the crime series that began in October 2016 and ended in his arrest in May 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release.
The defendant, who was facing up to 20 years behind bars, was given an 100-month federal prison sentence and ordered to pay $625 in restitution.
He had been convicted of four counts of interference with commerce by robbery and one count of attempted interference with commerce by robbery, prosecutors said.
The crime series began with a series of five armed robberies at 7-Elevens across the Southland in October 2016, including in Brea, Pico Rivera, Norwalk, Fullerton and La Habra, according to investigators.
Sotelo was not convicted of any robberies occurring in 2017, but prosecutors say the series picked back up on March 27, 2018, at the same 7-Eleven in La Habra that was targeted two years before. Sotelo would return to rob that store again on April 5 and 11, court documents state.
That same month, Sotelo allegedly targeted four Chevron stations — in Whittier, Brea, Artesia and Cypress — as well as a 7-Eleven and Shell in Fullerton and Mobil in Fountain Valley.
Sotelo used the same method in many of the incidents, picking up an item off the shelves and approaching the register as if he were going to buy it, but instead pulling out what appeared to be a semiautomatic handgun and demanding cash from register, according to a criminal complaint.
He was also usually seen wearing a baseball cap with the logo of either the Brooklyn or L.A. Dodgers, and often wore long sleeves and appeared to be covering up neck, officials said.
Using the hat as a clue, authorities determined the “B” logo on the Brooklyn Dodgers hat likely was associated with the East Side Buena Park gang. Federal investigators spoke with a Buena Park police detective who said surveillance images from one of the incidents resembled Sotelo, who the detective said was a documented member of the gang.
Based on that information, a warrant for GPS data from Sotelo’s cellphone was obtained and investigators began tracking him.
On May 1, 2018, detectives conducting surveillance on Sotelo following him from a residence on 2300 block of Deerpark Drive in Fullerton. His black, 1998 Honda Accord appeared to scout several locations before eventually heading to the Artesia Chevron that had been robbed the month before, the complaint states.
After arriving at the location — at 16725 Pioneer Blvd. — he pulled hooded sweatshirt over his head, cinched it up to his neck and went inside. There, he pointed what turned out to be a replica gun at the clerk, who later said he recognized Sotelo from the previous incident, investigators said.
Sotelo allegedly demanded the associate load money into a plastic bag. The bag repeatedly broke, but the defendant order the worker twice to fill it back up before eventually running out, authorities said.
The detectives tracking him began chasing Sotelo on foot as he exited and arrested him near the store.
They recovered the fake firearm from the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt along with $25 in rolls of pennies, $17 in cash and other loose currency, according to court documents.
After searching the Fullerton home where Sotelo shared room with daughter, detectives found four Brooklyn Dodger hats and two L.A. Dodger caps.
Upon being questioned, Sotelo confirmed he was the man captured on security cameras in at least four of the 2018 robberies, though he said he couldn’t remember every robbery he carried out in 2016 because he regularly used heroin at the time, investigators said.
Officials state that Sotelo’s previous convictions include taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent in 2009, a second-degree robbery for which he was sentenced to two years in 2011 and three misdemeanors — theft, participating in criminal street gang and second-degree burglary — in 2012.