Robbers rented Penske truck to steal 900 pounds of weed, but plot backfired, Calif. cops say

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Robbers planning to steal a huge trove of marijuana in Corning last month came with the tools to execute the feat — including a large rented truck, Northern California deputies said.

Michelle Vargas, a 20-year-old Michigan woman, rented a Penske box truck on Jan. 29 — the day of the robbery attempt — before she and a handful of others headed to a home where they “were expecting to steal about 900 lbs. of processed marijuana,” which would sell for roughly $3 million on the street, according to a Tehama County Sheriff’s Office news release Monday.

But Vargas didn’t show up at the home with the box truck, deputies said: The attempted robbers arrived in a car, and a woman involved in the plot pretended the vehicle had broken down when she knocked on 23-year-old Austreberto Valencia’s door and asked for help, according to the sheriff’s office.

“My son went out to help a woman at the car,” said Valencia’s 48-year-old father, Enrique Santamaria Zepeda, the Corning Observer reported. “They did that to distract us from the men who were coming to rob our home.”

The robbers held Valencia at gunpoint, and marched him back to his home, where the robbers threatened his parents as well, the sheriff’s office said.

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“One of them put a handgun into my side and told me to relax and go into the house, and another did the same to my wife, but she screamed,” Zepeda said, according to the Observer. “The girl stayed with the car and two others forced my son back to the carport at gunpoint.”

But Valencia managed to get away from the robbers and to grab a gun from his home — and he then went to the carport where two robbers were holding his father and “immediately shot both men in the head,” according to the sheriff’s office.

That’s when the other robbers fled, two by car and one on foot, according to the sheriff’s office.

Police arrived at the scene around 6 p.m., and the two men who were shot — Daniel “AK” Hernandez, 23, and Adrian Gutierrez, 19, both of Madera, California — were pronounced dead, the sheriff’s office said.

Valencia’s mother phoned 911 to report the robbery attempt and gunfire, as Zepeda “removed 63 pounds of processed marijuana from the residence and stashed it on a neighbor’s property” before authorities arrived, the sheriff’s office said. None of the family members were injured in the attempted robbery.

Detectives found 20 pounds of processed weed at the Corning home, and seized the drugs, deputies said.

The sheriff’s office said in the update Monday that authorities were first told Valencia had fired at and killed the two men with one of the robbers’ own guns, but it turned out that wasn’t true: Valencia had “lied about using his own gun because he was concerned his gun was not registered to him, and he did not want to get into trouble for that,” the sheriff’s office said.

Detectives checked surveillance cameras from around the area to find video of the white Dodge Charger two suspects used to get away, and relied on that evidence to identify Vargas and Sergio Brandt-Cardenas, a 31-year-old Michigan man, as suspects.

Deputies in Utah’s Sevier County arrested Vargas and Brandt-Cardenas in the car after it was tracked to an Elsinore, Utah, gas station Feb. 1, according to the sheriff’s office.

Tehama County deputies went to the Sevier County Jail to question both suspects the following day, and found “additional evidence linking the two to the robbery from their vehicle,” the sheriff’s office said.

Detectives next identified Jose Aniceto Cardenas-Manzo, a 45-year-old Madera man, as a suspect, and arrested him on Feb. 21, deputies said.

All three of the suspects are being held on $150,000 bail on charges of kidnapping, attempted robbery and criminal conspiracy, deputies said.

The sheriff’s office said two more suspects — Luis Fernando Hernandez Rangel, 39, and Regulo Giron Morales, 47 — were both “directly involved” in the planning as well.

“We are seeking warrants for their arrest,” deputies said.

Zepeda said last month that he hadn’t met any of the attempted robbers before, the Observer reported.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.