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Merced police charge two men for carjacking, armed robbery of downtown cell phone store

Fingerprints, hundreds of hours of investigative work and networking with other detectives have led to the arrest of two people in connection with a June 28 carjacking and armed robbery of a downtown Merced cell phone store.

Jose Hernandez, 18, of Modesto and his cousin, Luis Angel Hernandez, 24, of Redwood City, are in Stanislaus County Jail in Modesto in connection with the Tony's Cellular robbery and are implicated in 15 other robberies and carjackings in Northern California, according to Cmdr. Tom Martin of the Merced Police Department.

Anthony Moreno, Tony's Cellular owner, received bruised ribs and head injuries when he was kicked and pistol-whipped during the 2 p.m. robbery at the 1 W. Main St. store. He hopes the people who assaulted him, his clerks and customers are "put away for life."

"They cracked my head open pretty bad. I got hit six or seven times in the head. I was taken away in an ambulance. I run two to three businesses and for about two weeks I wasn't fully 100 percent," Moreno said.

Detective Rod Court, lead investigator in the case, believes the four men toting semi-automatic handguns would have shot it out if confronted by officers.

"These are the kind of crooks you wouldn't want to leave out there. In one of the San Mateo County armed robberies, one shot was fired but no one was hurt," Court said.

Both Hernandez cousins were arrested July 29 on robbery charges. Information about the arrests wasn't released until Friday to keep from hindering the investigation, Martin said.

Moreno said the robbers were in the store for more than six minutes. He said in 17 years of business he had never been robbed, although the store had been burglarized several times.

"This was the first time; there has never been anything like this. They came running in the door and everybody was in shock and didn't have time to react. We couldn't believe what was going on," Moreno said.

Jose and Luis Hernandez have been charged with three counts of armed robbery, carjacking, assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft of a firearm and criminal conspiracy of commit robbery. Bail for Jose Hernandez on the Merced County warrants alone is $500,000, and Luis Hernandez is being held on a no-bail parole hold.

Court isn't sure why the robbers picked Merced because most of their activity was either in Turlock-Modesto or San Mateo County areas. The robberies started in mid-June at a Turlock auto parts store and the last one was reported July 12 at a Crows Landing Road jewelry store in Modesto.

Police are seeking a 17-year-old Modesto boy for the same charges along with two other suspects. They believe the teen checked out the cell phone store earlier the day of the robbery and was the one who stole a Lexus SUV from a 34-year-old woman at gunpoint outside the Thai Star restaurant on West Alexander Avenue, six minutes before the Tony's Cellular robbery.

Fingerprints found in the SUV were the key break that tied the Hernandez cousins to the robbery, Court said. He said he and fellow officers spent hundreds of manhours on the case. Martin said seven law enforcement agencies are investigating the robberies.

Moreno said the masked robbers ordered people in the store to the ground and kicked two of his clerks. The robbers took several thousand dollars in cash, cell phones and a handgun from Moreno and robbed two customers in the store, Martin said.

The robbers abandoned the SUV in the 1700 block of F Street, getting into two getaway cars, a tan 1990s-model Honda and a white sedan. The following day, the robbers stuck up a Hispanic market in San Mateo County, only blocks from a jewelry store they had robbed only days before.

Other incidents tied to the men include a June 18 jewelry store in San Mateo, the July 5 robbery of a Hispanic-owned boutique and clothing store in San Mateo, a July 9 robbery of a Redwood City liquor store and a July 11 robbery in Mt. View.

The Tony's Cellular robbery was captured on videotape and the 17-year-old identified.

Martin said Jose Hernandez admitted to detectives he robbed the Merced store. Jose Hernandez was one of two people arrested last December for the robbery of a car audio store in Manteca. He posted bail and was released, Court said.

Court is hoping Merced residents have information about the carjacking and robbery here and will call him at 385-4703. There are unconfirmed reports the two other robbery suspects fled to Mexico. He said the investigation is not over.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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