Update: Santa Rosa PD Officer Involved in Armored Car Heists Also Former Brinks Employee; Charges Include Threats to Local High School

Update #2.  Alleged Accomplice Will Testify Against Former Officer in Armored Car Heists  (Press Democrat – April 9, 2010)

New revelations in the former SRPD officer who has been arrested for allegedly carrying out local armored car heists. He has a short history working with the armored car service Brinks, as well as working at Sonoma State University as a campus officer. Apparently he is also being charged with making a threat to a local High School in order to create a distraction for the police. On top of all of that he apparently was operating an indoor cannabis garden for his own interests. Whew, this guy could easily become the poster-face for certain police corruption in the area, NOT to say they are ALL bad, because I know some aren’t. But a local cop who robs armored cars, threatens 1500 kids and grows cannabis…I wonder what this guy did when he was on duty and had the badge to protect him! -ed

source: Press Democrat

A former Santa Rosa police officer charged with four armored car robberies in Sonoma and Marin counties apparently used his knowledge as a patrolman – and a former armored car company employee – to pull off the lucrative heists.

In court Wednesday, prosecutors filed 10 felony and one misdemeanor charge against ex-officer Robert “Steve” Starling, 35, of Santa Rosa in connection with four thefts dating to September 2007 in Santa Rosa, Novato and Sebastopol.

In addition to being a former police officer, Starling briefly worked as a Brinks armored carrier employee, police said.

His alleged accomplice, Andrew Cooper Esslinger, 26, also of Santa Rosa, was charged with six felonies, including the Sebastopol and Novato robberies.

More than half a dozen Santa Rosa police officers watched in court Wednesday as their former colleague conferred with his public defender.

The robberies netted the men more than $400,000, which Starling used to finance a carefree lifestyle and start at least two indoor marijuana gardens, according to Santa Rosa police.

Both Starling and Esslinger, who are being held on $1 million bail, delayed entering pleas until a hearing set for Sept. 2 by Judge Elliot Daum.

In addition to the robbery charges, both men are charged with conspiracy and filing false police reports designed to draw police resources away from their planned robberies, prosecutor Marianna Green said.

They face decades in prison if convicted of the crimes.

Both also are charged with making a March 18 anonymous phone threat to Rancho Cotate HighSchool saying there was a person with a gun on campus. The report triggered a lockdown of the school, a post-Columbine saturation response by police and near-panic among hundreds of parents worried for their children’s safety.

The apparent planned robbery was aborted because of the massive police response in Rohnert Park, police said.

Cotati-Rohnert Park Superintendent Barbara Vrankovich said she was “stunned” when she read the news reports of the arrests.

“This was two individuals basically using a school as a pawn in a crime,” said “And those police officers were serious – combing that campus with guns drawn.”

“To put at risk 1,500 students and 100 staffers – it’s just beyond really, really offensive,” she said.

Starling was a police officer for Santa Rosa and Sonoma State University between December 2000 and July 2006. Esslinger’s occupation wasn’t known.

Starling, the alleged gunman and mastermind of the robberies, worked as a probationary Santa Rosa police officer from December 2000 to April 2001. He then was hired as a Sonoma State University officer.

In May 2003, he returned to Santa Rosa as a patrol officer but quit in July 2006. Starling returned to SSU and sought his old job back, but he wasn’t rehired.

The techniques used in the robberies clued police to the possibility that the perpetrator could have law enforcement training.

Those included the uses of ruses and diversionary tactics that were apparently meant to keep police occupied while the robbers hit. The tactics hinted that the robbers had some knowledge of how police are trained to respond.

The robbers also apparently knew that armored car heists were far more lucrative than standard stick-ups inside a bank. Three robberies were from Brinks trucks and one from Loomis Armored Transport.

Police said Starling was able to reach back to his experience and training from working as a police officer and as a Brinks employee, using “a certain amount of sophistication” in his planning, Sgt. Steve Fraga said.

But Starling had never worked investigations, and may not have appreciated the ever-changing strategies and evolving technology used in investigations, Fraga said.

“I think his knowledge of operations stopped at the patrol level,” he said.

Fraga said Starling “wasn’t a good fit” with police work or with the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Starling’s ex-wife, Julia, said Starling grew up in Santa Rosa but moved a lot and struggled with personal issues. Though he attended Cook Middle School, he graduated from high school in San Mateo, she said.

Unspecified difficulties that he faced growing up factored largely in his decision to become a cop and he enjoyed beat responsibilities for the opportunities it gave him to interact with young people, Julia Starling said.

After quitting the Santa Rosa Police Department, Starling “applied for lots of other jobs,” including positions with Recreation and Parks, she said. He worked as a security guard for two years, including a period of time at a local hospital.

Starling and his current wife had been living on the Windsor town green and just moved into a new rental on Desert Rose Lane in a neat but modest subdivision in southwest Santa Rosa, where he was allegedly growing marijuana in the garage, Fraga said.

Esslinger was believed to be a lookout during the Sebastopol and Novato heists.

Starling is charged with using a gun in each robbery, which could add 10 years per charge if convicted. Though guards were ordered around at gunpoint, no one was hurt in any of the robberies.

Fraga said the call to Rancho Cotate warning of a man with a gun carried a huge criminal liability because of the thousands of students and parents who may have been traumatized by the event.

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