Remorse fills confessed robber's jail time

San Luis Obispo man turned himself in to police days after second heist

jhickey@thetribunenews.comAugust 11, 2013 

Steven Celaya, shown in a family photo, faces up to 10 years in prison for two robbery charges.


Steven Daniel Celaya doesn’t remember much about robbing the Bank of America in Atascadero on June 7 besides the voices screaming in his head.

“I remember I almost wanted to push the bag of money back when she gave it to me. I felt so nervous. … I was thinking, what the (expletive) are you doing?” he told The Tribune in an interview last week at the San Luis Obispo County Jail.

It was the 32-year-old San Luis Obispo resident’s second bank robbery in two weeks, he said, with the same note, the same bag, the same sleepless frenzy that built after weeks of snorting crystal meth.

Celaya fled the lobby, but a woman walking with a child blocked the path outside, oblivious to the crime that had just occurred. 

He stopped, and the little girl turned to him and smiled. “I smiled at her, because I didn’t want to scare her. But as soon as I got around, I took off running.”

Then the dye pack ignited, causing red smoke to pour from the bag. 

He searched the neighborhood for his truck — having forgotten where he left it. Finally seated inside, he thought to himself: “Oh, dude, this is real bad now.”

Celaya turned himself in to the San Luis Obispo Police Department less than four days later, around 7:30 a.m. on June 11 — a rare step for any bank robber, according to the FBI. He admitted to the May 25 robbery of Chase Bank on Madonna Road in San Luis Obispo, as well as the June 7 robbery of the Bank of America in Atascadero.

He is being held in San Luis Obispo County Jail on $200,000 bail and has entered a not-guilty plea in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. 

Each robbery carries a sentence of up to five years.

The mental roller coaster that led to his crimes and remorseful admission, Celaya said, is a result of two volatile substances: meth and love. 

Celaya first tried drugs — cocaine — in the sixth grade, around the time his father died of a heroin overdose.

As a child, he remembered the helpless feeling of seeing his mother hit and abused by men. Celaya suffered from depression and mood swings, and discovered that meth could block it out. 

Celaya’s mother, Liz Agbisit of Clovis, saw her son cycle through extreme highs and lows. 

“Literally, you could see him sink before your eyes, and he would lash out,” she said. “He would overreact to things, but he would help the underdog, and stick up for littler ones at school.”

Celaya benefited for a time from medication to treat what a teacher suspected was bipolar disorder and a doctor called a “chemical imbalance,” Agbisit said. As a teenager, he completed a court-ordered drug diversion program for first-time offenders and didn’t touch meth again until his mid-20s.

Celaya left a volatile relationship in the Fresno area for the Central Coast in July 2012, staying with his brother in Cayucos to get a fresh start on life.

“My brother would tell me, ‘Don’t screw up. It’s expensive to live down here,’ ” said Celaya, who was collecting unemployment at the time.  

He got a job installing solar panels. One night, while waiting for his clothes at a Morro Bay laundry, he went into a nearby salon for a haircut, and met just the right girl. 

“I fell in love instantly,” he said. 

He moved into his girlfriend’s home, which they shared with her mother and a roommate’s family.

He met her parents. He worked steady shifts. And he helped her pay the rent on her salon. (Celaya declined to name his girlfriend for this story.)

“She is a sweet, loving, caring person, and she would do anything for me. … I was living the dream,” he said. 

He wasn’t tempted to do drugs. 

“When I feel like I’m worth something, I don’t act that way,” he said. 

But as 2012 turned the corner to 2013, a perfect storm of financial troubles struck.  

Celaya’s work hours were cut at the same time he discovered his wages were being garnished for forgetting to pay taxes on his unemployment benefits. He failed to pay a citation for having an open alcohol container in a fishing bag — and the fine grew to $500. He couldn’t afford to renew the registration on his car and let the insurance lapse.

The tipping point came one day in a San Luis Obispo convenience store. 

“Someone paid me a dollar for a cigarette, and then they threw me a piece (of crystal meth). I did it right in front of the store.”

From that moment, he was chasing the high daily and trying to hide it from everyone, including his girlfriend. The meth made him stay awake all day and night, and he stopped eating.

“I was so scared. ‘You’re gonna lose your job. You’re gonna lose her,’ ” Celaya told himself. 

When the idea to rob a bank hit him, Celaya acted instantly. He had hardly slept in a month. 

“I wrote a note. I don’t remember what the hell it said. There were clothes in the truck from Halloween.” 

He wore a baseball cap, sunglasses and a wig.

“I just did it. I got the money. When I got the money, I didn’t know how to use it.”

Celaya thinks he obtained about $1,200 from the robbery, but he lost a good amount of it under a bridge while pulling out his wallet to buy more drugs. 

“It never hit me, realizing what I had done,” he said. 

He vowed that the second time would be the last — and he would use the money responsibly to pay his outstanding bills and make things right. 

But after the second robbery, catastrophic thoughts began to flood his mind: 

“I could hardly even remember everything that went on. Did I put my hand on the counter? Do they have my fingerprints?”

He imagined the SWAT team breaking down the door of his girlfriend’s home and drawing guns on her, her mother and a roommate’s two children.

“In my mind, there were guns in everyone’s faces. It’s gonna be all bad for everybody. … What if someone’s sitting on the couch with a remote on their lap, and they think it’s a gun? What if there’s a mechanical malfunction? Someone could get shot.”

Celaya thought of the harm that could be brought on the people he loved.

“It didn’t weigh out for me. … I don’t want to live the rest of my life with that on my conscience,” he said.

When he finally told his girlfriend everything, the news left her in tears, he said.

Celaya may have gotten away with the robberies — at the time of his surrender, the only leads were bank surveillance photos. 

Investigators asked him why he turned himself in. 

“I showed them a picture of my girlfriend and said, ‘This is why I am here,’ ” said Celaya, who has no other criminal record.  

Lt. John Bledsoe of the San Luis Obispo Police Department confirmed Celaya’s version of the story, saying it was consistent with what Celaya told investigators. 

“He expressed remorse and was very cooperative with the investigation,” Bledsoe said.

Agbisit said her son is a good person. 

“If he had not been on drugs, he would never have done this,” she said. 

Celaya’s attorney, Matthew Guerrero, declined to comment for this story. 

Now that Celaya is clean again, behind bars, he realizes that if he had lost his job or truck, his friends and family would have helped him. 

“I still can’t believe it. There are times I’ve thought my life is totally ruined. I betrayed the people who trusted me.” 

Celaya has been writing his girlfriend, but her connection is waning. 

The last letter he received from her “was a really good one,” he said, but she hasn’t visited in more than a month.

He wiped the tears streaming down his face in a short burst of emotion, in an orange suit, behind glass in the jail visiting hall.

“It is what it is,” he said. “Reality is now.”

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