Crime

Central Coast Bandit apologizes during sentencing for bank robberies

Cristina Fernandez Padilla, the Central Coast Bandit, was arraigned in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.
Cristina Fernandez Padilla, the Central Coast Bandit, was arraigned in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A woman who claimed she began robbing banks so she and her teenage daughter could move out of a bad neighborhood was sentenced to 16 years of what is expected to be a 20-year prison term Thursday.

Cristina Padilla, 52, of Watsonville had previously been convicted of robbing several banks in three different counties. Dubbed the Central Coast Bandit by authorities, she was apprehended in August 2013 after crashing her car during a high-speed chase with police.

Padilla had previously agreed to plead guilty to all eight charges from San Luis Obispo County. During her sentencing Thursday, she said little, though she did apologize.

“This is something that’s been troubling her for a long period of time,” her attorney, Linden Mackoui, told the court. “She has done what she can to accept responsibility by entering into this agreement.”

The robbery spree in San Luis Obispo County began in February 2013, when Padilla robbed Pacific Western Bank in Atascadero.

According to a sentencing report prepared by the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department, Padilla said she and her 13-year-old daughter were living in a dangerous apartment complex in Watsonville at the time. An unemployed former phlebotomist and receptionist, Padilla had been denied disability for a bad back, though she did receive $1,300 a month in Social Security benefits from her daughter’s father, who was killed in a car accident.

Needing more money to relocate, she told probation officers, Padilla said she got the idea to rob a bank from an episode of the TV show “Dateline.”

She determined she needed $15,000 to move into a better neighborhood and have some money left over for savings, she told probation officials. But the first bank robbery only netted around $2,800. So she robbed more.

Each time, Padilla’s method was the same: She entered the bank and handed the teller a note demanding money and saying she had a gun. As she left Coast Hills Federal Credit Union in Nipomo in June 2013, she told the tellers she was sorry.

When she stood in line at the Golden 1 Credit Union in San Luis Obispo on August 23, 2013, a teller recognized her as the Central Coast Bandit from numerous photos and a wanted e-mail on his computer. As he finished with another customer, the teller activated a silent alarm.

After Padilla was given money there, the teller was able to get a partial license plate number before the suspect took off.

When police arrived, a high-speed chase ensued, with speeds reaching 100 mph on Highway 101, according to the probation report. After a brief detour in Atascadero, Padilla rear-ended two cars in Paso Robles, then hit a center divider, causing her car to veer into a drainage ditch.

While Padilla apologized for her actions, according to the probation report, she does not understand the gravity of them.

Although none of the tellers appeared in court, a teller from Coast Hills Federal Credit Union in Nipomo submitted a letter to Superior Court Judge John Trice, explaining how the crime impacted her.

“The way she threatened me in her note will always be the hardest part for me to forget,” wrote the teller, who asked to remain anonymous. “I really did not know what was happening until then. I must have been in shock because after giving her the money I had to stop from saying, ‘Have a great day.’ ”

The teller wrote that she had to quit her job and now fears going to banks and the town of Nipomo.

“I have a hard time staying asleep and at times I wake up in a full body sweat because of night terrors about the robbery,” she wrote, adding that she experiences flashbacks that can be triggered by music, movies, news of a robbery or someone who looks like Padilla.

While at the jail, Padilla was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to the probation report. She is currently medicated.

Her 20-year term includes 16 years for crimes committed in San Luis Obispo County. She is also expected to receive two year prison terms for bank robberies crimes in Stanislaus and Monterey counties.

She has a prior record for a 2005 residential burglary in Monterey County.

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