Carjacker nabbed at edge of Fallbrook

Pick-up making wide U turn on Hwy 76

Shark (the dog) led deputy Jeffrey Cruz to the dumpster where Lynch was hiding.
  • Shark (the dog) led deputy Jeffrey Cruz to the dumpster where Lynch was hiding.
  • Image by Bob Weatherston

Deputy Cruz responded immediately to scanner reports of a carjacking in progress in Bonsall. It was about 3 o’clock when he left the Valley Center sheriff’s station, 20 miles away, on Wednesday afternoon, January 29. His canine partner Shark was in the back of the patrol car.

Lynch pulled off the carjacking at this Park and Ride lot in Bonsall.

Lynch pulled off the carjacking at this Park and Ride lot in Bonsall.

When they got to the River Village Plaza shopping center, the deputy found the wind whipping around the buildings; he looked for a protected area between buildings, for a scent that could be lingering there. Witnesses had pointed out the path they saw the suspicious man take and the deputy chose a likely spot along that route.

In that sheltered spot, Shark immediately displayed “behavior change,” which meant the dog’s head and tail left their “neutral position,” according to Cruz.

The deputy and canine have been working together four years, and the dog stays at Cruz’s home during off hours. When he puts a certain collar onto Shark, the dog knows he is working, Cruz said.

That windy afternoon, Shark led deputies to one of the trash dumpsters behind the buildings at the shopping center. The chosen dumpster was behind a movie theater, and the split lid was closed; Shark jumped on top. “He tried to get into the dumpster,” the deputy remembered. Shark is a Belgian Malinois, a breed often described as high energy and intense.

Deputy Cruz brought Shark off the trash bin and called out the standard canine warning, twice. (This warning offers a suspect the chance to come out and states that the dog will bite when released.) A man suddenly popped up in the dumpster. “He opened the lid,” deputy Cruz recalled.

Other officers approached the suspect while Cruz and Shark backed away; they repositioned to be ready in case the man tried to run, Cruz said. Shark waited anxiously for a chance to chase a target. “He works for praise; we don’t do food,” Cruz said.

Park and Jack

“I turned around and that’s when he put the gun on me,” carjacking victim Conrad said.

“I turned around and that’s when he put the gun on me,” carjacking victim Conrad said.

Conrad, the carjacking victim, said he was walking toward his truck when he heard a man’s voice. “Yes, he asked if I had a few dollars.” Conrad is a middle-aged Latino man. His red pickup was parked in the lot next to the Mobil station at the corner of Highways 76 and 395. This is the edge of Fallbrook, in the northernmost part of San Diego County.

Conrad said he answered the man. “I said, ‘Maybe a dollar.’ I heard a voice, angry, ‘That sucks!’”

Conrad just arrived at the driver’s side of his truck. “I... turned around and that’s when he put the gun on me.” Conrad said he looked into the barrel of a black handgun, just inches from his head. “He was pointing it in my face. My reaction was to pull my wallet out and put it there. And he said ‘No, give me the keys.’”

The stranger with the gun got into Conrad’s truck and drove away, heading south on Highway 76. “After I gave him the keys I didn’t hear his voice again,” Conrad remembered later. He then called 911. He said it was 30 or 40 minutes later when deputies came and got him; deputies took him in the back of a patrol car to see if he could identify a suspect they had found.

Conrad rode four miles down the road, to the Bonsall shopping center. He said the suspect was the same man who stole his truck, except that he no longer wore a cap or a jacket. “He looked like a homeless type,” Conrad said later.

Conrad was disappointed to learn that his truck was “totaled.”

The U-Turn

Drivers on Highway 76 that afternoon said they saw a pickup truck try to make a wide U-turn across the road, near the intersection of South Mission, but the truck’s rear wheels went off the asphalt and then the entire vehicle slid off the road and went down an embankment, into the riverbed. People driving by who witnessed the mishap pulled over to help.

A witness said he saw the driver of the truck get out and set fire to the interior of the cab, reportedly using paper and a lighter and a cigarette. Then the man closed the driver’s side door and walked away, headed for the road. Another bystander yelled out that he saw a gun in the man’s hand and then all the would-be-helpers got into their vehicles and drove off.

Investigators found shoe prints around the abandoned truck. According to sheriff’s deputy Andrew Brumfield, the prints were remarkably clear and perfect because the ground there is sandy and moist and holds impressions well.

Nap in a Dumpster

Robert James Lynch’s booking photo.

Robert James Lynch’s booking photo.

After he was removed from the trash bin, 24-year-old Robert James Lynch was taken into custody. “There was a lighter found on his person,” deputy Zachary Harris reported.

Harris went into the dumpster after the suspect had been removed. Harris said he found a “brown beanie cap” and a black handgun. The deputy said the gun was a “replica firearm” that looks like a semi-automatic pistol but actually uses compressed gas to expel projectiles such as BBs.

At the Fallbrook sheriff’s station, Lynch answered some questions. “He told us he was from Wildomar,” deputy Harris said. The suspect had an explanation for being in the trash dumpster: “He was taking a nap, to get out of the sun, so he didn’t get a sunburn.”

Public records show Lynch was arrested in Menifee on January 8. He was held in the Southwest Detention Center in Riverside County on suspicion of petty theft, felony burglary, and other charges and then released January 12.

Lynch pleaded guilty to carjacking, and one arson charge was dropped. On April 21 in San Diego’s North County Superior Courthouse, Lynch was sentenced to five years in state prison and ordered to pay $18,500 in restitution.

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