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'High-Risk' Armed Robbers Who Pulled Off Barona Casino Heist Found Guilty

Deputy District Attorney Rick Clabby called the defendants "sociopaths," one could face 525 years to life.

Two parolees who pulled off a series of "high-risk" armed robberies throughout California last year, including one at a Fashion Valley jewelry store and another at the Barona Casino, were each convicted Wednesday of more than 20 counts, including conspiracy, robbery and false imprisonment.

Robert Chavira, 41, and Ryan Alan McKnight, 35, are scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 3.

Deputy District Attorney Rick Clabby called the defendants "sociopaths."

"They are a clear and present danger to any law-abiding citizen here in San Diego County," Clabby said outside court. "In terms of a robbery series, in my personal experience, this is as wild and this is as out there as it ever gets.

"These guys were wearing bullet-proof vests, they were armed with semi- automatic long guns, and they kept doing it and doing it and doing it, and not only did they do it our county, they did it in Orange County, Santa Clara County and Riverside County," he said. "They were a major menace to the citizens of California."

Chavira, who has two prior "strikes" for robbery and dissuading a witness and several other theft-related convictions, faces as much as 525 years to life in state prison.

McKnight, who has a prior burglary conviction, faces a maximum of 150 years behind bars, Clabby said.

As he was being led away by deputies following the verdicts, McKnight turned toward Clabby and said, "Watch you ass, big boy! You can take that as a threat."

Co-prosecutor Kristie Nikoletich told jurors that the best-friend defendants armed themselves and wore ski masks and body armor when pulling off the robberies between August and November of last year, taking Rolex watches, expensive jewelry and cash.

"They wanted to live a big life," Nikoletich said. "They were a team."

The prosecutor said the defendants liked women, cars and nice clothes. McKnight even gave his girlfriend a stolen $12,000 ring, the prosecutor said.

Most of the robberies were well-planned and were carried out in two minutes, with Chavira being the "brains" of the organization, Nikoletich said.

"When they went in, they knew what they were doing," the prosecutor said.

The defendants would use a stolen car during the heists, then dump that auto and drive away in another vehicle, according to Nikoletich.

One victim ordered to the ground at gunpoint said, "I laid on the ground and I waited to die," the prosecutor told the jury.

On Aug. 2, 2011, the armed defendants used sledgehammers to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of watches from a Costa Mesa store, the prosecutor said.

A month later, they drove down a walkway at the Fashion Valley mall and used sledgehammers to break display cases and steal high-end Rolex watches from the Ben Bridge store, she said.

Chavira and McKnight are accused of using the same tactic to steal Rolex watches from a high-end jewelry store in San Jose on Oct. 15, 2011.

On Oct. 24, 2011, the pair broke into an outdoorsman store and stole seven long-armed rifles, which were used in upcoming robberies, according to Nikoletich.

Two days later, the defendants -- armed and wearing masks -- stole more than $1 million in Rolex watches from a store in Palm Desert.

Clabby said the defendants stole about $10,000 from a glass case at the Barona Casino on Nov. 2, 2011, but were hoping to get $250,000, Nikoletich said.

The defendants set fire to a house next to the casino to draw authorities away from the business, the prosecutor said. She said Chavira and McKnight tied a chain to the back of a vehicle and ripped out a glass case containing the cash.

When the defendants were arrested a week later, gear used to commit robberies was found in their hotel room, along with jewelry and cash taken from some of the robberies, Nikoletich said.

McKnight testified during the trial that Chavira had nothing to do with the armed robberies.

A third man suspected in the robbery series, 23-year-old Adrian Ramos, remains at large. A fourth unidentified person is suspected in the Barona Casino heist, prosecutors said.

-City News Service

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