Marco Lopez is former Marine sergeant who did two tours of combat duty in Iraq. Now he finds himself in deep trouble, accused of robbing two banks last year -- one in northeast Fresno, the other in Clovis.
A judge ruled Tuesday that Lopez, 29, will stand trial on four felony charges in connection with the two holdups. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison.
Lopez received an honorable discharge in June 2005 after serving four years in the Marines, his parents said. But the horrifying experience of hearing bombs explode and being shot at gradually caught up with him and left him with post traumatic stress disorder, said his defense attorney, Michael McKneely.
Lopez also is bipolar, his mother, Brigitte Mojica-Lopez, testified Tuesday at his preliminary hearing.
Lopez is charged with robbing the State Center Credit Union on Willow Avenue in Clovis and Wells Fargo Bank on Friant Road in Fresno in October last year.
Judge W. Kent Hamlin ordered Lopez to stand trial after police detectives testified that money stolen from the two banks was found in his bedroom and in a stolen truck that was used in one of the robberies.
"This is a very strong case of circumstantial evidence," Hamlin said.
But McKneely said Lopez suffers from mental illness and therefore cannot form the specific intent to commit the crimes. At trial, McKneely said he plans to use an insanity defense.
In a brief interview outside court, Lopez said he didn't have mental illness when he graduated from Clovis West High School and joined the Marines in summer 2001. He said that as a Marine, his job was to seek out the enemy and confront them ahead of the main division.
"There were many sleepless nights," he said. "We always had to be on the lookout for explosions and being shot at."
Lopez's descent into mental illness didn't happen overnight, his family said.
After being discharged, he began working in the San Diego area, they said. He was doing fine until summer 2011, when his personality went from friendly and outgoing to agitated and paranoid, his mother told the judge. The illness forced him to leave his job and move into his parents' Fresno home, she said.
"He was paranoid of airplanes and helicopters over our house," Mojica-Lopez testified. He would pace at night and get little sleep, she said. He also stapled bed sheets over his windows and burned papers in the back yard.
"He was afraid the government was spying on him," Mojica-Lopez testified.
Mojica-Lopez testified that she and her son frequently went to the Veterans Administration hospital in Fresno, but they would only give him medicine. Her son hit rock bottom in September, when he went missing in the mountains for four days, she testified. When he was found, he was filthy, disoriented and paranoid, she said.
But the VA hospital kept him for only six days, she told the judge. Less than a month later, he was arrested, Mojica-Lopez said.
Court records show that two weeks after Lopez's arrest on Oct. 18, criminal proceedings were suspended after McKneely called into question his client's mental health. In December, Judge D. Tyler Tharpe declared Lopez legally incompetent to assist in his defense, court records show.
By then, his family had posted $120,000 bail and Lopez was admitted into the VA hospital. Mojica-Lopez credits President Barack Obama for helping her son get into the hospital.
Soon after Lopez's arrest, Mojica-Lopez said the family went on a letter-writing campaign, asking local, state and federal officials for help, saying he wasn't getting proper medical attention in jail. They even wrote to President Obama, telling him that the VA hospital did a disservice by not taking care of her son, she said.
VA spokeswoman Dawn Golik said patient privacy laws prohibited her from confirming whether "this veteran was ever a VA patient." But Mojica-Lopez said a VA official personally told the family that the president read the letter and forwarded it to the VA.
In January, Tharpe committed Lopez to Atascadero State Hospital, where he was given anti-psychotic medication, records show.
Because he received care at the VA hospital, McKneely said, Lopez made a quick recovery at Atascadero and, in March, he was declared competent enough to assist in his defense.
Hamlin said Lopez will be arraigned Aug. 30 on the four felony charges. Until his trial, he is free on $120,000 bail, the judge said.