Judge gives bank robber 'unusual' sentence

After admitting it was an unusual move, a judge on Wednesday handed down a sentence that allowed a convicted bank robber to serve little time behind bars and avoid prison altogether.

Phillip Guerra, who made headlines last year after police captured him on a Caltrain in Belmont after he robbed a downtown Redwood City bank, is in need of mental help, ruled San Mateo Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan.

Cretan sentenced the 30-year-old Guerra to three years supervised probation and one year in county jail. Guerra has remained behind bars since the Aug. 7 incident. With credit for good behavior, he will be free in weeks.

The sentence is contrary to the probation department’s recommendation of more time behind bars. Cretan said he was swayed by the letters by family and friends, who had long tried to secure mental help for Guerra.

Defense attorney Richard Keyes said Guerra suffered an “extreme, drastic break” with reality before robbing the Bank of America branch at 700 Jefferson St. and hopping a northbound Caltrain.

Guerra took $3,000 from a teller after passing a note stating he had a gun. Authorities found him aboard the Caltrain through a tracking device placed with the money. Police said Guerra was identified by a witness and through bank surveillance photos. The robbery was one of a rash of hold-ups that plagued the Peninsula last summer.

“He has problems and that’s what he and his family are working on,” Keyes said.

Guerra will enroll in the Pathways Program, a county-run drug and mental health program. He was previously involved in Pathways after a drug conviction.

“It’s an offense that would normally result in aprison commitment,” Cretan told Guerra on Wednesday. “This is unusual. You need to really watch your step.”

Deputy District Attorney Shin-Mee Chang unsuccessfully argued that prison was the appropriate place for a bank robber.

“This was a very calculated, premeditated offense,” she said.

On Jan. 29, Guerra pleaded no contest to bank robbery on the condition of no state prison.

tbarak@examiner.com

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