Walla Walla man pleads guilty to robbing AmericanWest bank

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WALLA WALLA - A local man pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to robbing the Eastgate branch of AmericanWest bank in early December.

Gabriel Cantu Leija, 34, of 613 Fern Ave., entered the guilty plea to first-degree robbery, as initially charged.

He faces a standard-range prison term of about three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years.

According to the plea agreement, Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle will recommend the low end of the range if Leija makes a compelling argument to Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht during the sentencing hearing April 1.

Also, Leija is free to ask Schacht to impose a sentence below the standard range, but the prosecution could appeal if Schacht imposes such a sentence.

Leija has a criminal record that includes two felony assaults, one of which is a "strike" under the state's three-strikes law. This robbery conviction is his second strike.

Leija entered the AmericanWest bank at 1850 Isaacs Ave. with what appeared to be a handgun about 10:40 a.m. Dec. 1, demanded money and made off with more than $1,300.

He left in a nearby minivan, the license number of which was turned over to police by a witness. That led authorities to Leija's residence, where the vehicle was parked. He was located at the home and taken to the police station for questioning.

Meanwhile, police closed Fern Avenue between Whitman and Pleasant streets, surrounded the house and obtained a search warrant. Members of the Emergency Services Unit forced their way in shortly after 1 p.m.

Leija confessed to detectives during the interview at the police station, telling them he robbed the bank "because he needed money and was out of work," according to a police report filed in court. Leija said he displayed a plastic toy gun during the heist.

He was arrested and returned with officers to the residence, telling them where to find the money and clothing he was wearing when he committed the robbery, officials said.

At the home, authorities located a plastic bag that contained $1,349 and a realistic-looking toy gun.

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