Teens use online dating app to lure men into bloody robbery trap, California cops say

An 18-year-old Northern California man’s online date in April turned into a nightmare — and ended in a bloody shooting, according to authorities in Solano County.

A young woman from the internet had picked the man up from his home on April 22, then drove him in a green Land Rover to a rural area near Lake Solano Park shortly after midnight, deputies said in a news release. She stopped at a spot on Putah Creek Road.

“Once they got to that location, they started to get romantic,” Solano County Undersheriff Brad DeWall said, according to KCRA. “Quickly, these two males entered the vehicle.”

The two teens who got into the car ambushed the man — dragging him from the Land Rover, shooting him in the leg and stealing his phone, cash and shoes, deputies said. The man didn’t know his date’s real name. Following the shooting, the victim fled the crime scene, as did his attackers, deputies said. The victim got assistance at a nearby home.

“He walked about a mile for help,” DeWall said, according to the Woodland Daily Democrat.

Three teenage suspects — 18-year-old Amit K. Chhoker, 19-year-old Branden Lerma and an unidentified male 17-year-old, according to KCRA — have now been arrested on armed robbery and attempted murder charges in the case, deputies said.

But by the time of the arrests, the trio had already lured a second man into the same trap on June 18 “just after midnight,” deputies said.

“Not only in the same fashion is this executed, but the descriptions are matching, and there are very similar patterns,” DeWall said, according to KCRA. “It kind of heightened our alarm that we had a pattern going on.”

The second victim was also 18 years old, deputies said.

Following the second incident, “dispatch received the report of a shooting and the methods of the robbery and shooting were exactly the same,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. The only difference between the robberies was the caliber of handgun used, judging by casings found at the scene, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The second man was robbed of two ounces of marijuana and a cell phone. He was also “physically assaulted and shot once in the lower half of his body,” deputies said.

Using pings from the second victim’s cell phone, investigators tracked the stolen device to a neighborhood in Woodland where they found a green Land Rover like the one at both crime scenes, deputies said. Woodland police helped Solano deputies figure out that Chhoker “was known to drive the Land Rover.”

Police tracked down Chhoker, a Woodland resident, while she was driving her Land Rover June 21, Solano deputies said. Deputies said they found what they suspect is human blood inside Chhoker’s car. Authorities also learned she had conspired with the two others to commit the two robberies, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Winters police and Solano County authorities arrested Lerma in Winters on June 23 following a felony traffic stop in the rural Yolo County town, the Sheriff’s Office said. Lerma is suspected of shooting at least one of the men.

Deputies arrested 19-year-old Branden Lerma of Winters on attempted murder and armed robbery charges, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Solano County Sheriff's Office

Lerma and the juvenile were dropped off at the site of the trap before the planned robbery and “had lied in wait” near Lake Solano Park while Chhoker drove the men into the ambush, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office said investigators had spent two months “working diligently authoring multiple social media, phone and other criminal search warrants in an effort to solve this crime.”

DeWall said during a news conference Tuesday that both shooting victims — one from Vacaville, the other from Winters — are recovering from their injuries, the Daily Republic reports.

The 17-year-old suspect was arrested in Fairfield, according to the Daily Republic.

All of the teens are being held in jail without bail, according to KCRA. DeWall said it’s possible there are more than two victims of the scheme, the Woodland Daily Democrat reports.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.