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Gangs Linked to Sharp Rise in Violent Bank Heists : Crime: FBI blames gang members for proliferation of 'bank takeovers,' strong-arm robberies in which employees and customers are terrorized.

August 16, 1992|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Two men burst into a Hacienda Heights bank on a recent afternoon.

"Step back! Step back from the counter!" ordered a heavyset 6-foot man in a stocking mask. Grabbing a customer by the neck, he put a silver revolver to her head. "Go! Go! Go!" he urged his partner, who wore a navy blue ski mask.

The man quickly jumped the counter and scooped up more than $15,000 in cash from the tellers' drawers. Then, dragging the customer with them, the robbers ran outside. Releasing the woman on the sidewalk, they fled in a gray 1985 Ford Thunderbird.

Within minutes, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies, alerted by a bank transmitter hidden in the cash, arrested two suspects--Lewis Ocampo, 22, and Lawrence Wallace, 35, both transients.

For customers and employees, the robbery Wednesday was a terrifying ordeal. But for the FBI, it was yet another "bank takeover"--a confrontational style of robbery whose numbers have skyrocketed alarmingly in the San Gabriel Valley. Four such crimes were investigated in the region in 1991. So far this year, 36 banks have been hit in the area, which is covered by West Covina-based FBI agents.

It is a growing pattern throughout Southern California, FBI officials say, as gang members, equipped with heavy-duty automatic weapons, find a lucrative new use for their arsenals. Last year, 41 takeover robberies were investigated within the seven-county region served by the Los Angeles FBI office. So far this year, 217 takeovers have been committed, mostly by gang members, agents say.

"There's more money available to them in a bank robbery than a convenience store robbery," FBI spokesman John Hoos said. "We're seeing a new trend of violence inside the bank."

Banks in the San Gabriel Valley also have become a target for Los Angeles gang members, said Stephen Steinhauser, the supervisory special agent in West Covina.

For example, he said, a group of three bank robbers dubbed the "Raiders Gang" because of their black clothing, robbed banks in South Pasadena, San Gabriel, Pasadena and Alhambra earlier this year, beating up a pregnant employee in one incident. One suspect arrested is from a Los Angeles gang. Two other suspected gang members are being sought.

"I think the trend we have seen is the gang members are coming out from the L.A. metro area as opposed to already being out here," Steinhauser said.

Authorities believe robbers shifted to suburban banks to avoid heavy law-enforcement presence during and after the rioting in Los Angeles in April and May.

The gun-toting robbers are a dangerous change from the typical bank robber, who often stands patiently in line, passes a scrawled demand note and uses a hand beneath a jacket to simulate a revolver, Steinhauser said. The covert, lone robber does not want anyone to know he is there.

But takeover robbers exhibit a terrorist mentality, announcing their presence, firing guns in the air and assaulting people, he said. "They seem to be getting a thrill out of coming in and scaring everybody half to death."

Some banks have installed floor-to-ceiling bulletproof cages that keep bandits from vaulting counters, Steinhauser said. Others post security guards. But given the aggressive mentality of takeover robbers, guards can attract confrontations. A few months ago, a security guard was killed in a Westwood heist, the agent said.

"Short of closing banks and putting metal detectors at the door,there nothing foolproof that banks can do," said Nancy Badely, a spokeswoman for the California Bankers Assn. in San Francisco.

Solving bank takeovers is the agency's highest priority now, Steinhauser said. Pilot projects in which a sheriff's deputy will work alongside federal agents are soon to start in the West Covina and Long Beach FBI offices, he said.

Meanwhile, the FBI has asked the bankers association to increase public involvement by regularly publishing photos of robbers in newspapers, posting rewards and establishing a telephone hot line for callers to anonymously identify criminals.

Steinhauser said that, given time, nearly 100% of takeover robbers are eventually apprehended.

"Frankly, there's no way a robber can get out of the bank without leaving some evidence--fingerprints, surveillance photos or witnesses," he said. "It's almost impossible for them to get away without leaving some kind of clue for us."

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